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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Joyska Nunez-Medina
Tennessee became a state in 1796. At this time, the world was seeing big changes. The changes from the late 1700s to the early 1900s are known as the Industrial Revolution. New technologies changed how people lived and worked. Different ways of making items helped people make money. New types of transportation allowed people to move around those items and travel to new places faster. Below are a few things that were important to the growth of Tennessee during the Industrial Revolution.
Even before becoming a state, people were moving into Tennessee. They built homes and started businesses. There were people who made things with iron (blacksmiths), who made leather (tanners), and many other things for their community. A very popular business in early Tennessee was the gristmill. A gristmill was a machine that made flour using the flow of a river to rotate a giant wheel that moved gears around. These gears attached to large round stones. The stones crushed the grain into flour that people used to make food. (Watch how it works!)
Figure 1 Gristmill millstones. This is what the large round stones look like. When inside the machine, the bottom stone stays still and the top stone rotates. The movement crushes the grain. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
A gristmill could make many types of flour, like cornmeal or wheat flour. There were mills for only one family and larger ones for the whole community. Settlers built some of the earliest gristmills in East Tennessee. Some mills even made flour up until the modern day, like the St. John Mill in Watauga, Tennessee. Jeremiah Dungan built the original mill in 1778. His descendants continued the business until they shut it down in 2011. It was the oldest business in Tennessee, making flour for 233 years. That’s older than the White House!
View of St. John Mill in 1973, with the creek used to power the gristmill. Photo courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places.
Cotton Gin and Plantation Spinners
When you think of cotton, you probably think of cheap items like cotton balls or t-shirts. Cotton is a cheap material today because of the new and improved farming and fabric technologies from the late 1700s.
When picking cotton from the plant, there is a tough seed inside that was tricky to get out. There were many hand tools to help get the seed out, but everything changed with a new invention. Eli Whitney, an inventor and businessperson from Massachusetts, invented the cotton gin. The cotton gin was a machine that used rotating cylinders with sharp teeth to pull the cotton from the seeds. The gin made the process of working with cotton go much faster and need less people. (Watch how it works!)
Figure 3 Hugh Joyner model of a plantation spinner. This machine combined the jobs of the cotton gin and the spinning jenny. Photo courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum. (5.5.1)
One of the major selling points for these machines was that it only needed one person to work the machine. According to the salesperson, this saved time for families and lowered the need for enslaved people. But sadly, the opposite happened. With these new machines, the growing of cotton increased in Tennessee and so did the population of enslaved people to work the land.Many people made their own changes to Whitney’s popular machine. While living in Nashville, John McBride got a patent for a different type of cotton gin. McBride’s design combined the cotton gin with another invention, the spinning jenny. A spinning jenny stretched out the cotton, spinning it into thread for sewing. He called the machine a Columbian Spinster. Others call this type of machine a plantation spinner. The design became very popular in the south and it also inspired others to make more changes. For example, Hugh Joyner of Hendersonville, Tennessee made his own plantation spinner design using cast iron instead of wood.
Technologies like the gristmill, cotton gin, and plantation spinner allowed people to do more work more easily during the early years of Tennessee being a state. Inventors like Hugh Joyner kept making changes to make them work better. Some of these machines worked until the modern day, like St. John Mill. In remembering our past we see how we made it here today.
Industrial Revolution- a time of change from the late 1700s to the early 1900s when new technologies and ideas changed how people lived and worked.
Gristmill- a machine that made flour using the flow of rivers to move gears that attached to large round stones. The stones crushed the grain into a powder that the owners used to make food or sell.
Cotton gin- a machine that used rotating cylinders with sharp teeth to pull the cotton from the seeds. The gin made the process of working with cotton go much faster.
Patent- a patent is a document that gives rights to the inventor to sell or make their invention for a certain number of years.
Spinning jenny- a machine that stretched out cotton, spinning it into thread for sewing.
Plantation spinner- any machine that combined the tasks of the cotton gin and the spinning jenny.
Cast iron- a very hard, dark brown or grey metal that is now most often used for cooking pans.
How long did the oldest business in Tennessee run?
Who is remembered for inventing the cotton gin?
In the photo of the Hugh Joyner plantation spinner, what do you think the six poles in the front do?
Why do you think there were so many different versions of machines to work with cotton?
Farming in the early 1800s- Tennessee4Me
Industry in the early 1800s- Tennessee4Me
Plantation spinner at the Henry Ford Museum
Tennessee State Social Studies Standard:
4.20 Analyze the impact of the American Industrial Revolution, including the significance of:
Watermills (influence of geography)
Robert Fulton (steamboats)
Samuel Slater (factory system)
Eli Whitney (cotton gin)
Joyska Nunez-Medina is a Community Engagement Assistant at the Tennessee State Museum.