Before WW II, in the Arkansas River lowlands, it was common to see people out in the fields planting cotton with harrows being pulled by mules. During the fall, those same people were out in the fields picking cotton. Everyone was expected to help with the most time consuming labor in the cotton industry. In the evenings, after picking cotton all day, they sat around and removed the seeds by hand. In 1793, thanks to Eli Whitney, the cotton gin took over the tedious task of stripping the seeds from the cotton.
Yesterday afternoon we went on a field trip to the Plantation Agricultural Museum in Scott, Arkansas. Having an opportunity to experience the process of picking cotton, trying to remove the seeds by hand, using a small hand cranked cotton gin and even combing the cotton first hand gave my children the thrill of a life time. We even had an occasion to see what some of the first cotton gins looked like and tour The Continental Gin Company.
We learned that pickers would drag 9 foot long bags behind them, if the sack was packed tightly enough it could hold up to 100 lbs. The cotton was then weighed on scales suspended from a homemade tripod. The pickers wages depended upon the selling price in the open market. In 1938, Scott, AR pickers were paid .50 cents for 100 lbs. Many pickers were able to pick up to 300 lbs in a day, bringing home only $1.50 for a days wages.