Livin' in High Cotton: Technology and Texas's King Crop
Social Studies, Grade 7
Through the use of primary source video, students will develop an understanding of cotton farming in Texas and the technological innovations that led to Texas' flourishing cotton industry.
This lesson assumes students are familiar with cotton as a staple necessary for fabric production.
Students have a basic understanding of the following terms: cotton boll, cotton gin, and cotton lint.
Take a poll of the number of students in the room wearing jeans.
Share with students that most jeans are made from approximately 1 lb of cotton, and that 1 lb of cotton contains approximately 160 cotton bolls. A cotton plant produces up to 100 bolls and a bale of cotton contains approximately 500 pounds. A pair of jeans is composed of the yield of approximately 1.5 cotton plants. Ask students to calculate as a class the number of cotton plants needed to dress them for one day or a week.
As a class, list other materials (non-clothing) made of cotton that they might encounter on a daily basis. What items would be difficult to do without? Are any surprising? (Items to discuss include various types of clothing, netting, paper, bookbinding, sheets, tents, money, towels, cooking oil, baseballs, etc).
Although cotton came to Texas with Spanish missionaries, it emerged as the “king” of Texas crops in the late 1880s and has continued to be the number one crop in the state. Technological innovations played a large role in cotton’s rise of importance in the Texas economy. Share this information with the class to prepare them to watch four videos relating to this theme.
The first video, The Ernest M. Hunt Family Film Collection, no. 8 - Rancho Feliz (1943), https://texasarchive.org/2010_02124, comes from right across the Texas border in New Mexico. This film was made right around the time farmers were switching to mechanical cotton pickers, but in this film, cotton is being picked by hand. While watching the video, discuss what you are seeing:
Create a list as a class, or individually, of the resources being used to collect cotton.
Also, share with students that it is estimated that picking an acre of cotton by hand required 125 hours of human power. The emergence of the mechanical cotton picker reduced this number to 25 hours of human power an acre.
The next video, The Jim W. Keeland Collection, no. 7 - Texas Crop Harvests (1956), https://texasarchive.org/2011_02275 shows the harvest of cotton using a mechanical picker in Southeast Texas. While watching the video, discuss what you are seeing:
Continue your list of resources being used to collect cotton.
Discuss how those resources differed from the last film.
Reference your total number of bales of cotton needed to clothe your class in jeans. This machine’s bin holds approximately 750 lbs of cotton before ginning, which will result in half a bale. How many bins full of cotton are needed to clothe the class?
The first two videos show how cotton picking changed in 20th century Texas. Prepare the class for the next film by hypothesizing other changes that might have made the cotton industry flourish in Texas. Questions to start discussion:
- What happens after the cotton is ginned?
- How is it transported?
Watch the segment of the last film, The Underwood Family Collection, no. 1 - West Texas Compress and Warehouse Company, https://texasarchive.org/2009_02796. This film shows a cotton compress in the Panhandle/West Texas region where bales of cotton are being pressed and weighed after ginning (the area where the majority of Texas cotton is now produced). While watching the video, discuss:
- Add to your list of resources using the materials seen in this film
- Why would you want to compress cotton into a standardized bale?
- Where would the cotton have gone to next?
Assignment: Students should research and write a paragraph about each of the 3 innovations (the cotton picker, the cotton compress and the cotton gin) featured in the films. They should find the date it was invented and how the technology would have changed the process of cotton production. Students should include a final paragraph describing an industry related to cotton’s life after it has been grown, harvested and compressed.
Ask students to research another crop that is grown in Texas and create a poster presentation for the class. Students can choose from corn, wheat, hay, sorghum, peanuts, rice, soybeans, oats, sunflower, potatoes, beans, and sugarcane. The poster could include the following:
- An image of the crop
- A description of the weather and soil conditions needed to grow the crop
- A list of potential uses of the crop
- A map indicating where the crop is produced
- A description of technologies used to harvest, process, and distribute the crop and the industries surrounding these technologies
- A conclusion as to why the crop might be popular in the regions of Texas in which it is grown
- An estimate of the number of acres planted and/or harvested (see USDA NASS website)
“Cotton Culture,” The Handbook of Texas
“Agriculture,” Texas Almanac
Lesson Plans, Cotton Campus
Cotton Farming in Texas Lesson Plan, Portal to Texas History
Cotton, Touching Us Daily, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension
“Cotton,” The Land of Opportunity: West Texas, Portal to Texas History
United States Department of Agriculture (search for Texas current statistics)
Cotton Ginning Photograph, Portal to Texas History
“Cotton-Compress Industry,” The Handbook of Texas
“A Look at Texas Agriculture”, National Organization Agriculture in the Classroom