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Alabama was one of many cotton-producing states in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was nicknamed "the cotton state" because of its central location in the Cotton Belt of the Dixie South. Cotton dominated Alabama's economy and drove its history and the structure of society.
Early Native Americans grew cotton, and Spanish and English colonists raised cotton in Florida and Virginia. Farmers and botanists experimented with different varieties, sometimes crossbreeding strains of cotton to produce hardier breeds. Throughout the 1700s, cotton was a cottage industry: colonists grew small amounts of cotton near their homes and spun small quantities for their own use.
The Industrial Revolution brought several changes to cotton production. In the late 1700s, English inventors developed powerful, automated methods of spinning raw cotton and wool into thread. These contraptions, like the flying shuttle, spinning jenny and power loom, revolutionized the textile industry. Many people wanted to wear clothing made from the sleek new threads, and cotton production could not keep up.
In 1793, inventor Eli Whitney patented his cotton gin, a machine that performed the time-consuming task of separating seeds from cotton. The technology disseminated quickly and knock-offs of Whitney's cotton gin sprouted up all over the country. In 1795, a man named Joseph Collins started growing cotton on a farm near Mobile, Alabama. Collins' success set the stage for Alabama's transition into one of the major cotton-producing states in the country.
After local Indian tribes were forced off their lands in 1816, settlers from Georgia and the Carolinas came to Alabama to grow cotton in the rich soil of the region. They brought with them the system of slave labor that powered agriculture across the South. In 1819, Alabama officially became a state; farmers shipped 16,000 bales of cotton from Mobile that year. By 1821, Alabama was exporting $3,000,000 US Dollar's (USD) worth of high-quality cotton.
Exports from the cotton state increased exponentially in the next several decades. By 1839, Mobile was shipping 440,000 bales of cotton--half of the cotton exports for the entire country. More sophisticated equipment, the use of fertilizer and agricultural colleges facilitated the expansion of the cotton industry, but slavery was the key ingredient. Cotton growing was a labor-intensive process, and landowners depended on their slave populations to produce huge crops every year for nothing but minimal room and board costs in return. By 1860, the population of Alabama had increased to 964,000; almost half were slaves.
The Civil War devastated the Alabamian cotton industry. Soldiers plundered cotton fields and blockaded Southern ports, and exports fell dramatically. When the North won the war, slavery was outlawed. Farmers replaced slavery with a tenant system where ex-slaves and landless whites worked small plots of the plantation owner's land. Plantation owners expected tenants to pay for all the farming costs themselves and received rent money and 50% of the harvest—this system, known as sharecropping, often left tenants deeply in debt.
Even with this system of cheap labor, it took the cotton state 30 years to return to pre-Civil War levels of production. The 1890s were a high point for the American cotton industry; exports hovered around 3,000,000 bales. The US government opened agricultural bureaus to better coordinate cotton production, but often ignored smaller operations.
The 20th century was the beginning of the end of Alabama's title of the Cotton State. Cotton boil weevils arrived in Alabama in 1911, and tenant farmers were particularly hard hit; many blacks began migrating to better opportunities in the North. Plantation farmers realized they needed to diversify and began investing in other industries. Cotton production moved west, and Alabamian agriculture shifted to soybeans, poultry and beef—the remaining cotton plantations became large, mechanized operations. Alabama still ranks in the top 10 cotton-producing states.
You're right to point out that cotton production is still a major industry in Alabama. Heck, it's a major industry throughout the former Confederacy. The difference these days is that plantations have been replaced with comparatively larger corporate farming outfits, so you don't get as many individuals both owning a farm and handling the day-to-day operations of it.