Retrospect: Alabama’s Daniel Pratt and his early cotton gins

Prattville namesake Daniel Pratt made his name in cotton gins.

Interior of Continental Gin Co. in Prattville. Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By the time Daniel Pratt’s portrait appeared in an 1851 magazine, he had already been an Alabama businessman for two decades. His tireless work establishing himself as a leading producer of cotton gins — as well as the town and other businesses he built around that industry — earned him entry into influential journalist James De Bow’s “Gallery of Industry and Enterprise.” The portrait accompanying the article depicted Pratt in his early 50s, at the height of his influence, clean-shaven and serious, with deeply set eyes and hints of graying hair framing his face. In the decades before the Civil War, cotton was king in Alabama. Daniel Pratt helped build the throne. 

Few inventions did more to change the landscape of Alabama than the cotton gin. Created by Eli Whitney, the device used a series of iron pins and rotating brushes inside a cylinder to quickly remove cotton seeds so the fibers could be spun into thread. Two workers using a gin could clean as much cotton as 100 laborers by hand. The machine transformed the global cotton economy. Within a generation, the fleecy white staple accounted for half of American exports. The expansion of the cotton economy fueled the westward flow of American settlement, which in 1817 led to the creation of the Alabama Territory, along with the furtherance of the institution of slavery.  

New Hampshire’s Daniel Pratt (1799 – 1873) became a gin manufacturer by way of an architectural apprenticeship. In 1819, 20-year-old Pratt sailed for Georgia, where he built homes, and later boats, for the state’s planter class. His ingenuity and drive caught the attention of prominent gin manufacturer Samuel Griswold. In 1831, Griswold hired Pratt to oversee his Georgia factory. Within a year, he made Pratt his partner. The men talked of expanding into neighboring, cotton-rich Alabama. But after initially approving of the endeavor, the older, more cautious Griswold reneged. 

Portrait of Daniel Pratt.

Daniel Pratt came to Alabama anyway, bringing along his wife, two enslaved men and six wagonloads of material to construct 50 cotton gins. From 1833 until 1835, he leased existing gins in and around Wetumpka. There he honed his craft and would eventually create and patent an improvement upon Whitney’s original gin design. All the while, Pratt searched for land. In the spring of 1835, he purchased 1,800 acres along Autauga Creek from Joseph May for $21,000. The transaction netted May a tidy profit. He had purchased the marshland, described as unfit for development, at the U.S. Land Office a decade earlier for less than $2,500. Pratt’s purchase price was divided into four installments, the first two payable in cotton gins. 

Pratt saw in this new acreage what others did not. River access meant water-powered equipment. The large stands of yellow pine were raw materials. The uninhabitable marshland could be drained and cultivated. For four years, Pratt divided his time between managing his leased gin nearby and overseeing the improvements to his land. When his lease expired in 1839, Pratt moved his operation to the new site. More than a mere manufacturing warehouse, it included a blacksmith shop, sawmill and homes for his laborers. Prattville was born.  

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In 1840, the restless industrialist formed the Daniel Pratt Gin Co. in partnership with his brothers-in-law and Amos Smith, the gin factory’s superintendent. In its founding year, the company had 40 workers, two-thirds of whom were enslaved laborers. Like many antebellum southern manufacturers, Pratt often leased people held in human bondage to supplement his workforce, paying an annual fee to the owners. (Pratt himself purchased at least two dozen enslaved men and women from 1834 until 1845.) The workforce continued to grow apace with demand. During the first three years of operation, the new company sold an average of 500 gins each year. 

Pratt employed a small army of traveling commission merchants to market his gins throughout the southland. In 1844, he opened a warehouse and showroom in the crucial cotton port of New Orleans. Closer to home, he completed a series of infrastructure improvements near Prattville. He purchased a landing along the Alabama River and built an expensive plank road connecting it to the gin company. At the same time, he diversified his business offerings, constructing a grist mill, a shingle plant, carriage factory, foundry and a tin mill. By 1850, Daniel Pratt presided over a sprawling complex of 185 workers who produced an array of products worth nearly $200,000. James De Bow told his readers that no place in Alabama was better “adapted to manufacturing purposes as Prattville.” 

In the early 1850s, Pratt built an expansive three-story, brick facility along the bank of Autauga Creek for his gin factory and lucrative textile mill. A large waterwheel powered the structure’s machinery. Inside, each gin was built, tested and prepared for shipment. So great was the quality of the craftsmanship of Pratt’s gins that an 1857 observer wrote that the pieces better resembled parlor furniture than farm equipment. 

Despite a global recession in the late 1850s, Pratt’s new facility reached full production by 1860, making 1,500 gins valued at nearly $300,000. By that time, the Pratt Gin Co. was the world’s leading cotton gin manufacturer, producing 28% of the machines in use throughout the South and 25% nationwide, with buyers in Mexico, Great Britain, France and Russia. Pratt fixed his gross income that year at half a million dollars.  

By 1860, Prattville was an established town, which boasted two schools, a library, an art gallery, several churches and a growing number of well-appointed homes for the town’s workforce. Although the outbreak of war the following year would hamper some of the town’s burgeoning enterprises, most would return to form by the end of the decade, an exhibition of their founder’s reputation. Shortly before it was acquired by the Continental Gin Co., the Prattville business published a catalog of its products. The caption beneath an engraving of Daniel Pratt’s original gin design serves as a simple, apt summary, calling the machine “too well known by the ginning public to need detailed description.” 

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This appeared originally in the May 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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