The Place of the Worker in Cotton Industry Development

The Place of the Worker in Cotton Industry Development

The Place of the Worker in Cotton Industry Development

The cotton industry witnessed major expansion in the first half of the 19th century. In the south, there was notable expansion in production, with rising quantities of cotton, while in the North; there was an improvement in the methods of production, such as the use of machinery and other forms of technology to improve efficiency and reduce the production costs. The two major developments that had an impact on the welfare of workers in the world at the time were the invention of the gin and the invention of division of labor. A superficial assessment would observe that such inventions lead to major relief to the workers who work more efficiently or depend on the machines to do some of the chores that the workers previously performed. However, one major question that industry analysts ask is the place of the workers in the face of all the industrial growth and expansion. It is generally agreed that labor is one of the main factors of production, yet in many industries, growth and expansion do not benefit workers in any way. The development that has been witnessed in the business and industrial revolution has not benefited the worker.

            The growth of the cotton industry and the mechanization of most of the work caused more problems for the working class in America. The slaves and Native Americans were left out of the benefits of these economic developments.  The cotton gin was a revolutionary development in the cotton industry, and it changed the way the manufacturers and the workers related. While the machine made it possible to process large amounts of cotton, it did not reduce the work done by the employees. Instead, it increased the amounts of cotton that could be processed every day, which revolutionized the industry’s ability to produce high amounts of cloth. In turn, this created more demand for raw cotton, which caused new demand for manual labor. Thus, what was thought to be an invention that would make things easier for the workers ended up being a shift of responsibility. The labor demands did not reduce, but only shifted from the manufacturing plants to the farms, which had to work extra hard to fulfill the raised demands for cotton. For the slaves, it was a case of giving a little, then taking away double.  In turn, the mechanization of the cloth production caused a rise in the popularity of clothes, and the growing number of middle class citizens in England caused more market for the clothes. It was a period which witnessed an increase in the demand for slaves to fulfill the demand for clothes, which resulted in more sales for slaves, including the separation of their families (Christopher 274).   These factors saw an increase in the number of workers, and the first attempts at organized labor movements and increased bargaining power. With the new markets, increased production and higher profits, the workers expected that the employers would increase the wages and generally make their conditions better. Instead, as the employees teamed up to demand better working conditions, the employers also formed associations to ensure that such effort did not succeed; they conspired to ensure that wages remained low (Dubofsky and Dulles 21). Therefore, the main intention of the inventions and increased efficiency was increase in profits, and not welfare of the workers or an increase in wages.

            Secondly, the early 19th century development of the cotton gin also witnessed the development of a distinct working class population in major cities of the world. The expansion of the working class witnessed a segmentation of the society, with clear differences in the living standards of the proper working class who were poorly paid and lived in poverty, and the middle class who enjoyed fairly good living standards.   An analysis of the classes of people in the society can help reveal the relationship between the expanding industrial revolution and the welfare of the working class Americans. For example, in New York, the numbers of working class citizens in New York were also growing, with different living areas and spending power. Smith (110) explains that there was a big difference in the spending powers of the two populations, with the poor remaining poorer. It was clear that at this time, the gap between the business owners and their employers was growing, such that as the rich got richer and the poor became poorer. Similarly, a middle class population was emerging to service the emerging city, with lower cadre white collar employees who offered mainly clerical jobs in the growing city (Sean 110).   The emerging opportunities under the expanded economy and new job opportunities did not benefit the already existing employees by the immigrants from Europe who came to take up the emerging job opportunities. Apart from some of them losing jobs, analysis observed that the rates of poverty rose among working class populations whenever industries developed, while the investors got richer as the investments brought in higher profits. Further, businessmen conspired to keep wages low so that they would not spend more on payment of salaries.  Therefore, the aristocracy was intentionally conspiring to preserve itself and keep the wealth out of the reach of the poor. Essentially, some of the slave masters sought to perpetuate the wealth of their families by gifting their children with slaves to provide free labor, while most of the emerging jobs in New York were taken up by the sons of the elite members of the society.

The differences between the states of mind of the master and the worker are captured by De Tocqueville when he writes that the master and the worker have no similarity, and that their differences increase every day. He notes that the two groups have different intentions and interests at the place of work, and that the worker is naïve in believing that he has interests in the business. Instead, he observes that while the master concentrates on the entire chain of production, the worker busies himself with a single detail, and the concept of division of labor has made the situation worse. The concept of division of labor limits the ability of the worker to understand the whole chain of production, and this limits their possibility of rising in the place of work. De Tocqeville alludes to the fact that while the division of labor led to a higher production, rates of production, it left the worker with little exposure to other aspects of the production chain, which reduced their bargaining power. Therefore, the production chain is designed to ensure maximum benefits to the business owners, and one of the ways through which this is perfected is in exploiting the worker to the maximum and increasing his output through extra assignments at the expense of the labor providers.

It is clear that the reduction in the manual labor in the cotton industry left most of the business tycoons, who were the main slave owners, rich and powerful. This marked a change in the relations between the slaves and their owners, with the powerful owners having new found ability to mistreat the slaves without any fear of reprisals. Also, many of them sold some of the slaves that had previously done the manual work, which was now done by the machines, causing separation of families and general decline in the living standards of the slaves (Christopher 272). Some of the worst forms of atrocities, such as resale of slaves which led to separation of families against their will, happened due to the increase in labor demand in new areas of production.  All the work in the cotton production firms, including sorting and weaving, was done by hand, making the demand for slaves great. One would therefore expect that the invention of the cotton gin, which did some of the chores performed by the slaves, would cause a reduction in the work done by them, or that there would be less demand for slaves. However, the opposite was the case. The gins increased the amount of cotton that would be processed per day, increasing the demand for cotton. In response, there was a rise in the demand for cotton, which caused many farmers to increase the area under cotton. This expansion caused a big demand for slaves and an increase in the pressure for those who were already working on the farms. Therefore, the invention only benefitted the masters, but made life worse for the slaves.

            There was another development the same time which made it possible for increased industrial production – the division of labor.  Division of labor comprises one worker specializing in doing one thing as others concentrate on other aspects. It is said to be a new development that enables workers to perfect their skills in the aspect they are assigned to, and one which results in efficiency and more enjoyment in carrying out the task. However, critics argue that division of labor results in workers who understand little about the rest of the production chain, as they only limit their knowledge on the task they perform. Also, some critics have argued that while division of labor results in increased production for the company, it does not necessarily lead to better returns for the workers. Smith argues that division of labor leads to major increase in the output per worker because the result of specialization is that a worker can perform the tasks faster than when he has to perform many different duties (2). However, the increased output does not result in increased remuneration to the workers. Specifically, smith clarifies that the increased production results from increased dexterity as the worker practices and perfects his skills, and the time saved in changing from one task to another (2). The effectiveness of division of labor as a method of increasing the production of goods is evident, as is the proper utilization of labor. Therefore, the famed inventions in machinery and division of labor do not result into a better working environment for the workers.

            It is clear that the prosperity of a nation does not translate into growth of the fortunes of all the citizens, and that the growth of a firm does not translate into better working conditions for the workers. Famed cases of success, as seen in the example of the cotton production, may be assumed to have made life better for the people and increased the income distribution in the country. However, as discussed in this paper, only the masters who control the production chain benefit from most aspects of growth, while the workers suffer increased work or worse working conditions. Also, the invention of technological aspects such as the cotton gin would be seen as a relief for the workers, and this may end up making the situation worse for them as the new demands make it difficult for them to meet the required output and instead increasing the amount of work they have to do. Thus, while countries may have benefitted from the inventions in the manufacturing sector, which includes machinery and division of labor, the workers have not shared in the prosperity.

            Evidently, the advancements in the cotton industry and the invention of division of labor were great ideas that made it possible for the producers to manufacture more goods within a short time. However, from the arguments above, they only benefitted the business owners, but made the conditions and the payment for the workers and slaves worse. As such, in many businesses, the worker is an outsider who does not benefit in any way when the fortunes of the firm improve. At every opportunity, the business owners would like to increase their profit, and as seen above, they mainly do so at the expense of the workers. The strict capitalist approach to business dealings is a recipe for poor treatment of employees, and this will make it difficult for workers to feel part of the organizations they work for. It appears that to the employers, the workers are a factor of production just like land and labor, and they remain dispensable as soon as their usefulness reduces as was seen when the cotton gin was invented. When there is an increase in production and profits, the employers do not reciprocate by rewarding the employees, and this accounts for the many issues of industrial unrest in the world.  Therefore, business ventures need to have a more humane approach to employee relations, and this is a matter that should concern business organization, governments, and human rights organizations. The whole capitalist economic system needs redesigning so that the interest of the workers is considered when implementing new policies.

Works Cited

Christopher, Clark. et al. Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History,

Third Edition, Volume 1: To 1877. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008, Print.

De Tocqueville, Alexis.  How an Aristocracy May Be Created by


Dubofsky, Melvyn and Foster, Rhea Dules. The First Unions. Labor in America: A History.

Harlan Davidson, 2004.

Sean, Wilentz. Metropolitan Industrialization. Chants Democratic: New York City and the

Rise of the American Working Class, 1780 – 1850. New York: Oxford University

Press, 2004.

Smith, Adam.  The Wealth of Nations


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