Old Savannah Cotton Exchange

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Carlos Latimer as part of his SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2017.

The Old Savannah Cotton Exchange historical marker was dedicated in 1957. View the Old Savannah Cotton Exchange historical marker listing.

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1. The Cotton Exchange Historical Marker, 2017. Courtesy of Carlos Latimer.

2. The Savannah Cotton Exchange Historical Marker Map. Image Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

3. The Cotton Exchange Historical Marker. Image Courtesy of SCAD Jen Library Special Collections.

4. Portrait of Eli Whitney. Image Courtesy of Georgia Encyclopedia.

5. Eli Whitney’s drawing of the cotton gin. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

6. Eli Whitney’s patent of the cotton gin. Image from Wikipedia public domain.

7. The modern cotton gin with brushes by Eli Whitney. Image Courtesy of Aiken County Historical Museum/Google Images.

8. Cotton farming in front of the Cotton Exchange. Image Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

9. Transportation of cotton bags by African slaves. Image Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

10. The Cotton Exchange Historical Marker Building, 2017. Courtesy of Carlos Latimer.

The following essay is by SCAD student Carlos Latimer, 2017.


I chose this topic because when our class made visits to marker sites, I was impressed with this building and its architecture. It reminds me of some buildings in my native city of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, from where I have been away for quite some years.  By looking at the name of the building, Cotton Exchange, I also thought that doing some research about the history of cotton which I did not know much about, would be fascinating and complement the findings.

The Historic Cotton Exchange in Savannah

The Historic Cotton Exchange in Savannah (Figure 3) was built in 1886 and completed in 1887, (Figure 1) when the Savannah-area was known as “the Wall Street of the South.”[i]  The Savannah Cotton Exchange historical marker (Figure 2) illustrates the effect cotton had on the city of Savannah as well as the invention and patent of the cotton gin, originally built by Joseph Watkins and later improved by Eli Whitney (Figure 4). This invention revolutionized, transformed, and modernized the industry and economy of cotton, not only in the southern United States, but in the rest of the world.

Nobody knows who decided to first use the cotton plant to make cloth. Morsels of cotton balls and fragments of cloth made out of cotton, were found by scientists in a cave in Tehuacán Valley, Mexico, dating from approximately 7,000 years ago.[ii] Cotton was first grown, spun, and made into cloth in the Indus River Valley in Pakistan around 3,000 BCE.[iii]  Greeks and Romans used luxury cotton robes made in India and brought by camel caravans. In the Middle Ages, merchants who traveled from Europe to the Middle East brought back stories of a marvelous half-plant, half-lamb creature. As the use of cotton propagated to Europe, cotton became a very important economic commodity.[iv]

Due to cheap labor, almost all cotton sold from the Middle Ages on was made in India. But the economics of cotton would change in 1793, when  Eli Whitney, a native of Connecticut and a graduate of Yale University, came to Savannah, Georgia to spend time at the estate of Mr. Nathaniel Greene. Mr. Greene knew of Mr. Whitney’s interests in inventions and urged him to produce a machine to separate cotton from the seeds. Mr. Joseph Watkins, from a nearby estate, had already invented and patented such a machine and was using it when Mr. Whitney came to visit and saw the device. Mr. Whitney then went back to Greene’s home, made several modifications to Watkins’s machine (Figure 5), and patented his gin in 1793 (Figure 6). Since Mr. Watkins was already a very rich man, he never fought for the patent rights. Eli Whitney appears as the inventor of the cotton gin, but most loyal Georgians know that history is complicated on that matter according to the corroborated evidence of Mr. Watkins’s family letters, which although conserved, are not dated.[v]

Whitney’s  cotton gin removed one of the most laborious parts of processing the cotton, separating the cotton from the seeds (Figure 7). With the new cotton gin making the processing of cotton more efficient, England decided to take part in the cotton business. To compete with the cheap labor found in India, England started to sell very cheap processed cotton with the price subsidized by the government to bring down India’s cotton laborers. This was the basis for Gandhi’s movement, in which his followers burned all clothes made of cotton from England and spun their own clothing from Indian cotton. Eventually, this led to India’s independence from British rule. The economic cotton war between India and England was short-lived, as American-produced cotton became important globally.[vi]

Cotton was first grown in America around the 1700s, and in Georgia in 1764. There were two varieties, the Sea Island Cotton that grew near coasts or rivers, and the Short Staple variety, which could be grown inland. The Short Staple variety was more difficult to separate from the seeds. Although the seed separation ceased to be a problem with the cotton gin, cotton farming was still very labor-intensive, requiring planting, irrigation, and picking (Figure 8). By bringing slaves from Africa to do these jobs, (Figure 9) the colonists were able to sell very cheap cotton and soon America became the largest cotton producer in the world. In turn, Georgia became the largest cotton producer in America, and Savannah became the largest seaport in the Atlantic.[vii] Due to this massive amount of trade, a structure large enough to handle the demands of the cotton industry needed to be constructed in Savannah.

The Savannah Cotton Exchange Building was built by renown Boston architect William G. Preston. Inspired by the unique Romanesque revival works of H.H. Richardson, Preston’s  design was the winner in a competition in which eleven architects participated. The building, originally called King Cotton’s Palace, was built over Factor’s Walk, where cotton traders used to work.[viii] The terra-cotta façade of this magnificent red-brick building was an unusual style for Savannah. By 1920, the building became obsolete due to great damage done to the cotton industry by the boll-weevil.

The Historic Cotton Exchange still serves as a significant part in the identity of the southern culture as a symbol of cotton, and marks the importance of the cotton trade in Savannah’s history.[ix] It is also one of the city’s principle structures and finest remaining examples of the Romantic Revival period in Savannah.[x] Today, visitors can observe a statue of a griffin and landscape fountain encircled by an embellished iron fence with detailed medallions of renowned statesmen.[xi] Presently, the building functions as the  headquarters for Solomon’s Lodge #1, F. & A. M., and is open to visitors (Figure 10).

[i] “Historic Cotton Exchange.” Cotton Exchange. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://www.visit-historic-savannah.com/cotton-exchange.html.

[ii] “History of Cotton.” Wikipedia. April 15, 2017. Accessed May 11, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cotton.

[iii] “The Story of Cotton” History of Cotton. Accessed May 12, 2017. https://www.cotton.org/pubs/cottoncounts/story/.

[iv] “Cotton – a history.” New Internationalist Magazine. April 1, 2007. Accessed May 14, 2017. https://newint.org/features/2007/04/01/history/.

[v] Mildred L. Rutherford, King Cotton: The True History of Cotton and the Cotton Gin. Athens, GA: Mildred L. Rutherford, 1922, 6-11.

[vi] “Cotton – a History.

[vii] “Cotton.”  Economy. Accessed May 12, 2017. http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/topics/economy/article/cotton.

[viii] “Cotton Exchange.” Savannah, Georgia, 2009.Accessed May 14, 2017. https://www.bluffton.edu/homepages/facstaff/sullivanm/georgia/savannah/cottonexchange/preston.html.

[ix] “Cotton – a History.”

[x] “Historic Cotton Exchange.”

[xi] “Historic Cotton Exchange.” Cotton Exchange. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://www.visit-historic-savannah.com/cotton-exchange.html.

“Cotton – a History.” New Internationalist Magazine, April 1, 2007. Accessed May 14, 2017. https://newint.org/features/2007/04/01/history/.

“Cotton Exchange.” Savannah, Georgia, 2009. Bluffton University. Accessed May 14, 2017. https://www.bluffton.edu/homepages/facstaff/sullivanm/georgia/savannah/cottonexchange/preston.html.

“Cotton,” Georgia Info. Accessed May 12, 2017.             http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/topics/economy/article/cotton

“Historic Cotton Exchange,” Visit-Historic-Savannah.com. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://www.visit-historic-savannah.com/cotton-exchange.html.

“History of Cotton.” Wikipedia. April 15, 2017. Accessed May 11, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cotton.

Rutherford, Mildred L. King Cotton: The True History of Cotton and the Cotton Gin. Athens, GA: Mildred L. Rutherford, 1922.

“The Story of Cotton.” National Cotton Council. Accessed May 12, 2017. https://www.cotton.org/pubs/cottoncounts/story/