National Geographic : 1941 Feb
Cotton: Foremost Fiber of the World Not only name, but all semblance of its fibrous and seedy self is lost when cotton enters linoleum, phonograph records, roofing pitch, radio tuning knobs, artificial leather, and auto upholstery. Wall Street of lint, or raw cotton finance is Front Street, in Memphis, a major inland cotton market of the world. The Memphis Exchange trades in "spot cotton" but not in "futures" as do the New York and New Orleans Exchanges, with their mysteries of "hedging" and "straddling" (page 178). Here cotton bales are bought and sold for immediate delivery, yet you could spend days in downtown Memphis and never see a bale of cotton. No longer do packets race the river with every cranny of deck space piled top-heavy with bales (page 144). No longer are these bales hauled up the levees by singing darkies on two-mule tandem drags and stacked in the middle of cobblestoned streets. The only baled cotton you see on Front Street now are the "snakes" made up from the waste swept from sample rooms and sold for manufacture into mops, kitchen rugs, and bath mats (Plate XXI). Buying and Selling Cotton Unseen Long rooms, sun-lighted by sloping panes facing north, like mammoth photographic studios, open off Front Street at sidewalk level. Inside you see men pulling tufts of cotton between thumbs and forefingers all day long (page 179). They pull, then judge and bid on the basis of the fiber length, whiteness, and cleanness of the samples. Others wait outside until the bargaining is concluded; it isn't good form for the sec ond buyer to enter unless the first buyer invites him in. Buyers, brokers, even bankers, go about the streets in long cotton dusters. In hotel dining rooms and club lounges you see tufts of cotton clinging to business suits. Looking at the ferrule-like objects in men's vest pockets, I asked, "Why does everyone here carry a slide rule?" "Those aren't slide rules," my companion laughed. "They are pocket brushes. As you go around you will notice whisk brooms tied to our best mahogany desks." "A clothesbrush couchant and two fists rampant pulling at tufts of cotton ought to be the industry's coat-of-arms," an old-timer chimed in. There was more truth than mere joking in what he said. King Cotton has its aris tocracy here, and throughout the South. There is a subtle distinction about being "in cotton" in Dixie-from planter and millowner to sampler and quotation runner. "Is your boy going into business or into cotton?" I heard one factor ask another whose son was about to graduate from a famed school of business administration. Buying cotton sight unseen is characteristic of an industry wherein, from gin to mill to manufacturer, the financial right hand and the bulky commodity left hand make their sepa rate gestures. After his cotton is ginned the grower gets a warehouse receipt. This receipt literally is "good as gold" at banks and stores. Some Bales Become Antiques Back of every receipt, somewhere, is a bale of cotton. But the bales go one way, the receipts another, and the twain may not meet again until years later a mill starts spinning the cotton. Most warehouses are bonded, and the receipts are printed on safety paper like that used in checks. Because the receipts circulate freely as col lateral it is not unusual to find bales five, ten, or even fifteen years old in warehouses. In 1938 a firm at Fayetteville, Georgia, bought two bales ginned in 1891. One bale of this cotton weighed exactly what it did when ginned; the other had lost only three pounds. Experts declared the fibers had deteriorated in no way. There was only one difference be tween the 49-year-old cotton and that ginned in Georgia today-the staple was seven eighths of an inch, whereas the average to day is about one inch. Years of careful breeding, seed selection, im proved cultivation, and hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone into adding that aver age one-eighth of an inch. "Why did you keep these bales nearly half a century?" the seller was asked. "I always have used my barn as a bank," he explained. "When I needed money I just hauled some cotton to town." The cotton did not change, but its current price varied widely over its nearly twoscore and ten years. The day it was ginned in 1891 it would have brought 1212 cents a pound. Only two years later the owner did sell other bales for 4/ cents. In 1918 it would have brought 45 cents. The Fayetteville bales are not the oldest known. One from Harris County, Georgia, was first exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 as "the oldest in the world." It was picked in 1870 by a negro sharecropper and turned over to the plantation owner "in part payment on a mule."