The antebellum era was a time not only of profound political change but also of great technological and economic innovation. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Europe in the 1700s, had produced new inventions and methods of production. American inventors transformed the U.S. economy with new innovations of their own. This rapid development of manufacturing and improved farming had such a profound effect on American society that historians often refer to it as the Market Revolution.
The first major innovation in the Market Revolution was Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793. For most of the 1700s, Americans had lacked cotton, despite the fact that they had waterways for transport and the ability to construct textile factories. Southern planters had tried to grow cotton, but they had abandoned it for rice and tobacco because cotton had proved too labor-intensive: it took one slave an entire day to separate just one pound of cottonseeds from the fibers.
The cotton gin revolutionized cotton harvesting by separating the cottonseeds and fibers automatically—it allowed one slave to produce fifty pounds of cotton in one day. Within several years of the cotton gin’s invention, cotton had become a major crop in the South, and factories in the North were producing cotton cloth.
The cotton gin had profound, wide-reaching effects on American history and society. Southern planters abandoned almost all other crops in favor of the newly profitable cotton. In addition, planters required enormous increases in slave labor to plant enough cotton to take advantage of their new production capacity. As a result, thousands more slaves from Africa and the West Indies were purchased before the slave trade was banned in 1808. The size of individual plantations increased, from relatively small plots to huge farms with as many as several hundred slaves each.
The cotton industry in turn spurred enterprising northerners to build factories: southern farmers supplied the cotton, northern factories spun it into cloth, and the finished cloth was then either used at home or shipped abroad. The development of factories produced a larger, richer merchant class and helped create the wage worker, who was paid by the hour to tend to the machinery or cloth in the factory.
Several years later, Whitney also perfected a system of producing muskets with interchangeable parts. Prior to Whitney’s invention, most muskets—and all other goods—had been handmade with parts especially designed for each particular musket. The trigger of one musket, for example, could not be used to replace a broken trigger on another musket. With interchangeable parts, however, all triggers fit the same model of musket, as did all ramrods, all flash pans, all hammers, and all bullets. Manufacturers in many different industries soon took advantage of Whitney’s invention to make a variety of goods with interchangeable parts.