Cotton has played a huge role in both the economy and history of Georgia, and continues to a major economic factor in the state today. Cotton was first planted in colonial Georgia in 1734, and Georgia was the first colony to produce cotton commercially. But its scope and success were limited. The only places cotton could be grown successfully in colonial times was along the coast - where the growing season was very long. The type cotton grown here was thus called Sea Island cotton; its seed and fiber could be easily separated, making it less labor intensive than the short-staple variety of cotton. This latter form of cotton could be grown in upland and interior Georgia, but the work of removing the seed from the cotton fiber was so difficult that it was not profitable to produce. All that changed in 1793, when Eli Whitney came to Georgia. Whitney was a native of Massachusetts who had come to Georgia as a private tutor; while living in Georgia he witnessed the difficulty in removing seed from cotton, and went to work devising a process to make it simpler. His invention was called the cotton gin - and it revolutionized both the economy and history of Georgia, as well as other southern states.
With the advent of and subsequent improvements in the cotton gin, cotton production became highly profitable. In the early 19th century there was tremendous and rapid growth in cotton production, particularly in middle and south Georgia. The broad band of Georgia between Augusta in the east and Columbus in the west was ideally suited for growing short-stapled cotton. As more land became available because of Indian removal, planters quickly moved to it and began growing even more cotton. In the early days cotton was moved primarily by boats to Savannah and other coastal cities, for shipment to the north or to England. Later, the growth of railroads made transporting cotton easier, and its profits continued to increase throughout the first half of the 19th century.
But while cotton production was highly successful economically, it led to human tragedy. Cotton gins did ease the removal of seed from fiber, but growing the cotton was still labor intensive - planting, weeding, irrigating, and harvesting - all still had to be done by human hands. Unfortunately, these hands mostly belonged to slaves. The growth of slavery in early Georgia was closely tied to the growth of cotton production. Before the cotton gin slavery was not institutionalized, but with the need for cheap, readily available labor to grow cotton, slavery as an institution became endemic to Georgia and other southern states. And of course slavery - or more precisely the prospect of the institution of slavery moving into the western territories - was a primary cause of the rift which tore the nation apart in 1861 and led to the Civil War.
The Civil War and Reconstruction naturally caused a huge interruption in cotton production. After the war planters had to find new means of labor for growing and harvesting cotton; their answer was to turn to sharecropping and tenant farming. While this was not easy on the former slaves or poor whites who had to endure it, cotton production did eventually start to rise again, and continued to be very successful into the early 20th century. The need for cotton in textile mills during World War I caused a spurt in production, which reached its peak as nearly five million acres of Georgia land produced close to three million bales of cotton.
But the mass production of cotton was stymied in the early 1920s by a small, internal enemy - the boll weevil. This small insect had a devastating effect on Georgia’s cotton economy for much of the rest of the 20th century. Production was cut in half in some areas, and close to one-third overall. Cotton production was also negatively affected by the coming of the Great Depression. To help alleviate that situation, some suggested trying alternate crops, and many tenant farmers and sharecroppers, with no means of making a living, migrated to cities in the north. By the late 1950s, cotton production in Georgia had fallen to just under 400,000 bales on less than 600,000 acres, from its peak near the end of World War I.
The production of cotton in Georgia continued to decrease until 1987 - when a means of eradicating the boll weevil was finally discovered. Since then, cotton has again risen to prominence in Georgia, although it is not the “King Cotton” of old. Georgia’s agricultural economy is now much more varied. Still cotton is a vital part of it. Production has continued to rise steadily, and by 1995 had finally neared the peak levels of the World War I years. Cotton production in modern times is vastly different - it is highly mechanized with the latest in technology, and is done more by corporations than by individual planters. Georgia is now the third leading cotton producing state in the nation.
Cotton production and related businesses provide jobs for 53,000 Georgians, with an overall economic impact of around $3 billion. Per the Georgia Cotton Commission, some 1.6 million acres of Georgia land is now devoted to cotton production, producing approximately 2.5 million bales annually (each bale weighs 480 pounds!). Each acre of Georgia land planted with cotton yields an average of 791 pounds. Clearly, cotton is a vital component of Georgia’s economy, and has been for over 200 years. While other crops may now be as valuable economically, no other has been so important historically as well.