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Lift That Bale: 1910

Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1910. "Unloading cotton. Sternwheeler City St. Joseph." 8x10 inch glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company. View full size.

Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1910. "Unloading cotton. Sternwheeler City St. Joseph." 8x10 inch glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company. View full size.


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100 pounds won't cut it!

A hard-working man could pick 200 pounds of cotton per day unless the crop yield was just terrible.
Been there, done that.

Picking and ginning

Modules came with the improvement of mechanical cotton pickers. Modules made pickup from the field much more efficient. The modules are broken apart at the gin so the loose cotton can be sucked into the gin machinery. Eli Whitney's invention has been tremendously improved upon as well but it always did a great many steps to prepare the cotton for being spun and it is at the gin that the bale is formed, once seeds have been combed from the cotton.

When cotton was picked by hand, each picker had a very long sack with a shoulder strap to put the cotton into as it was picked. When it was too full and heavy to drag along any more it was taken to a wagon or trailer which had been left to collect the cotton in the field. At the back of the wagon were scales designed to weigh each sack before it was dumped into the wagon. Each picker was paid a small per pound rate. A strong, experienced and very hard working picker could pick a hundred pounds of cotton in a day. It was very hard work for very little pay and yet these picayune wages were a very large part of the cost of producing cotton.

When the wagon or trailer was full of fluffy bolls it was time for the only fun of the day as often children or younger pickers would be allowed to ride atop the cotton as it was taken to the gin. They hopped off quickly for there the cotton was sucked by a huge sixteen inch pipe into the gin machinery which separated the fibers from the seeds and cleaned it.

At the end of the ginning assembly line was a baler which packed the cotton into a boxlike structure lined with jute bagging and secured by metal ties around the bale. The bales were weighed, recorded and delivered to a warehouse. There it was further compressed, weighed, sampled and stored. Meanwhile, the tons of seed removed from the cotton during a season were shipped to a cottonseed oil mill and made into oil for culinary uses, cottonseed meal for livestock feed, and linters for coarse cotton mop yarns.

Also in Memphis was Murdoch's International Cotton School and, on Front Street, Murdoch-trained cotton merchants and brokers, classing the cotton samples, and buying and selling cotton at the world's largest inland cotton market.

1911 boiler explosion

The NY Times reported that on June 24, 1911, the Mississippi River packet City of St. Joseph exploded, killing 6 deckhands and injuring 50-60 roustabouts and bystanders. She was rescued from sinking by none other than the Charles H. Organ, seen here on Shorpy in 1910.

Modular cotton

Bales of cotton weighed 500 pounds. Bales are almost totally a thing of the past now. Cotton modules have replaced them. They look like giant loaves of bread sitting out in the fields after the 4 and 6 row cotton picking machines have moved through. The pickers dump their loads into the module builders and then special module trucks come and pick them up to take to the gins. Each compacted module holds about 15 bales of cotton.

Cotton Bales

Average weight was around 500 pounds.

Another angle

We first saw the City of St, Joseph in this thread.


Three men per bale. I wonder how much they weighed - lots, obviously.

Rocking and rolling

I never worked on the Mississippi waterfront, so I can't say that Lomax was wrong, but in 1922 Trixie Smith recorded the tune "My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll." She sure wasn't singing about cotton.

Workin' for the man

It does seem that the cotton workers do get breaks since there is a group lounging out atop the bales over by the utility poles.

Bad times ahead

This is about a year before she had a boiler explosion, killing 18 crew members.

What wouldn't I give

for that magnificent lifeboat on the top deck of the sternwheeler.


We seem to be missing a barge to tote.

Rock and Roll

OK, this is admittedly an argued about story, but Alan Lomax writes in the book "The Land Where the Blues Began"that the origins of the term "rock and roll" began on the waterfronts of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

The reason, according to Lomax, was that the cotton bales were "rolled" (as you can see in the photo). The hogsheads (also in the photo) were rolled, but often they were suspended from stout poles with rope for handling where the banks were wet. The hogsheads set up a rocking motion as they were carried by two men. Thus they "rocked".

The sacks in the photo were "toted" -- "tote sacks."

Thus when the Kate Adams arrived in Greenville, Mississippi, the workmen would say, "time to rock and roll".

Lomax doesn't say why it isn't "Tote, Rock and Roll".


'Ol Man River

"He just keeps rollin' along"

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