Road Trip Through History: Memphis and Cotton

Memphis Cotton Exchange


Our first stop on the Great River Road was Memphis–a long day’s drive from Chicago.

As we drove into town, My Own True Love and I were still discussing whether we wanted to go to Graceland. Everyone we talked to said it was worth it–even people who weren’t rabid Elvis fans. But we planned to spend only two days in Memphis. We had other things we knew we wanted to see.* We continued to weigh the pros and cons as we worked our way through downtown Memphis toward our hotel and Beale Street. Then a sign caught my eye: Cotton Museum. Graceland was toast.

The Cotton Museum is located in the former home of the Memphis cotton exchange, once a center of the global cotton trade.** The museum is set up to reflect the exchange in the 1930s–complete with giant chalk boards listing cotton prices, “markers” who changed the prices on the board as quickly as new info arrived, a Western Union office, a row of telephones, and a cluster of fedora-wearing men making deals. The cotton exchange was an all-male enclave–the first woman to pass its doors was a Farm Security Administration photographer, Marion Post Wolcott. (According to our docent, the men who were there that day grumbled about it for the rest of their lives.) When the exchange officially closed for the day, they settled in to drink bourbon, smoke cigars, and play cut-throat games of dominoes. (Yes, dominoes. I do not make this stuff up.)

The museum was a fascinating combination of the natural history of cotton, the social history of cotton farming from slavery to mechanization (later than you think), the business of cotton, “king cotton” festivals in Memphis, and the relationship of cotton to American music. (When you’re in Memphis, music is never far from the discussion. )The physical exhibits are interesting, but the heart of the museum is a series of videos, including a recreation of the operation of the floor in 1939 based on Wolcott’s photos and starring current members of the Memphis cotton exchange, which still operates in modern offices upstairs. Some of my takeaways:

  • That fluffy white cotton boll is preceded by a short-lived beautiful pink flower, similar to hibiscus, to which cotton is in fact related.
  • The gin in cotton gin is short for engine.
  • Cotton is “classed” by color, length of the fibers and cleanliness. During the heyday of the exchange, classing was done on the top floor on the buildings on Front Street, known as “Cotton Row”, under north facing skylights. It could only be classed in full sunlight.
  • Holding a seat on the cotton exchange wasn’t cheap: $17,000 in 1939 (roughly $230,000 in today’s money). Cotton merchants were Memphis’ elite.

This was not our last look at cotton. Stayed tuned.


*Does it tell you everything you need to know about the depths of our nerdiness that we were uncertain about Graceland but determined to go to the Ornamental Metal Museum?

**Surprised? Me, too.

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