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Industrial Revolution

American 19th Century, Detroit Photographic Company, Mississippi Cotton Gin at Dahomey, published 1899

American 19th Century, Detroit Photographic Company, Mississippi Cotton Gin at Dahomey, published 1899, photo-chromolithograph, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon and Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2006.133.130

How did the Industrial Revolution change the United States?

What makes industrialization possible?

How does art reflect the varying experiences within a capitalist economy?

In 1899 an unknown photographer documented the interior of a cotton gin operation in Dahomey, Mississippi. The image reveals the challenging and stifling work of processing raw cotton in the humidity of the southern United States. In the foreground, African Americans pack and press cotton into a massive bale. Others stand in the background next to cotton gins, machines that separated sticky seeds from plant fibers. Cotton clings to the walls and rafters of the room.

By 1860, 61 percent of the world’s raw cotton originated in the southern United States. Nearly all of this cotton was grown and processed by enslaved African Americans on lands seized from Native Americans. The cotton was shipped to industrial giant Great Britain, which imported 75 percent of its raw cotton from the United States, as well as to factories in the northern United States, where the fiber was spun, dyed, woven, and printed. Cotton was key to the United States becoming a global economic powerhouse.

The start of the US Industrial Revolution is often dated to 1793, when the first water-powered, roller-spinning textile mill opened in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It was developed in part by Samuel Slater, an English textile apprentice who memorized British mill designs—in defiance of British laws banning their export—and then immigrated to the United States.

This origin story introduces two themes that frequently feature in the larger narrative of industrialization: entrepreneurship and mechanization. It centers the Industrial Revolution in New England, where textile mills proliferated due to fast-running rivers and where workers left farms for factories over the second half of the 19th century. It also celebrates the United States as a champion of opportunity for immigrants who moved to the young country by the millions.

However, the story of the Industrial Revolution in the United States is also the story of slave labor, land exploitation, and Indian Removal. Mississippi Cotton Gin at Dahomey documents mechanized labor at what was once the world’s largest cotton plantation. Situated in the soil-rich area known as the Mississippi delta, Dahomey Plantation was named after the homeland of its enslaved workers, the Kingdom of Dahomey in present-day Benin.

The drive to industrialize, compete, and rapidly increase wealth in the United States impacted people and lands unevenly. Artists, especially photographers, were hired to celebrate industrial achievements, particularly the construction of railroads. These same works of art often reflect the unease, tension, and loss that resulted from such development. By looking at artwork from this period, how might we gain a fuller picture of the innovations and sacrifices that led to the growth of the United States?