I have been unsatisfied with how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s footnote on George Harris’s “machine for the cleaning of hemp” has been annotated in editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Generally, editors annotate only Whitney’s cotton gin, the well-known antecedent to which George Harris’s supposed hemp-cleaning machine is compared, which oddly emphasizes explaining what everyone is supposed to know, Whitney’s gin, rather than what no one does, the unknown real-life counterpart to George Harris’s fictional invention. The unknown fact, the hemp-cleaning machine that is a parallel to Whitney’s invention and why that former might matter are the interesting parts–and will be the subject of this post. Editors who annotate for scholars and students assume first that we today do not know about Whitney’s invention, and some speculate about rumors that cotton gin was not solely Whitney’s invention. Below are several examples:
- “In 1793, the American manufacturer Eli Whitney (1765-1825) patented the cotton gin, a machine that separated cotton from its seeds. There were persistent rumors in Stowe’s time that this cotton-gin was actually the invention of a slave or was based on a slave’s idea. Slaves, however, could not patent their own inventions by law” (Ammons, ed. UTC, 1st ed.  10 n3; 2nd ed.  10-11 n3).
- “Eli Whitney (1765-1825) in 1793 patented the cotton gin, which mechanically separated cotton from its seeds.” (Yellin, ed. UTC  521).
- “Eli Whitney patented the cotton-gin, a machine that removes the seeds from cotton, in 1793” (Railton, ed, UTC,  53 n10).
- “In 1794, Eli Whitney (1765-1825) patented the cotton gin–a machine used to separate cotton from its seeds–but there were rumors during Stowe’s lifetime that the invention was actually that of a slave” (Diller, ed. UTC,  58 n1).
All four basically agree on the cotton gin information: excluding slight difference about patent date (gin invented and patent applied for in 1793, Whitney was granted the patent in 1794, though the term for the patent began in 1793); both Diller and Ammons note that contemporary rumor held Whitney’s gin to have been invented by an enslaved person, though they disagree about how “persistent” such rumors were. Ammons supplements with another historical fact, that humans legally designated as property could not own intellectual property. Ammons, Yellin, Railton, nor Diller supply sources for information in their annotation, so we’ll just have to trust that Ammons based her information on an unknown source. Yellin, Railton, and Diller presumably trusted Ammons.
But no one has provided annotation for the parts of Stowe’s footnote that would matter more, neither of the “young colored man in Kentucky” to whom Stowe attributes the non-fiction counterpart to George Harris’s invention, the mechanically advanced method for cleaning hemp, nor the reason why such a machine would be considered especially significant, comparable even to Whitney’s gin. Therefore, in order to annotate more usefully, I’ve tried to determine whether antebellum rumor attributed the invention of such a machine to an an African American man (enslaved or free), why a hemp cleaning machine would register as significant–a latter-day cotton gin–for Stowe’s antebellum audience (as note seems to imply), and what a hemp-cleaning machine was supposed to do and how.
I begin with the final, what a hemp-cleaning machine was supposed to do and how it was done. To my surprise, though I guess I should not be surprised, there is a scholarly monograph that covers a lot about the topic, James F. Hopkins’s A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky (U of Kentucky, 1951). As Hopkins explains, in reference to antebellum period, “hemp was a crop of considerable importance to the farmers and manufacturers of Kentucky. The price of the fiber was undependable, but during the period under consideration it was usually high enough to encourage production, which reached its greatest height around 1850” (68). Coincidentally, I remind you, Stowe’s novel written right around top hemp prices. That is, the presence of a bagging factory in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is no throw-away fact.
In his chapter, Hopkins over six pages describes what the process of cleaning hemp consists and the general method for doing so during the period, both by machine and by hand brake, obviously with more detail than is necessary for an annotation of Stowe’s work. One basic thing to be understood is that unlike with cotton, where seeds must be separated from the fibers, with hemp it is the woody stalks that must be removed so the longer and thicker fibers can be used for rope or twine: the remaining tow (refuse fibers, from short broken strands down to lint) would serve for bagging or cloth. To “clean” hemp is to separate the stringy fibers from the woody core, a process that followed the water-rotting of the stalks, either in a body of water or from snow or rain and dew in the fields.
In Kentucky, George’s machine would have automated the breaking and cleaning, generally performed with a portable hand brake, a process described as “monotonous and fatiguing, requiring considerable strength and skill on the part of the laborer” (Hopkins 61). Presumably, the design of George’s machine would either have consisted of a spinning conical shaft or vibrating and fluted rollers (58-59). George may also have designed an automated version of the hand brake, which consisted of smashing the stems between two pairs of wooden slats and then striking the fibrous mass against a stake or with a wooden paddle to knock the shattered wooden remnants free. (58). Below is a picture, which illustrates a hand-brake in use during the 1940s.
That is back-breaking, dusty labor, a far cry from
…the mildest form of the system of slavery is to be seen in the State of Kentucky. The general prevalence of agricultural pursuits of a quiet and gradual nature, not requiring those periodic seasons of hurry and pressure that are called for in the business of more southern districts ….
Side note: No, it ain’t that. Maybe crushing hemp stalks with a hand brake did not quite compare to sugar cane processing, but that was some evil work. And still was evil work when picture above taken in the 1940s: don’t forget that a lot did not change between the 1840s and 1940s. The past ain’t past.
But on to the potential cultural significance of mechanizing the hemp-cleaning process when Stowe was writing her chapter in 1851. I think it’s helpful to consider this under two headings, comparable mechanical genius to a patented invention, Stowe’s emphasis, and the potential significance of each invention (cotton gin and hemp cleaning machine) for antebellum slavery and for American national pride.
Before either we need to understand hemp and its cultural significance in 1851. Midwestern farmers had difficulty supplying premium hemp, used for shipping, so premium hemp was typically imported from Russia: Riga hemp designates the quality stuff, named after the port in Latvia from which it originates. It’s an earlier Russia scandal. That domestic shipping and the U.S. navy continued to rely on foreign-sourced hemp was a sore spot in the antebellum midwest, a source for chauvinist complaint in newspapers. But Kentucky’s warmer weather (relative to Latvia) was a problem. Rotting hemp fibers in standing water produced a fetid smell, killed fish, and rendered the water unusable for livestock, so Midwestern farmers preferred dew-rotting and field-cleaning (as pictured above), a difficult-to-control process. In consequence, the fibers from field-processed Kentucky hemp had a higher ratio of tow to string. Bagging was used for purposes like to bag raw agricultural products, which your upscale coffee shop may flaunt in a decorative display of bagged beans–and poor people wore bagging as clothing. If you know this material, it’s probably by the name burlap.
To return to cultural significance–of Whitney’s gin and the proposed hemp-cleaning automation–as we gathered from annotations above, Eli Whitney at mid-century was celebrated as the famed American inventor of the cotton gin as well as automating fire-arm manufacture; his gin patent is for arguably most culturally significant early American industrial machine. Whitney’s gin rendered hand combing to remove cotton seeds obsolete and was both credited with spurring cotton production and, in anti-slavery discourse, blamed for spreading slavery, both results tied to how Whitney’s gin had increased dramatically the profitability of short-staple, also known as green-seed, cotton, which could be grown in upland areas so that cotton cultivation no longer restricted to flat coastland.
Why the invention of a hemp-cleaning machine mattered is less known. Kentucky hemp growers and processors were displeased that imported Riga hemp received a much higher price than Kentucky hemp. Because water-rotted, Riga hemp had longer fibers, which made it stronger and better suited for rope in shipping. The desired invention is an industrial process by which Kentucky hemp would qualify as premium stuff for shipping applications, instead of lesser-grade hemp for bagging. For a taste of this ongoing concern see sample articles in midwestern newspapers and magazines. Those are just samples: search Chronicling America for “hemp” between 1845 and 1850, and there are many articles.
Stowe added this footnote for the first edition: it is not present in the Era serial. But from antebellum print sources I cannot substantiate Stowe’s rumor that a hemp-cleaning machine was invented by a black man from Kentucky–or that such a rumor had currency. There is reason to doubt that such a rumor had wide purchase: antislavery thinkers were critical of the cotton gin, an innovation associated with the domestic expansion of slavery. In a Congressional speech that Frederick Douglass reprinted in his newspaper (admittedly a bit later, 1854), Gerritt Smith, for example, argued that Whitney’s invention “came into operation and fastened Slavery upon our country.” Enslaved persons were of course denied the ability to own intellectual property like inventions, but it seems unlikely that an African American in the antebellum period would want credit for a machine were it projected to have a similar influence as Whitney’s, expanding the attractiveness of slavery in the hemp-growing regions of the Midwest as the gin had for cotton-growing regions in the south.
Since Stowe declines to document the footnote claim about the hemp-cleaning machine in her Key (1853), her invocation of a black counterpart to Whitney may have another purpose, to hint at southern perfidy. Denying George Harris the fruit of his labor has in Whitney a well-known parallel: in defiance of his patent, the Yankee inventor’s design was pirated widely, and southern courts declined to recognize patent infringement of similar designs.
In sum, I cannot confirm Ammons’s annotation claims that antebellum rumor held that “the cotton-gin was actually the invention of a slave or was based on a slave’s idea.” The attempts to recover the history of black inventors appears to have begun in earnest in the early 20th century, though rumor may date earlier. However, I have found no citation evidence for antebellum observations about Whitney’s debt to enslaved mechanics or laborers, though it stands to reason that during his brief months among Georgia planters he would have observed the cotton cleaning process as practiced by enslaved black women. I do not hold that no one in antebellum period was capable of imagining a black inventor/mechanic’s contribution–and certainly Whitney’s gin derived in part from hand tools used by African American women to clean short-staple cotton–but that such a rumor was in print during Stowe’s day I cannot confirm. Several free-born African Americans applied for and received patents in the antebellum period, but rumors that Whitney’s invention was aided by Francis Littlefield Greene or by forgotten black informants emerged into print during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when activist historians strived to recover undocumented achievements under the systematic oppression regimes that denied freedom and opportunity during the antebellum period.
Without further documentation, my current take on the evidence is that Stowe’s claimed rumor is the writer’s invention, a rhetorical flourish, which is not to deny that such a rumor could have been in currency when Stowe lived in Cincinnati, that it could have origins in African American oral culture, and that it may hint at the contributions of African Americans to Whitney’s gin design. More likely, Stowe’s jibe was intended to be politically inflammatory, but it seems that she missed her mark: other parts of her work were so inflammatory–such as that Tom was a Christ figure–that arcane debates about a hemp-cleaning innovation comparable to Whitney’s cotton gin seems to not have registered as particularly significant.
The underexplored counter-current here is that were a hemp-cleaning machine invented, the hemp industry in Kentucky had the potential to encourage the expansion of slavery into the upper midwest–just as Whitney’s invention had encouraged cotton production and led to expansion of slavery in south. To antislavery thinkers, this was a fault, not a feature. It seems impossible that an antislavery thinker in Stowe’s day could miss that implication, though the annotation our present editions does acknowledge that argument by implicit parallel, when discussing cotton-gin rumor. On the other hand, if the machine were invented by a black man, his inventiveness would (in 19th century antislavery terms) be considered a credit to his race. I guess Stowe’s possible point is that slaveholders were so cruel and stupid that they failed to grasp their own opportunity to profit from the inventiveness of better-treated chattel: as an antislavery argument it’s a crappy one, but not one particularly egregious for Stowe. After all, she also argued at end of novel for voluntary emigration to Liberia and that free African Americans on Shelby plantation would be better off and outright prefer staying in benevolent semi-enslavement under their reformed capitalist landlord.
 See “Patent for Cotton Gin (1794),” https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=14
 See pages 58-63 on Google Books if you’re interested. (Of course, cast your skeptical eye on his account of the pleasures with which enslaved persons are said to have performed these tasks.) Hopkins, History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, (1951) 61.
 R. Deering. “Hints to Young Growers.” The radical. (Bowling Green [Mo.), 16 Sept. 1843. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016922/1843-09-16/ed-1/seq-3/. G. W. W. “Hemp.” The Radical. (Bowling Green [Mo.), 26 Aug. 1843. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016922/1843-08-26/ed-1/seq-1/.
 Negro Year Book: An Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro. Vol. 5, Negro Year Book Publishing Company, 1914. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=CcMKAAAAIAAJ.
 I can be proven wrong, but I’m no slouch when it comes to this type of research. I checked every database to which I have access: APS Online, Chronicling America, Gale Historical Newspapers, ReadEx Early American Newspapers, Accessible Archives, NCCO, Google Books, etc.
 The earliest claim that a woman, slaveowner Catherine Littlefield Greene (1755-1814), “originated the idea” for which Whitney merely provided a mechanical model dates to post-Civil War suffrage movement. See Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman as Inventor. Vol. 1, New York State Woman Suffrage Association, 1870. Open WorldCat, http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/dl/ww/002225818. See page 3-7.