Catherine Littlefield (aka Caty) had an unconventional mind. For one thing, at dinner parties she liked to quiz the men at the table about politics and debate issues with them. This was suspicious behavior in the 1770’s. Some of her female friends thought she was fast. They needn’t have worried though. Caty’s interest in the local menfolk was strictly intellectual - that is, except for Nathaniel Greene. He was a keeper. Caty set her cap to marry him and raise a brood of children as the wife of a wealthy Rhode Island gentleman. The American war for independence put a crimp in her plans. The Greenes had been married less than a year before dashing husband Nathaniel went dashing off to fight. He was destined for greatness and so was she (though for a completely different reason).
Nathaniel became a major general in Washington’s army. A bona fide hero by the time the conflict was over. Throughout the war, Caty tried to maintain a semblance of normal family life by visiting her husband in camp and towing the kids along whenever she could. This wasn’t easy to do considering how long he was stationed way down south in Dixie. Of course, she was also managing the family property up north single-handedly in between bouts of birthing.
Once the war ended, Caty was thrilled at the thought that she could finally kick back and let Nathaniel make all the hard decisions. This proved not to be a good idea. Nathaniel’s business acumen was inversely proportional to his military genius. During the war, he’d had a bit of trouble obtaining supplies for his men and mortgaged his property to foot the bill. The speculator he’d employed to purchase fleece and rations, fleeced him and before you could say “Chapter 11,” the Greenes were in hock up to their eyeballs to the irate merchants of Charleston.
After the war was over, there was nothing to do but pull up stakes and move south to a plantation on the Savannah River which the grateful state of Georgia had given Nathaniel for military services rendered. The couple worked like dogs to make a go of it until Nat inconveniently died of sunstroke. Caty was left to raise five children alone and so she donned the pantaloons in the family and got on with it.
To her credit, she didn’t complain. She experimented with growing cotton instead of rice which is the point at which destiny came knocking at her door. Her employees (aka slaves) found picking the seeds out of cotton to be a laborious and time-consuming process. One person could only clean about a pound of cotton per day making the little puff balls an unlikely cash crop. The employees on the plantation suggested various alternatives to cleaning cotton by hand.
Caty took their ideas seriously and put on her thinking cap. What if one could design a machine to clean the seeds from the cotton? Hmmm. Enter a down-at-the-heels Yale graduate who was tutoring her neighbor’s kids and was looking for a place to crash. He said he was good with tools. His name was Eli Whitney. Caty gave him a workshop on her property and immediately set him the task of assembling a machine according to her specifications. It was called a cotton gin, not because it distilled cotton bolls into liquor but because gin is short for “engine”.
Eli gave it his best shot. He toiled in his workshop for hours on end but no matter what he tried, the dratted thing wouldn’t work. He was ready to throw in the towel and go back to tutoring brats for a living when his benefactress stopped by to check on his progress.
“So how’s it going?” she asked.
“Not so good.” He sighed and wilted over his workbench.
With intense concentration, Caty studied the contraption he’d built. She puzzled over it for a full half a minute before saying, “I think you need to use metal teeth instead of wooden ones to comb the cotton. Give that a try.”
He gave it a try and the rest, as they say, is history. Eli Whitney applied for a patent for the first cotton gin in 1793 and the industrial revolution was born. School children all over America are taught that Whitney invented the cotton gin though as feminist Matilda Joselyn Gage would sniff a hundred years later, “the cotton gin owes its origin to a woman.”
So why didn’t Caty get the credit? The Patent Act of 1790 would have given her the legal right to take out a patent in her own name but the social stigma of doing so would have been unbearable. She would have been shunned by her social set and kicked off the A-list for all important functions for the rest of her life. Everybody already thought she was fast because she liked to chat about politics but this would have been too much. Consequently, Eli Whitney became the front man so that the brains of the operation could hold her head up proudly in polite circles and say, “I’ve never had an original thought in my entire life. I swear to God, not one!”
Ultimately, the humble seed comber made cotton king in the south. It could clean one and a half tons of the stuff per day. For the first time, the fabric became cheap and affordable for everybody. No more did people surreptitiously stitch their own underwear by candlelight in basements across America. They could go to the store and purchase unmentionables in broad daylight. In fact, they could purchase more than a single pair! People became distinctly less crabby now that their breeches were no longer made of chafing fabrics like flax, linen and wool. So the next time you slip on your Fruit Of The Looms, breathe a silent word of thanks to the woman who made it all possible. Hats off (or maybe it should be pants off) to Caty Greene.