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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Gibb Sahib The Advent and Development of Chanties (875* d) RE: The Advent and Development of Chanties 15 Aug 15


re: Cotton-screwing

I paid a visit to Galveston, Texas this summer to do some research on cotton-screwing. The reason for Galveston is that it seems the knowledge of cotton-screwing as a phenomenon is most alive there, as one might say, in the "cultural memory." For comparison, I also paid a (second) visit to the port of Mobile, and there it seems the local historians are hardly aware of it. Perhaps it is best known in Galveston because, in the last quarter of the 19th century, Galveston became the leading port of cotton export.

Unfortunately, Galveston's cotton-screwing enterprise seems to intersect little with the early history of chanties. We can surely imagine that chanty singing was practiced there, however the histories of cotton-screwing in that port are silent on it. (Well, I do have one reference from the early 1920s that refers to Black chanty-singing cotton screwers in Galveston, but that's it.) Nonetheless, and though the situation in Galveston was quite different from other ports (I'm thinking especially in relation to the ethnic composition of cotton-screwers), there was a little information to be had about the logistics of this type of labor.

As a point of reference, when cotton was screwed in Savannah in the 1810s -- see the journal of Capt. Carr a few posts above (which I also examined in Columbia, SC this summer)-- the work was done completely by enslaved African-Americans. Galveston as a port, of course, did not develop until significantly later: the late 1830s. The harbor was less than ideal. Until 1874, cargo had to be lightered out to ships. It also had to be brought into Galveston by rail, rather than down river as in Mobile and New Orleans. Before 1838, Texas cotton was actually brought to New Orleans.

It seems the cotton stowing work had hardly started by the time the Civil War upset it. However, after the War, the business grew back up to and then far exceeded pre-War cotton output. Again, this later (post-War) history is not very helpful to the study of chanties. Still, it is interesting to note what went on.

Allen Taylor wrote a M.A. thesis for UT Austin on this period (post-War until the decisive end of cotton-screwing), "A History of the Screwmen's Benevolent Association from 1866 to 1924", 1968. Taylor interviewed at least one retired screwman, along with some other people in the business.

What makes the scene very different is that White cotton-screwers formed a union right after the War, excluding the recently freed Black laborers. Black men were excluded from cotton-screwing in Galveston until 1882, and even after that a lot on conflict meant that Black cotton-screwers did not become "significant" in the workforce (after forming two unions of their own) until around 1900 -- the time when cotton-screwing itself was in major decline. Black cotton-screwers were only able to get some leverage in the late 19th century due to a labor shortage; some men were recruited from New Orleans. Galveston paid higher wages. The 4 regular screwers in a gang made about $6 a day, whereas the foreman (5th member, who arranged for the labor through local stevedore agents) made $7.

Each gang carried a pair of jackscrews. The screws weighed about 200 pounds. They were about 3 1/2 feet long, and the screw extended a further 2 1/2 feet. Along with the screws they had other tools, including a stout metal rod called a "dolley." This came into use when needing to sneak in more cotton bales after screwing one. That is, after screwing in a bale, in the space that was gained by the extension of the screw, one needed to insert another bale…without releasing the pressure. This was very tricky business, and the trick of it (in addition to the strength required) is what made cotton-screwing a specialized labor. Taylor describes the process of screwing in his thesis, but I must admit that it is difficult to follow. Several posts, the dolley, and the second jackscrew were needed to be employed, as certain angles, to make it all happen. The second screw in the pair was called the "tuming screw." Yes, tuming -- I suppose related to "tumid," swollen.

Screwing cotton resulted in a gain of 10-15%. Because having cotton screwed (i.e. rather than just placing the bales in there by hand) required more time and expense (to pay the screwmen), this margin was rather tight. Ultimately it was profitable to screw cotton, but the gains were precarious -- and ultimately became negligible as technology progressed.

3-4 gangs were assigned to work each hold. A small vessel might have 9 gangs working at a time, whereas the very large vessels (later) might have 25 gangs.

A transition to steel hulled steamships occurred in the 1880s. This was one of the big technological changes. Earlier, smaller vessels might ship out 1500 bales, whereas later ships could take 20,000.

The real death knell to cotton-screwing was the perfection of a high-density cotton press, by 1900. Up until WWI, there were still some "standard" bales (older level of compression) produced, and cotton stowing was still used for those, here and there. But eventually all bales were "high-density bales." These bales meant 1/3 more cotton could be stowed, and while at first the screwmen tried to screw them, eventually they realized there was no point to it. So, it only made sense to hand-stow (no screw), and the cotton-screwing profession became obsolete.

A few publications I encountered in Galveston used the photo we have seen (Charlie posted), from the New York Public Library. Here, for example, is from the city of Galveston's website:
http://www.galveston.com/juneteenthcottonjammerspark/
Incidentally, I went to look for the site of the Cotton Jammers' Park (this was the Black screwmens' union), exploring on foot, only to discover that this place, once a spot of community functions of Black screwmen, had long been built over with homes.

A brochure in the Galveston and Texas History center, from around 1915, also includes the photo, allowing us to estimate its date between 1900-1915.

Each cotton bale weighed about 500 pounds.


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