Cotton served as an important staple crop during the antebellum period and continued as the foundation of the state’s economy from the postbellum period through World War II. While production steadily declined to a low in the 1980s, the crop made a resurgence by the end of the century. Two basic types of cotton have been grown in South Carolina. The cultivation of Sea Island or long staple cotton was restricted to coastal areas south of Charleston. Upland or short staple cotton was successfully grown in the interior and accounted for the spread of the plantation system through most of the state.
Some claim that the Sea Island variety was the highest quality cotton in the world. It had a long silky fiber or staple (1.5 to 2.5 inches) and could be spun into a thin thread that could be woven into the finest quality cloth and laces. Several types of long staple Sea Island cotton were grown, but the highest quality was grown only on the Sea Islands south of Charleston. It was especially significant on Edisto Island and in the Beaufort area. A substantially longer growing season and somewhat lower rainfall were the factors that limited production to the islands as opposed to the mainland, and Sea Island cotton acreage stabilized by the 1830s. Because its range was limited and the crop was profitable, planters used innovative techniques to increase yield or expand the cultivable area. Salt marsh grass and mud were used as fertilizers, ditches were dug to drain low land, and salt marsh was reclaimed. The Civil War and its aftermath destroyed the Sea Island economic and social structure, and agriculture was neglected. The postbellum period saw some adjustments, but the industry deteriorated and was no longer economically viable by the 1910s. The final blow was the invasion of the boll weevil in the 1910s and 1920s.
Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, demand created by the British textile industry, and an improved transportation system were major factors for the rapid spread of upland or short staple cotton (0.5 to 0.75 inches) into the backcountry during the first decade of the nineteenth century. As late as 1820 South Carolina produced more than one-half the nation’s cotton, and it was the major crop in nearly every district of the state except those along the coast. Abbeville, Edgefield, Fairfield, and Laurens Districts were leading producers.
While upland cotton planters knew of various conservation practices, few were practiced. They normally followed a pattern of clearing forest, planting cotton until yields declined, planting corn, abandoning the field, and then clearing new land. The major investment was in labor (slaves), and yield was measured in labor units. Land was inexpensive relative to labor cost. When soil nutrients were depleted and the yield per slave unit declined, fresh land was cleared.
Cotton was the basis of the state’s agricultural economy at the end of the antebellum period, employing more than eighty percent of the slave labor force. Three-fourths of the crop was produced in the lower Piedmont and inner coastal plain. Even though production continued to increase, South Carolina accounted for less than ten percent of the national crop in 1850, as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi became major producers. As the cotton frontier moved west, following available and cheaper land, many South Carolinians made the trek.
Cotton production totaled about 280,000 bales in 1860 but declined to less than 180,000 bales in 1870. By 1911, however, production reached its peak at 1.6 million bales. It was produced on more than forty percent of the state’s improved farmland and provided the basis of the state’s economy and the tenancy system. The upper Piedmont and inner coastal plain were the chief production areas in the 1920s and 1930s.
After World War II, cotton slowly disappeared from the Piedmont and became concentrated in the inner coastal plain. The Piedmont counties of Anderson, Spartanburg, and Greenville, for example, harvested cotton on more than 150,000 acres in 1945. Less than 12,500 acres were planted in the three counties in 1970 and only about 1,600 acres in 1982. This followed nationwide trends in which the tractor and other machinery, pesticides, herbicides, and additional components of scientific agriculture have favored large farms and cultivation of the most productive land. Marginal land was taken out of production. Land in farms was just over 11 million acres in 1945, only about 5.6 million acres in 1982, and 4.8 million in 2000. The Piedmont accounted for most of this decline.
Production declined dramatically after World War II, dropping to a low of 53,000 bales in 1983. Strong demand, good prices, more effective boll weevil control, and decreased demand for soybeans all contributed to a revival of cotton production in the 1990s. By the year 2000, 379,000 bales were produced. Cotton remained concentrated in the inner coastal plain, but some was grown in the lower Piedmont.
Aiken, Charles S. The Cotton Plantation South since the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Gray, Lewis C. History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1933.
Kovacik, Charles F., and Robert E. Mason. “Changes in the South Carolina Sea Island Cotton Industry.” Southeastern Geographer 25 (November 1985): 77–104.