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    Cotton Gin: A Rare Early 19th Century Example of the Invention Which Revolutionized the South. By the turn of the 19th century, slavery in the American South seemed to be on the wane. In practical terms, slavery lacked economic viability. However, the introduction of the cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1792, is believed to have extended the life of the "peculiar institution" until the Civil War led to its abolition on humanitarian grounds. In 1792, the South sold 138,000 pounds of raw cotton to mostly-English mills. Two decades later, after the introduction of the cotton gin, that number had increased to 62 million!

    Considering their widespread use, surprisingly few early cotton gins survive today. The example offered here was borrowed for an important 2006-2007 exhibition, "Slavery on Trial-the Long Road to Freedom" at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. From 1944 through 2004, it was on display at the Atlanta Museum, an ambitious privately-owned collection of American historical artifacts with an emphasis on Southern history. The museum's founder, J. H. Elliott, purchased it in 1944 from J. L. Burkett, who owned the farm on which Eli Whitney's original workshop stood. According to a May 21, 1944 Atlanta Journal article, a delegation from Eli Whitney's New Hampshire birthplace had arrived in Georgia to purchase the cotton gin "and cart it away to Yankee-land." However, Elliott came to the rescue and "Immediately telephoned the good news to the governor." Accompanying the lot is an original press photo, used to illustrate the article, which depicts Elliott proudly showing the device to Georgia governor Arnall, Senator Richard Russell and Congressman Ramspeck.

    The bill of sale describes this as "one of the original models of the cotton gin made by Eli Whitney between the years of 1792 and 1794. However, the same document also states that "the model was found in a barn approximately two miles from the old gin shop" where it is believed that Whitney first developed his invention (the workshop itself was relocated in 1956 to a new exhibition site near Atlanta. Elliott sold the building to the Eli Whitney museum for $12,000, but retained ownership of the cotton gin, which he agreed to lend to the museum for twelve months to be exhibited). A 1955 Life Magazine feature pictures the gin standing by the Whitney workshop while both were still owned by Elliott.

    Elliott continued to feature the cotton gin in his Atlanta Museum until the local institution's closing in 1996. In 2004 the respected Georgia auction firm Slotin Folk Art Auction held a sale liquidating the Museum's contents for over $500,000. The auction attracted 1900 bidders, and by far the most expensive lot was this cotton gin, which sold for $76,000 (excluding the buyer's premium). While Slotin was careful not to state categorically that this machine came directly from Whitney's workshop, bidders were clearly influenced by decades of local tradition to that effect.

    Our own research suggest that this machine, while probably dating from the early 1800s, was not from Eli Whitney's workshop. It does not conform to the patent drawing of Whitney's original machine, and if features circular metal wheels with teeth in addition to wood drums with teeth, a later improvement. However, the crudeness of its construction also suggest that it predates drawings of machines built circa 1840. Almost immediately after Whitney's gin came into use, "knock-offs" appeared all over the South. While Whitney and his lawyers indulged in what might termed as a version of the game "Whack-a-Mole" for years, the inventor was never able to control the rapid spread and use of the relatively simple device. In any case, this is a fine, apparently complete example of an early cotton gin in what appears to be "working condition." It has a wonderful patina of age and use and has terrific display appeal. A rare opportunity to acquire an evocative relic of the Old South.


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    Auction Dates
    May, 2016
    14th Saturday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 2
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 766

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