The connection between cotton, slavery, and handmade paper.

As a papermaker who uses cotton linters in my artwork, I need to address a topic that is often overlooked in our community. That topic concerns the historical connection between slavery in America, cotton production, and the design of the cotton gin itself. The intersection of cotton, slavery, and art (paper, canvas, cloth) is indeed troubling.  This connection continues to be an area of concern for those of us using cotton materials and the migrant workers who harvest the cotton and manufacture it for commercial purposes.

One fact concerns the design of the Cotton Gin itself, the famous invention by Eli Whitney. According to historical researcher Eric Schultz, whose book Innovation on Tap mentions this connection, Whitney’s design is taken directly from the Hollander Beater. 

A modern Hollander Beater. Note the wheel with spikes. This is what grinds the cotton fiber into pulp.
The machine Invented by Eli Whitney, quickly separates the cotton fibers from their seeds, enabling greater productivity than manual cotton separation, vintage line drawing or engraving illustration. Note the similarities between the wheel shown here and above in the beater.

Once the cotton gin became available, allowing for faster production and marketing of cotton, the excuse to support slavery became even more widespread and the enslavement of African people grew as a result.  This history is well documented in the 1619 project.  See episode two, The Economy that Slavery Built.


Listen to ‘1619,’ a Podcast From The New York Times“1619” is a New York Times audio series, hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, that examines the long shadow of American slavery. Listen to the episodes below, or read the transcripts by clicking the …