Hell on Earth: What it Was Like to Pick Cotton

Picking cotton is hot, dirty, back-breaking, monotonus work.  That work chewed up millions of lives from Ely Whittney’s invention of the modern mechanical cotton gin in 1793 well into the 20th century.

Typically, cotton is harvested in late August or in the fall.  In the deep south, temperatures are still very hot.  Mississippi’s average high in August is 92; in September, it’s 86; and in October, it’s 76, but temperatures frequently rise to the 80s and 90s.  Often slaves, and later sharecroppers, would pick cotton from sunrise to sunset.  In August, this would result in a 13 hour workday spent in the hot sun.

To pick the cotton, a worker would pull the white, fluffy lint from the boll, trying to not cut his hands on the sharp ends of the boll.  The average cotton plant is less than three feet high, so many workers had to stoop to pick the cotton.  As they picked, they would place the lint in burlap sacks carried on their backs.  So, not only would the worker have to pick the cotton, he would have to drag the bag along with him as well.  In a typical day, a good worker could pick 300 pounds of cotton or more, meaning that, in any given day, a typical picker would carry a substantial amount of weight, even if he emptied his sack several times.  Here’s a great video of an interviewer with a farmer who picked cotton by hand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW4dBODmN9o.

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