Cotton Pickin’

From the Cotton Field

This cotton burr with the cotton still intact came from some cotton field many years ago.  I broke it off intact and kept it as a little piece of nostalgia.  You see, I actually picked cotton by hand as a kid.  The hard, green “bolls” form like unopened flowers buds on the cotton plant.  When the cotton is “ripe for picking”, the boll has opened and dried into a “burr” that you see here.  The cotton is loosely attached to the burr making it easy to remove.  The trick is to remove it without poking your fingers on the sharp ends of the burr.   Pickers carried a long feed sack with a strap sewn on to fit over the head and across the body.  When the sack was full and too heavy to drag, the cotton was poured onto a “sheet” lying on the ground.  At the end of the day, the sheet was tied up by all four corners and the cotton was weighed on a hanging scales and dumped into a wagon.  Pickers were paid by the pound.  Some long-time pickers could pick 400-500 pounds a day depending on whether the cotton was “heavy” or “light”.  I think the biggest haul I ever made was 110 pounds.  School was suspended in the South during cotton harvest in September, as I recall.  Most of the kids were needed in the fields in the rural part of North Carolina where I grew up.  My siblings and I went along to the picking to earn money to spend at the local county fair that was always held after harvest.  We spent more time throwing green bolls at each other and rolling around in the cotton sheets than in actual picking.

(click image to enlarge)

12 Comments on “Cotton Pickin’

  1. George, you’ve probably figured out that I’m taking a little stroll through some of your older posts (doing some catching up). I’m really taken with your narrative and with your photograph of the cotton burr and the history that it represents. It’s a very powerful image.

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  2. Yeah, those days motivated all of us to get out of the “cotton pickin” business! 😉

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  3. I’m with u Geoge, I ain’t pickin no more cotton. when I was 5 years old, we had a cotton field across from my house in Cuero. mom took my brother and myself to pick cotton with her. Well, after about 5minutes, I had enough of that itching, sticking cotton. and it looked so pretty. I told my mom, I’m not doing this anymore! I remember the sacks we carried to put it in. They were itchy, too. And it was very hot. I think that was the day my mom told me I’d better do well in school, and get a college education! Well, I remembered that cotton well, and got a master’s degree! Talk about motivation…. Who’d thought a little cotton ball could do all that.

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  4. This photo and your story are much appreciated. Until we actually hear first-hand the story of someone who has spent considerable time labouring over the picking of this, we give no thought to what made ‘King Cotton’ what it was and still is. It looks so innocent, yet I can’t imagine the hot sun and gruelling conditions which went along with the job of picking 400-500 lbs of it in a single day. And to think the slaves had to do so day-in and day-out, and even when the moon was full.

    I’m very glad I found your post. I take my hat off to you.

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    • Thanks you. My youthful experience growing up in a rural cotton-farming part of the country gave me an entirely different perspective than I think I might have had otherwise. I have read many accounts of life in those days, and I have found them to be true. Every era has its own particular form of slavery and indentured servitude. Those were harsh days, but also days filled with joy. If you have the opportunity to visit a rural black church, do it. The most beautiful songs I ever heard were old hymns sung acapella in those churches.

      It’s difficult to imagine that anything so benign in appearance as a cotton burr could have caused such abject poverty and misery.

      Thank you for your kindness and your insight into the symbol here.

      George Weaver

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  5. HA when I first saw this I thought it was some sort of white creature, like a baby lamb, with a starfish attached to its face. It’s really not though.

    That’s cool! i’ve never seen a cotton plant before!

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    • The plant grows to about two feet tall and is planted from seed in rows that stretch as far as the eye can see on big farms. It’s like a bush with brown burrs that hold four “cotton balls”. The cotton has seeds in it so it has to be processed to remove the seeds. Once it is harvested, it is taken to cotton mills for processing. Cotton farming was a huge industry in the South where I grew up. It was harvested by hand (by the poorest of people) until somebody invented cotton picker machines mounted on tractors. Cotton picking was a hot, dirty, backbreaking job. Slaves in the South constituted the labor force to produce cotton as long as there were cotton plantations. Gradually, the task fell to poor blacks and whites who were tenant farmers. The story of cotton production in the South is not a pretty one.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.

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    • Thanks! When I was picking this stuff with bleeding fingers, I didn’t think the cotton burrs looked quite this lovely! That was hot, backbreaking work for the poor people who were forced to do it for a real living. LOL

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  6. Where on earth did you find this cotton? I assume you just found PICTURE of cotton! I saw all of that I wanted to see a long time ago…..!!! Linda

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    • Have you never seen that cotton in the longleaf pine cabinet in the living room? I’ve had it for so many years that I have forgotten where I picked it now. I just photographed it last night when I passed by the cabinet and saw it. Yep, as they say, “I ain’t pickin’ no mo’ cotton!”.

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