Thousands of visitors have stepped into the Cotton Museum, and many are surprised to learn just how influential the cotton industry was to the development of not just the city of Memphis and the Southern United States, but to the entire world.
The Museum began its work with a meticulous restoration of the landmark trading floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange, where cotton traders once stood at the center of the global cotton economy. For generations, this celebrated organization and the surrounding Cotton Row district were pillars of the international cotton trade. The Museum offers a unique “you are there” experience for visitors.
The original revolving door reading “Members Only” opens to the restored trading floor opened in 1922. Above the re-created Western Union office, the trade board has been returned to the postings of the day in May of 1939. The thoroughly restored space provides a platform for exhibits on cotton and its relationship to the economics, culture, government, history, and technology of the South. With an archive of oral histories, artifacts, photographs and documents, as well as original educational films and a self-guided audio tour of Cotton Row, academics, tourists, and locals alike enjoy an interactive and interesting museum experience.
Cotton has been bought and sold here for as long as there has been a Memphis. As you enter the trading floor you are greeted with a video installation introducing you to the Museum and supplying a brief but thorough history of cotton and its role in making Memphis. Agriculture, transportation, banking, warehousing, textiles, and a hundred other businesses were developed and modernized because of cotton. From there, the Museum leads you through the history of the cash crop, from the fiber’s early origins to the rise of Front Street. The exhibits lining the walls are full of rich historical information presented through a series of topical panels and complemented by display cases full of artifacts that help visitors understand exactly what life as a part of the cotton culture would have been like. Cotton changed the face and the soul of the south, and the Museums’ collection of artifacts shows visitors cotton’s monumental impact.
From the cases and panels that line the museum’s historical walls, visitors develop a timeline of the cotton industry and an understanding of the industry’s initial dependency on slaves. They learn how Memphis was utilized as a port town and how cotton, mule, and slave traders capitalized on the city’s central location in the fertile farmland of the Delta. Other cases feature cotton samples, highlighting the art of “classing” cotton – the measuring and classification of the fiber by its specific physical attributes. The artifacts also help the visitors become familiar with the tools, monies, and technologies of the times, giving clues about life when cotton was king.
When the cotton gin was invented in 1793, cotton became an inordinately valuable crop. The Southern economy was transformed, as was the system of slavery. After just 10 years of first being put to use, the cotton gin had raised the value of the total United States crop from $150,000 to more than $8 million. Cotton’s new success as a plantation crop made the South (and it’s economy) dependent on the productivity of slaves.
By 1860, some four million enslaved African Americans lived throughout the south. Most were agricultural workers who toiled under harsh and deplorable conditions from sunrise to sunset. After the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, many slaves remained in the South and, though free, found themselves stuck in the same slave system their predecessors had battled. The Cotton Museum has a variety of artifacts ranging from the chattel slavery era to sharecropping that demonstrate what life as a slave might have been like. A set of manacles is on display in one case. Slaves wore manacles on their wrists when transported to be sold or moved to a different location. The two horseshoe shaped wrist cuffs were used to keep slaves bound during travel in an attempt to keep runaways and revolutionary action, literally, locked up.
Plantation scrip was brass coins that could only be used by farm workers and only at the plantation’s general store. By using scrip, plantation owners could determine the price of goods. If a worker became indebted to the plantation store, he was required to stay and work off his debt. This forced freedmen to stay on Southern plantations and continue the sort of enslavement from which they had just been freed.
The Cotton Museum also houses many artifacts that highlight how the cotton merchants of Cotton Row would have worked day to day – from the dominoes they played on slow and sweaty afternoons to the main line sounder. The sounder was connected to the various cotton companies on Front Street. When a telegram for a particular company came into the Cotton Exchange, a buzzer sounded in that office and a runner was quickly dispatched to pick up the telegram. In 1942, the Board of Directors at the Memphis Cotton Exchange unanimously decided that “all members interested in playing dominoes should refrain from starting their game until after the close of the futures market.” Obviously the men of the Exchange were so busy with rowdy games of dominoes that they were falling behind in conducting trades!
The story of Delta plantations where cotton was grown and the blues were born surrounds our collection of archival footage and original documentary films. Blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, and much of our popular culture emerged from slave culture and in turn, rural farm culture and sharecropping. Our blues exhibit explores the connection between the culture of cotton and the blues—a genre that originated in African-American communities from field hollers, work songs, and spirituals. Our original footage of a Delta Pine Plantation was produced in 1950. The film offers a glimpse into how plantation life and sharecropping has changed in the past 50 years.
The Western union office was the nerve center of the Memphis Cotton Exchange. Cotton was bought and sold over the wires that ran through this very office! Memphis was a hub; from New York to Atlanta, the ticker tape streamed in, stock quotes were recorded on the chalkboard in the upper gallery, keeping members of the Exchange informed.
In 1933 trading rooms began to consolidate into the Memphis Cotton Exchange. Victor Cuneo found his way to the Cotton Exchange and became a chalkboard marker. He kept up with rapidly changing prices on the trade board. Cuneo worked as a marker on the Cotton Exchange blackboard from 1927 until a computer finally replaced him in 1978.
The Mah Mural
One of the most notable installments in the museum is the mural that wraps around the ceiling. The 135 foot wide mural is original artwork by the David Mah Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Source material for the mural included historic photographs and illustrations, plus cinematic and literary material. The artist spent six-months on the project, conducting research, creating the painted panels, and installing them on the trade floor. The mural illustrates many aspects of the story of cotton as it encompasses history, economics, social order, science and technology, architecture, music and culture, and more.
The mural that surrounds the original trading floor and main exhibit hall clearly illustrates cotton’s influence as the nucleus of southern culture. Notice the depiction of Eli Whitney and his gin, slaves with heavy cotton bags on their backs, and big red mechanical pickers. The mural traces not only the technological advance of the cotton industry, but the artists, writers, and musicians molded by life in the cotton empire. Notice the inclusion of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, Robert Johnson and his soul-selling crossroads. Cotton’s unique allure appealed to character, big and small, many of whom are depicted in the Cotton Museum Mural.
The High Society of Cotton: From Charities to Sequins
Our rural past and cotton have long been at the core of Memphis and Southern society. During the great depression, a tradition honoring that unique relationship to agriculture and the cotton industry was born: the Cotton Carnival. The annual celebration was an important symbol of prosperity to the city in the throes of the Great Depression; cotton was paraded through Memphis, which increased demand and stimulated sales. Influential Memphians, working as members of “krewes,” organized elaborate parades and parties to promote local businesses and the city at large. Today the legacy of Cotton Carnival continues. Carnival Memphis (as it was later re-named) recognizes and promotes an industry that has a major economic impact on the Mid-South community, champions the City of Memphis as a great place to live and work, and hosts annual celebration in honor of the industry and people of the Mid-South. “Royalty” is perhaps the most well known aspect of the Cotton Carnival. There are princes and princesses, dukes, duchesses, and pages, but the most well known court member is the Cotton Queen. For eight decades, Cotton Queens have paraded through town on floats, participated in a children’s charity initiative, and promoted business and industry through community action.
Lida Black was Cotton Carnival Queen in 1961. Her ornate evening dress is housed in the museum alongside the King’s attire. Timeless and chic, the dress is white with silver threads, crystal bugle beads and silver sequins and rhinestones form floral pattern over the entire dress. Seeing the dress, one can only imagine Queen Lida parading from appointment to appointment, crown and all.