Ad in Sumter Banner by William Ellison for "Improved Cotton Gins," December 1848
Skilled artisans who made and repaired cotton gins and other agricultural equipment were a common feature in many communities of antebellum South Carolina. While some enslaved craftsmen and mechanics did this type of work, this was also a business for white laborers and even free persons of color. The 1860 census, however, listed only 21 fulltime gin makers in the state. The above newspaper advertisements shed light on the business of making and repairing cotton gins during the mid-nineteenth century. The ad, “Improved Cotton Gins,” comes from William Ellison of Stateburg, a successful cotton gin maker, as well as planter, slaveholder, and free person of color.
Ellison’s remarkable story began in 1790, as a child born into slavery in Fairfield District. At the time of his birth, the South Carolina backcountry was still very much a frontier society. His father was likely a white man (either Robert or William Ellison), who was among those early cotton farmers that helped transform the backcountry into a plantation society. Around 1802, he became an apprentice to a nearby gin maker in Winnsboro, helping construct cotton gins for planters in the region. In 1816, at the age of 26, he purchased his freedom, and he legally changed his name from April to William in 1820. Changing his name was an important step, since “April” was considered a slave name. William Ellison, as a free person of color and entrepreneur, set up his own successful gin shop in Stateburg.
“Improved Cotton Gins,” Sumter Banner, 13 December 1848. Newspapers on Microfilm, Published Materials Division. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.
IMPROVED COTTON GINS
Thankful for past favors, the subscriber wishes to inform the public, that he still Manufactures Cotton Gins at his establishment in Stateburg on the most improved and approved plan, of the most simple construction, of the finest finish, and of the best materials to wit: Steel Saws and steel plated Ribs, case hardened, in which he will sell for Two Dollars per Saw. He also repairs old Gins and puts them in complete order, at the shortest notice. All orders for Gins will be promptly and punctually attended to.
Stateburg, May 1, 1848
Standard 3-4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the events that led to the Civil War, the course of the War and Reconstruction, and South Carolina’s role in these events.
Indicator 3-4.1 Compare the conditions of daily life for various classes of people in South Carolina, including the elite, the middle class, the lower class, the independent farmers, and the free and enslaved African Americans. (H, E)
Indicator 3-4.2 Summarize state leaders’ defense of the institution of slavery prior to the Civil War, including reference to conditions in South Carolina, the invention of the cotton gin, subsequent expansion of slavery, and economic dependence on slavery. (H, E, P)
Indicator 3-4.7 Summarize the effects of Reconstruction in South Carolina, including the development of public education, racial advancements and tensions, and economic changes. (H, E, P)
Standard 4-6: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the Civil War and its impact on America.
Indicator 4-6.1 Compare characteristics of the regions of the North and South prior to the Civil War, including agrarian versus industrialist economies, geographic differences and boundaries, and ways of life. (G, E, H)
Standard 7-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of political, social, and economic upheavals that occurred throughout the world during the age of revolution, from 1770 through 1848.
Indicator 7-3.5 Explain the impact of the new technology that emerged during the Industrial Revolution, including changes that promoted the industrialization of textile production in England and the impact of interchangeable parts and mass production. (E, H)
Standard 8-2: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the American Revolution—the beginnings of the new American nation and South Carolina’s part in the development of that nation.
Indicator 8-2.4 Explain the economic and political tensions between the people of the Upcountry and Lowcountry, including economic struggles of both groups following the American Revolution, their disagreement over representation in the General Assembly and the location of the new capital city, and the transformation of the state’s economy that was caused by the production of cotton and convinced Lowcountry men to share power with Upcountry men. (H, G, P, E)
Standard 8-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the American Civil War—its causes and effects and the major events that occurred during that time.
Indicator 8-3.1 Explain the importance of agriculture in antebellum South Carolina including plantation life, slavery, and the impact of the cotton gin. (H, G, E)
Standard USHC-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the westward movement and the resulting regional conflicts that took place in America in the nineteenth century.
Indicator USHC-3.3 Compare economic development in different regions of the country during the early 19th century, including agriculture in the South, industry and finance in the North, and the development of new resources in the West. (E, H)