The cotton gin spinner, a forgotten component of the industrial revolution, tells an important story.
A McBride gin spinner at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, Texas.
John McBride was one of many early innovators at the turn of the 19th century who possessed the ability to observe multiple related technologies and combine them into a single machine that greatly improved the overall efficiency of the separate processes. The cotton gin spinner is an almost forgotten product of the fertile imagination of a man who himself is almost forgotten to history. This is the story of McBride and his unique device, relating how he came to learn from various developments by his predecessors.
On March 14, 1789, Hodgen Holmes, Augusta, Georgia, received a five-year “caveat of invention” for the first reliable cotton gin capable of processing the hairy seeded variety of upland cotton. Because the Patent Office hadn’t yet been established, this caveat of invention was issued by the U.S. Department of War.
Holmes’ design featured saw blades with fine, needle-pointed teeth inclined toward the direction of rotation. The back edges of the saws reached through a row of metal bars, called ribs, to snag cotton fibers and pull them between the ribs. The seeds wouldn’t fit through the rib slots and so were left behind as the fibers were pulled away. A doffing brush on the back side of the ribs cleared the loose fibers from the saw teeth so that they could gather a fresh load when they again entered the ginning chamber. This method is still used today for ginning upland cotton across the entire southern region of the U.S.
Eli Whitney earned the title of inventor of the cotton gin with his patent of March 14, 1794, issued on the same day that Holmes’ caveat expired. His design was much inferior to Holmes’, and even Whitney himself later switched from his poor design to use saws and metal ribs. But he took credit in his patent for the superior saw-and-rib construction, and thus is remembered as the father of the cotton gin. Holmes lost his court battle with Whitney and disappeared from history.
By 1767, reliable mass spinning machines were available in England after James Hargreaves had invented the spinning jenny. Richard Arkwright and Jedidiah Strutt had perfected the use of water wheels to power these spinners and carders. Samuel Slater, who worked as apprentice and chief mechanic for Strutt, became intimately familiar with these machines.
British law prohibited the export of any major technology, whether by model, notes, blueprints or as a tradesman. In 1787, Slater secretly brought to the U.S. the knowledge in his head of the carder, spinner and water-power designs. Soon after his arrival, he joined Almy & Brown in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and began successfully building these machines from memory. Today, one of his spinners is located in a Smithsonian museum.
John McBride grew up in Fair Forest, South Carolina, near Spartanburg. He had apparently heard of Holmes’ gin invention and probably purchased at least one working unit. But instead of just copying it, in about 1800 he added a pair of carding drums behind the doffing brush, patterned after Slater’s re-creation of the Arkwright machine.
In McBride’s machine, ginned fibers were captured from the doffer brush by carding cloth lining the carding drums. The fibers were aligned and smoothed into a bat, ready for spinning. Everything was powered by a single hand crank. McBride never patented this design, and since only three of these machines are known to exist, it probably wasn’t practical, or at least not useful enough to win many buyers.
After McBride moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in about 1803, he improved his innovation with a set of spinners identical to Slater’s design. The patent still included the gin section. The saw shaft had 24 blades, divided into six sets of four saws, each spaced 1/2 inch apart, with a 1-inch gap between sets. Behind the doffer remained the two carding drums, which passed the fibers over the top, smoothing and aligning them.
The division in the fiber output created by the sets of saws was maintained through the carding process, so that now six fiber bundles, called rovings, were doffed by an oscillating bar from the second carder and delivered through draft stretchers to six flyers. These spun the fibers into finished yarn strands and wound them onto six bobbins, which included a level-wind. (Experienced spinners will recognize that the bobbins use the Scotch tension method for collecting the yarn as opposed to the Irish tension method used on most spinning wheels.)
For this, McBride was granted patent 632X on Aug. 8, 1805. Soon afterward, he apparently compacted the three sections by moving the drum that drove the spindles underneath the gin section and dropping the spinners to the front side, running vertically. He called it the Columbian Spinster and it was actively and successfully marketed across the southern states. In 1808, John’s brother, Ephraim McBride, wrote a letter to the governor of South Carolina, requesting assistance in selling the machines.
McBride moved to Washington, Mississippi, a suburb of Natchez, then a hotbed of large cotton plantations. Plantation owners purchased these machines to lend out to their slaves so that they could gin, spin and weave their own cloth. The attraction of McBride’s gin spinner was that one person, often a child or crippled slave, could turn the crank that powered the whole machine with the right hand while adding seed cotton with the left hand onto the overhead conveyor belt, producing enough yarn in a day to weave 10 yards of cloth.
McBride left Mississippi and moved to Kentucky, where he and his brother, Ephraim, joined the Pleasant Hill Shaker Community at Harrodsburg. He continued to build and sell gin spinners until he died there in 1844. He also sold licenses to other makers, and some added their own improvements, as is typical of most patent models. Apparently someone in the Nashville area removed the doffing brush, letting the first carding drum gather the fibers from the saws, passing the fibers under the drums to a carder doffer and then to the draft stretchers and flyers.
A gin spinner of this type currently on display at the Rosenberg Library of Galveston, Texas, is reported to have been made in Nashville and taken by a family to Fulshear, Texas, when they moved there. Very similar machines are on display at the Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tennessee, and the Audubon State Historic Site in Louisiana; co-author Bill Friday also owns one.
Hugh Joyner, born in 1805 in Hendersonville, Tennessee, followed the design of the presumed Nashville innovator. Joyner converted the all-wood frame to a mostly cast iron frame, replacing cords and belts connecting the moving parts on the left side with gears. It retained the single power crank and overhead conveyor. Joyner’s is one of the only two types to carry the name of the maker on the frame. At one point, Traveller’s Rest Museum in Nashville had two gin spinners. Their Joyner model was donated to the Falls Mill Museum in Belvidere, Tennessee, and is now undergoing restoration by John Lovett.
Englishmen John and Thomas Pearce, spinners by trade, worked at odd jobs in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they received their pay in seed cotton. Learning of McBride’s device and being innovative, they apparently bought the patent from McBride and began building gin spinners.
The operation quickly expanded to the point that the Pearces moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to build a factory. Theirs is the only other line to carry the maker’s name cast into the metal frame. They reportedly sold more than 3,000 machines prior to the Civil War. The company remains in operation today, although it no longer produces gin spinners.
A Pearce machine was located at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. This one was made to operate and convert seed cotton to thread in 1980 by Myron Stachiw. It is now located at Lowell Park. A number of Pearce machines can be found in museum collections, including at a Smithsonian museum. Another, located at the Henry Ford Greenfield Village Museum, was restored to operation in the 1970s by museum staff in a fully documented process.
The end of the Civil War, and slavery with it, didn’t end the need for gin spinners, but the machines were beyond the financial reach of sharecroppers who needed access to one in order to produce fabric for clothing. The units were typically purchased by affluent landowners who loaned them to workers. Shaker communities in New England adopted use of spinners in the 1830s, consistent with their simple, self-reliant lifestyle, and their use continued into the 1930s when better options arose and as Shaker religious practices began to wane. The South Union Shaker Village at Auburn, Kentucky, has one on display. Thirty such machines were in use there until 1930.
A search around the country for existing gin spinners has turned up 25 so far, from Texas to Massachusetts. There are other variations than those described, with no markings to denote the makers, but all carry the salient features of the 1805 patent.
President Andrew Jackson used a spinner at the Hermitage in Nashville; it remains part of that facility’s collection. The Tennessee State Museum and Tennessee Agricultural Museum, both in Nashville, and the Sumner County Museum in Gallatin, Tennessee, have gin spinners on display, including some of Joyner’s and some with no names. Ephraim McBride’s success in selling gin spinners in South Carolina is evidenced by the presence of machines at the Bart Garrison Agricultural Museum in Pendleton and the South Carolina Cotton Museum at Bishopville. Another machine is located nearby at the Latta Plantation, Huntersville, North Carolina.
Spinners have been found in Louisiana, reflecting the fact that McBride and others produced gin spinners in the area around Natchez, Mississippi. The Audubon State Historic Site at Francisville, Louisiana, and the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans each have one on display.
There are surely many more of them out there, and hopefully this article will bring some to light. Often the owners don’t realize what they have, simply calling them cotton gins, and attributing them to Eli Whitney. FC
For more information: Retired scientist Bill Friday, Huntsville, Alabama, collects and restores old tractors, grist mills, cotton gins, engines, pumps and tools. He is a member of the Southland Flywheelers Antique Tractor & Engine Club. For specific information on historical references in this article, contact him at bill.Friday@earthlink.net.
Anthony Mullins is a retired teacher and coach in Sarepta, Louisiana. He raises and sells brown cotton in raw, ginned, and carded to sliver forms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.