Monday, December 15, 2014

Savannah and the Cotton Trade

I spent my Thanksgiving holiday in Savannah, Georgia.

We picked the spot for the architecture and the ocean.

Both lived up to our expectations.

Savannah Cotton Exchange Building, built in 1886.
Architect William G. Preston.

The Cotton Exchange about 1910

I unexpectedly learned a lot about the history of cotton...

the raw commodity, way before it became yarn, fabric or print.

When these early postcard photos were taken in the port of Savannah about 1900-1915, the United States was the world's largest producer of cotton. A century ago in 1914, Georgia farmers planted millions of acres of cotton---the high point of American cotton production.

Cotton was shipped out into the Atlantic along the Savannah River.

When the Savannah Cotton Exchange was built Savannah was the second largest shipper of cotton in the world. Cotton supported the city.

The Telfair House

Before the end of slavery, Mary Telfair was the richest
woman in the state of Georgia, with a fortune based
on the cotton/slavery plantation empire. She willed
her home to the city for a museum.

After five years of war and trade embargoes, post-Civil-War cotton production rebounded.

Weighing cotton in the early 20th-century

Cotton merchants, the middlemen between planter and fabric mill,
were called cotton factors.

Factors in Savannah set world prices.

French painter Edgar Degas had an American brother 
who was a cotton factor. Degas painted the office at the New Orleans
Cotton Exchange in 1873, while he tried his hand at 
making money rather than art. The factors pictured are judging
cotton's quality and checking the markets in the newspapers.

"Factors Walk," restored industrial buildings on the Savannah River

But disaster struck 100 years ago,

Forsyth Park about 1910

causing Savannah to be prettily frozen in time.

The disaster came in small form, a cotton-devouring beetle known as the Boll Weevil (Anthonomus grandis).

Chopping Cotton on Rented Land, Green County, Georgia, 1941.
Photo by Jack Delano, Library of Congress.

By the mid 1920s cotton acreage in Georgia was half what it had been a decade earlier. The Savannah Cotton Exchange closed in 1920.

J.A. Johnson's  Youngest Son Picking Cotton, 1939,
North Carolina.
Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, Library of Congress.

Drought, low commodity prices and continuing boll weevil problems devastated the cotton industry
in the Southeastern U.S. By 1937 America had lost its place as the world's leading cotton producer.

Since the 1970s a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to eradicate boll weevils without pesticides has been succeeding, but rebuilding American cotton agriculture has been a hard row to hoe (so to speak).

Today China is the world's largest cotton producer with India close behind. The U.S. is third.

And now I know one very good reason why my reproduction quilt fabrics are not printed on American-grown cotton.


  1. Savannah is a treat. This could be wrong but I recently heard that due to the incredible mechanized robotic cotton picking machines now in use, the US is leading currently in cotton exports. I never understood why the South didn't continue to dominate the cotton market after the Civil War. Thanks for clearing that up.

  2. I,too, love Savannah and have wondered about the textile industry. Are there any textile manufacturers in this country anymore?

  3. We have only visited this city one time...loved it. I have loved the Eugenia Price books and the Savannah series in particular. We visited the cemeteries where some of her characters were buried and also went to several homes that she speaks of in those books. You would enjoy them I think, if you have not read them before. When I was reading her last book, she had died while writing it and I didn't know that and when her secretary started telling the story of her death, I sat and cried because I knew there would be no more stories from her pen!

  4. Very informative! Now I understand more about the demise of the cotton industry in the USA. Never have been to the south, but would love to visit there someday. Thank-you!

  5. What an interesting post! I really enjoy all of the historical pictures. Here in CA. we think a building 50 years old is old! It's fun to visit places where buildings date from the 1800's. Thanks for all the interesting info and Happy Holidays!

  6. Thanks for showing and sharing my little spool tree. I love making them. Merry Christmas! Jim Gatling