Image Slaves using a cotton gin, 1869

TLF ID M008731

This is a black-and-white illustration captioned 'The first cotton gin'. It shows how the US artist William L Sheppard imagined the scene of the first gin in operation, some 80 years after the actual event. Sheppard depicts two male slaves operating the machine with two white men examining the ginned cotton while female slaves haul bales of cotton from the fields. The illustration was published in the 18 December 1869 issue of Harper's Weekly Magazine.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This illustration is an interesting secondary source for the year 9 history depth study elective Movement of peoples (1750-1901), which studies the influence of the industrial revolution on the movement of peoples throughout the world, including the transatlantic slave trade. The cotton gin would galvanise the slave trade. Between 1793 and 1865 an estimated 1 million people were enslaved by transatlantic or domestic slave traders to work on US cotton plantations.
  • The cotton gin created 'king cotton' in the American south and west, increasing cotton production in the USA from 3,000 bales in 1790 to more than 2 million bales by 1850, and replacing tobacco as the dominant export crop. Cotton could only be grown on a large scale at the time by using a plantation system totally dependent on huge amounts of cheap labour. Cotton and the cotton gin might be said to have institutionalised slavery in the USA.
  • The caption is a provocative reference, not to Eli Whitney's invention patented in 1794, but to a predecessor or competitor described in the accompanying article in Harper's Weekly. Whitney was forced to fight many legal battles to defend his patent. His machine was fairly similar to the one seen here. Both used spiked teeth set into a wooden cylinder to pull the cotton fibres through the slots in a metal plate but Whitney's had a second cylinder with brushes that freed the fibres from the teeth.
Learning area
  • History

Other details

  • Author
  • Person: William L Sheppard
  • Description: author
  • Contributor
  • Name: The Library of Congress
  • Organization: The Library of Congress
  • Description: content provider
  • Address: UNITED STATES
  • URL:
  • Person: William L Sheppard
  • Description: author
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
Access profile
  • Generic
Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Commonwealth of Australia, 2011, except where indicated otherwise. You may copy, communicate and modify this material for non-commercial educational purposes provided you retain all acknowledgements associated with the material.