Lesson Plan: Overview

The Impact of the Cotton Gin

Subtitle 1: What difference did the cotton gin make to the South?
Subtitle 2: Are improvements in technology good for everyone?

Grade Level: 4th

Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin

Academic Standards

Standard 4-6: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the Civil War and its impact on America.

4-6.1 Compare the industrial North and the agricultural South prior to the Civil War, including the specific nature of the economy of each region, the geographic characteristics and boundaries of each region, and the basic way of life in each region. (G , E, H)

Social Studies Literacy Elements
No literacy elements available for this lesson plan.

Essential Questions

Lesson 1

1. How did the invention of the cotton gin change the South?

Lesson 2

1. Are improvements in technology good for everyone?

2. How did the invention of the cotton gin affect the people in the South?

Historical Background Notes

Around the world, people wear cotton clothing, and they have done so for thousands of years.  Artifacts of cotton cloth have been found in Mexico, Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, around the Indus River, and along the coast of Africa.  Cotton was introduced to Europe by Arab traders around the first century.  However, cotton did not gain popularity in England until the 15th century, due to the prominence of wool in England.  However, by the late 1700’s, cotton imports to England began to steadily increase.  In 1783, England imported 9,000,000 pounds of cotton.  In 1790, English cotton imports rose to 28,000,000 pounds.  In 1812, English imported 63,000,000 pounds of cotton.  In 1825, England imported 228,000,000 pounds of cotton! (Mirsky and Nevins 1952, 91).

There are three types of cotton fibers (staples): long-staple, medium staple, and short-staple cotton.  The best type is the long-staple cotton, such as Sea Island Egyptian, and pima cottons.  Long-staple cotton is considered the best for two reasons.  First of all, it is the easiest type to work with because the seeds are smooth and relatively easy to remove.  Secondly, the longer fibers are better suited to weaving into fine cloth.  Unfortunately, this type of cotton is also the hardest to grow.  The second type of cotton is the medium-staple cotton.  It is easier to grow.  Ninety-five percent of the world’s cotton is the medium-staple length.  The third type is short-staple cotton.  It is used to make blankets and carpets or to blend with other fibers.  (Meltzer 2004).

Cotton was not an important crop in the early colonial days.  It was too difficult to make thread from the cotton lint.  Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, Sea Island cotton was grown along the southern coast.  Sea Island cotton had a smooth seed that was easier to remove.  By this time, the slave population in the south had grown to half a million.  Slave labor was needed to operate the southern plantations.  This was also true for the cotton plantations.  It took a great deal of labor to plant, tend, and pick the cotton.  Even more work was required to separate the seeds from the fibers and then to bale the cotton fibers.  Planters bought slaves to do the labor.

Eli Whitney was born on December 5, 1765.  He grew up in Massachusetts and showed a knack for mechanical work at an early age.  During the Revolutionary War, around the age of ten, Whitney started his first business.  He asked his father for a forge to make nails.  Nails were scarce during the war and sold at a good price.  When the war was over, England flooded the market with cheap nails and drove the price down.  So Whitney learned to make hatpins, which were a recent trend and in great demand.  (Knowing how to make hatpins would help later in his cotton gin design.)  He seemed to have a good business sense and an ability to notice what was needed. (Mirsky and Nevins 1952, 8-9)

Later, he worked as a teacher to earn money to go to college.  In 1789, at the age of 23, he went to Yale College.  He graduated from Yale in September 1792.  After college, he decided to study law.  To make some money while he studied, he took a job as a tutor for a southern plantation owner.  However, when he arrived, he learned that his salary would only be half of what he had been promised, so he did not take the job.  Instead, he agreed to work on the widow of General Nathaniel Greene’s plantation, assisting the plantation manager.  (Meltzer 2004).

Whitney heard some of the neighbors complaining about how long it took to remove the seeds from the green-seed cotton that grew in the area.  It took 10 hours to remove enough seeds to make one pound of lint.  It took nearly as many slaves to remove the seeds as it did to pick the cotton.  Whitney watched how the slaves cleaned the cotton, holding the seed with one hand and plucking out the lint with the other.  (Meltzer 2004).

As he watched, he developed his idea of how to create a machine to do the work faster and better that doing it by hand.  Whitney’s machine used a sieve of wires to hold the seed, while a drum with small hook-shaped wires brushed the lint away from the seed.  Another drum brushed the lint off the hooks.  In one hour, the cotton gin (engine) did as much work as several slaves could do in a day.  (Meltzer 2004).

Eli Whitney patented his machine, however, several people made their own versions of the gin.  Whitney never became rich from his invention.  Recently, there is also some evidence that indicates Henry Ogden Holmes, also known as Hodgen Holmes, invented a cotton gin prior to Whitney’s design.  Some people claim that Hodgen Holmes started working on a plan for a saw-toothed gin in 1787 at Kinkaid Plantation in Craven County.  Holmes obtained a Caveat of Intention for a saw-toothed cotton gin on March 14, 1789.  The Caveat was good for five years, expiring on March 14, 1794.  Whitney was granted his patent on that same date.  (Whitney or Holmes?)

After the invention of the cotton gin, cotton became America’s leading crop.  Cotton was king.  In 1790, America produced 1,500 pounds of cotton.  By 1800, production had increased to 35,000 pounds.  By 1815, production had reached 100,000 pounds. In 1848, production exceeded 1,000,000 pounds.  Simultaneously, slavery spread across the Deep South.  In 1790, the slave population was concentrated in Virginia on the tobacco plantations and along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia on the rice plantations.    In 1820, slavery had spread westward to Mississippi.  By the Civil War, about 4 million slaves lived in the South.  (Bruchey 1967, 16-17)


Primary Sources

Lesson 1

Obituary for Eli Whitney, Esq. 29 January, 1825. Niles' Weekly Register. Third Series, No. 22, Vol IIII. Baltimore, MD. Published Materials Division, South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, South Carolina.

The History of Cotton.  South Carolina Cotton Museum, 2005.

Lesson 2

Replica Model of Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin. Provided by Teaching American History in South Carolina to participants of the 2005 Summer Institutes. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.

The History of Cotton.  South Carolina Cotton Museum, 2005.

Secondary Sources

Lesson 1 & Lesson 2

Bruchey, Stuart.  Cotton and the Growth of the American Economy 1790-1860.  New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1967.

Hilliard, Sam Bowers.  Atlas of Antebellum Southern Agriculture.  Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

Meltzer, Milton.  The Cotton Gin.  New York, Benchmark Books Marshall Cavendish, 2004.

Mirsky, Jeannette, and Nevins, Allan.  The World of Eli Whitney.  New York, Macmillan Company, 1952.

“Whitney or Holmes?” Available from Continental Eagle Corporation Prattville, Alabama.


Lesson 1

• Overhead

• Copies of Eli Whitney’s Obituary

• Copies of a student-friendly version of Eli Whitney’s Obituary

Document Analysis Sheets and Transparency

“How Did Eli Whitney Change the South?”  Chart

Lesson 2


Cotton Gin

Charts of Cotton Sales and Slave Populations

Cause and Effect Chart

Lesson Plans

Lesson 1

1.  Ask students if they have ever heard of Eli Whitney.  Tell them that he was an important American inventor.  He invented something that changed our country in a big way, especially in the South.  Ask if anyone knows what he invented.  Tell students that you are going to read his obituary to find out why he is important to our country’s history.  (You may need to discuss what an obituary is.)  Pass out the copies of Eli Whitney’s Obituary from the Niles Weekly Register.

2.  Preview the obituary with the students.  Have the students look at the original version of the obituary as you ask them the following questions:

  • What type of document is this?  Where did it come from? (If necessary, give some choices from the document analysis sheet.)
  • When was it written?
  • Who was it written for?  Why?
  • What else do you notice about it?

3.  Tell students that you are going to read the obituary aloud.  Tell them that they should be listening for important facts about Eli Whitney.  Pause at the end of each paragraph to ask students to retell something important from that section. 

4.  Tell students it is their turn to be the historians.  They are going to analyze Whitney’s obituary to see what they can discover.  Break the students into cooperative groups.  Give each group a student-friendly version of the obituary and a document analysis sheet.

5.  Have the students read and discuss the obituary in small groups.  Have them complete the document analysis sheet together.  Circulate to assist with challenging vocabulary.

6.  Have students come together to share their responses on the document analysis sheet.  Create a class analysis on the overhead using their responses.  Be sure to correct any misconceptions.

7.  Call on student to summarize who Whitney was and what his important accomplishments were. 

8.  Ask students “What difference did Eli Whitney’s cotton gin make in the south?  How did the south change after the invention of the cotton gin?  What other changes do you think occurred because of the cotton gin?

9. Pass out the chart on Eli Whitney.  Tell students that they are going to record what they have learned about Eli Whitney on the chart.  They will also record their predictions of what other changes resulted from the invention of the cotton gin.

Lesson 2

1. Pass out cotton.  Have students try to remove seeds by hand.  Use a timer to see how long it takes to do one cotton boll.  Record the time for each student, then total the times.  Discuss difficulty of the task and techniques used.

2.  Show pictures of the baskets that held the cotton.  Put all their cotton lint together to see how much there is. Estimate how long it would take to fill a basket.  Show the photographs of bales of cotton.  Estimate how many baskets that would be.  How long would it take to make one bale?

3.  Show students the cotton gin and demonstrate how it works.  Time how long it takes to do the same amount of cotton that they did by hand.  Compare the ease and speed of the cotton gin with doing it by hand.  Discuss what changes may have occurred after the invention of the cotton gin.

4.  Examine charts of cotton sales.  Discuss how the cotton production changed.  Ask students why they think cotton production increased.

5.  Ask students if improvements in technology are always good for everyone.  Discuss what positive and negative results may have resulted from the invention of the cotton gin.

6.  Examine slave population chart.  Discuss how the slave population changed.  Ask students why they think the slave population increased.

7.  Discuss the positive and negative effects of the cotton gin. Guide the discussion with these questions:

  • What was something good that happened because of the cotton gin?
  • Who was it good for?  Was it good for anyone else?
  • What was something bad that happened because of the cotton gin?
  • Who was it bad for?  Was it bad for anyone else?

8.  Ask students to write a journal entry as someone who was affected by the invention of the cotton gin.  In their entry, they should explain who they are (some possible choices are plantation owners, slaves, or Eli Whitney) and how the cotton gin changed their life. Have students share their entries.

9.  Ask students if they can think of any modern advances in technology that have had positive effects for some and negative effects for others.

10.  Pass out the positive and negative effect chart.  Have students complete the positive and negative effect chart independently.  Tell them that they should be able to identify at least two positive effects and two negative effects for the cotton gin.

Teacher Reflections

The TAHSC course improved my teaching in several ways that have made a positive difference in my classroom.  This year I have moved at a faster pace, and yet, I have also been able to delve more deeply into areas that I have shied away from in the past.  Even the other teachers on my team have noticed.  I used to be last, trailing behind the others, but this year, I am setting the pace instead.  The main reason for these changes is the content knowledge and teaching strategies that I learned in the TAHSC course.

I am embarrassed to admit that I cannot even recall the last American history course that I took prior to TAHSC. Suffice it to say it had been a long, long time.   When I moved to fourth grade two years ago and started teaching U.S. history, I did not know much more than the students.  My primary source of information was the fourth grade text.  Fortunately for me, I was a better reader than my students.  It gave me a slight advantage, but I barely stayed ahead of them.  I just prayed that they wouldn’t ask me a question that wasn’t answered in the book.  When they did, I sent them to research the answer.  Soon, they quit asking.

Last year was slightly better.  I took an in-service on literature to use for social studies.  Now, I had other sources for information.  I also developed graphic organizers addressing the standards for each unit that I taught.  These helped me understand how some of the key events related to each other, and they were useful for helping the students study.  I made it all the way to the writing of the Constitution last year before I had to put it into high gear and speed through the Civil War and into Reconstruction in just four weeks.

Obviously, I had a great deal to learn.  Marty’s lectures increased my knowledge of history tenfold.  I especially appreciated the way his lectures went along with the text.  I am the type of learner who needs to hear the information and read the information.  This helped me, even in the areas where I already had some background knowledge, such as, Native Americans, explorers, and colonization.  It reinforced what I knew so that I could remember it better, gave me much greater detail about the events, and also expanded my understanding of the relationships between events.  It was even more necessary for me in those areas where there was a lot of new information, such as, the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Federalists, and the differences between the North and the South leading up to the Civil War.  It helped me to understand how the key events related to each other.  This has made a huge difference for me in the classroom.  I can expand on the information in the text to help my students understand how the events relate to each other.  Now, when children ask those probing questions, I can answer them (most of the time). 

Another part of TAHSC that has made a difference in my class is the cultural institutions.  I talk to my students about the places we went during the course.  This makes history come to life for them.  Just last week when we were discussing the Revolutionary War, a student asked me why some soldiers carried a flag, but not a gun into battle.  I was able to tell them how important the flags were in finding your unit during battle.  Then I told them a story that I heard from our guide when we visited the Confederate Relic Room.  I also have recommended to parents that they take their children to visit some of the cultural institutions, such as Brattonsville, the State Museum, and the Confederate Relic Room.  Next year, I would like to try to arrange for the Confederate Relic Room to visit my classroom, or possibly my whole grade level.  I have thought about it several times this year, but was not quite ready to take that plunge.

Reading books about history is an enormous change for me.  Before this course, I would never have chosen to read a history book.  In fact, I probably read more history books since taking the class this summer than I have in the last five years put together.  These were not just fourth grade text books either.  Some were books that we got from the course.  I have not finished them, but I have found them to be useful resources.  The detailed accounts show me that I have so much more to learn.  I have put a few into my summer reading basket.

While I am beginning to find some primary sources that I find interesting, I have not felt very successful in using them in my class yet.  I have tried a few, but I am still having trouble finding something on their level.  It is also difficult for me to figure out what to do with them. Recently, I used the picture of the segmented snake that Benjamin Franklin drew with the caption:  Join or Die.  I thought it would be obvious what he meant.  It was not.  One student remarked, “It’s chopped up.  It’s already dead.”  And so was my lesson.  After that, all they saw was a dead snake.  Everyone knows that a snake can’t be brought back to life once it has been cut up.  Fourth graders are still somewhat concrete in their thinking. I have not given up yet; I am still hopeful that it will work better next time.

Finally, incorporating some of the teaching strategies has helped add life to my teaching.  This year, I developed overall goals and essential questions for each unit.  At first the questions were just for me, to drive my teaching.  After Christmas, I started sharing the essential questions with the students.  I had them write them in their notebooks and periodically turn back and respond.  We talked about how their thinking changed as they learn more information.  I’m not sure how this is going.  It may only be reaching the high-achieving students at the moment, but I am still hopeful that it will raise the level of thinking of all of them by the end of the year.  Another teaching strategy that I have found very useful is having the students take a side in a discussion.  When they have to support their position, it makes a huge difference.  They become emotionally invested.  I sometimes pull out my notebook and look for activities that I can adapt to my lesson.  We made newspaper articles about explorers last fall.  I also try to make sure that I teach to all the learning styles.  I’m not able to hit all the learning styles every week, but I try to vary the assignments.  I would like to find more tactile, kinesthetic activities to use.

I had hoped to get through the Revolutionary War and the Constitution before teaching the lessons I developed.  I realized that might be a problem when I was trying to decide what to do this summer.  That’s why I had initially planned to do another lesson on the Battle of Cowpens.  However, my lesson on the cotton gin became two lessons, and I decided to let the Cowpens go.  I enjoyed developing the lesson and learned a great deal in the process.  The feedback that I got from Anna on my drafts was very helpful.  However, it felt very awkward teaching it before the unit on the Constitution.

I told the students that we would be historians.  We talked briefly about how historians gather information.  Then I told them that we would analyze a document the way that historians do.  I explained that this document was a primary source and how it was different than our text or other books that we read about history today.  They seemed rather excited.  We looked over the obituary together and discussed the features that they noticed.  Then I asked them to listen to find out why Eli Whitney was important.  Things seemed to be going well until I started reading.  About half of the class seemed to nearly fall asleep.  Things picked up when I split them into groups to analyzer the document.  I had asked them several of the questions during discussion earlier in the lesson and guided the groups through the data analysis sheet.  They seemed engaged in the process again and I was pleasantly surprised with some of the questions that they came up with.  After reviewing their responses on the chart, I was very pleased to see that all of the students were able to retell the key points about Eli Whitney.  They were not able to predict yet how the cotton gin might impact slavery, but I think that they were at a good starting point for the next lesson.  Afterwards, I got positive comments from the students.  They thought it was fun, and they were proud that they had learned some new information the way that historians do.

I feel that I have improved both my understanding and teaching of history this year, but I realize I have miles to go.  I started from the bottom and am not even to the halfway mark yet.  Some specific areas that I want to research and develop lessons for next are the Constitution, westward expansion, and the Civil War.  I will be searching for primary resources to use in those lessons.  I would also like to arrange for a visit from one of the cultural institutes, so that the students can view artifacts from these periods in history that we study.  Finally, I want to develop a “history” day in which the students spend a day engaged in activities from these time periods. 

Student Assessment

Lesson 1

Grade the “How Did Eli Whitney Change the South?” Chart

Give 1 point for each column with a correct answer.  The prediction must relate to the invention of the cotton gin.


4 points = 100

3 points =  85

2 points  =  70

1 point    =  55

Lesson 2

Grade the Positive and Negative Effect Chart.

Give 1 point for each correct answer in the appropriate column.  They should have at least 2 positive effects and 2 negative effects.


4 points = 100

3 points =  85

2 points  =  70

1 point    =  55

Examples of Students Work

Student Document Analysis Worksheet

Student Document Analysis Worksheet 2

Student “How Did Eli Whitney Change the South?” Chart

Student “How Did Eli Whitney Change the South?” Chart 2


Pattie Ziegler
2005 Midlands Institute