Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Cotton Pickin’ Minute

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 14, 2011

On March 11, 2011 Conservative Senator Don Meredith accused Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff of using a racist slur when he uttered the phrase “cotton pickin’ minute.”

Idiomation is providing the history of the phrase here — along with newspaper articles to illustrate the phrase – for those who are wondering how the phrase came about and whether it is a racist slur.

Back on November 17, 2009 on the NBA website, the following was part of the article published to The Optimist page:

I know this is a basketball column, and I’ll get to the Cavaliers fifth straight win in just a cotton-pickin’ minute. But these anemic performances by the Browns cannot stand! Not if we’re going to win the Lombardi Trophy before stuff starts blowing up. I’m so old, I remember when the Browns used to score touchdowns. Several of them – IN A SINGLE GAME!

Glen McAdoo wrote a piece for the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle Standard on July 25, 2005 that was entitled, “Just A Cotton Pickin’ Minute.”  In his piece, he included this bit:

It seems like they are intent on coming up with a new tax, or an increase in an old one, just about every week. Where I was raised folks would be saying, “Now wait just a cotton pickin’ minute. Tell me again why ya’all are doin’ this.”

Back on August 21, 2001 in a Letter to the Editor from Jonathan F Phillips to The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville (TN), Mr. Phillips wrote in part:

Now wait a cotton pickin minute. Tennessee had plenty of tobacco settlement money to fight any and all tobacco ads aimed at children. But where is that tobacco settlement money going?

It would appear that the phrase has been used quite a bit in the past decade alone and in newspapers throughout the southern states no less.  But how far back does that phrase go?

The Lawrence Journal World newspaper ran an advertisement on May 15, 1963 written by Lee of Ramsey’s Decorating Service in Lawrence, KS.  Entitled, “Take A Color Pickin Minute” it began with:

I do not mean a cotton pickin’ minute, I mean a color pickin’ minute.  That’s all it takes to obtain the exact color that is proper for you, your home, and its attractiveness.

And on December 7, 1958 Herbert Jay Vida wrote an article entitled “Notes On My Cuff” for the Los Angeles Times that began:

HOLD IT NOW — Now just hold on for a cotton pickin’ minute.

Back in 1914, The Courier published a story about a 17-year-old teenager named Claude Rice.  The newspaper was mighty proud of the young lad for the following reason:

The world’s record cotton picking has been excelled by a boy named Claude RICE, 17 years old, living at Biggers, Randolph county. The boy was picking on a wager of 1,000 pounds of cotton. He picked 1,193 pounds of cotton in 12 hours and 35 minutes. The first three hours he averaged 120 pounds an hour. In 30 minutes from 4:00 to 4:30 o’clock, he picked 56 pounds. RICE is a member of the boy’s corn club of Randolph County, known as the largest corn club in the United States. John R. KIZER, farm adviser, supervised the contest. The boy sold his cotton at ten cents a pound.

As readers can see, there’s no mention as to Claude Rice’s cultural background.  What we do know is that the teen surely could pick cotton!

Now, back in the day, picking cotton required considerable labour to clean and separate the fibers from the seeds.  The problem with hand picking cotton was that dried bristles off the plant cut and scarred fingers, wrists and arms of those who picked cotton by hand. 

The first attempts at building a functional mechanical cotton picker was patented in the U.S. as early as 1850.  Samuel S. Rembert and Jedidiah Prescott patented a cotton-harvesting machine in Memphis, Tennessee that included this information in the original patent notes:

Our cotton picking machine can be duplicated and extended to such a width as to embrace several rows of cotton at once.

Over the next 100 years, over 1,800 patents were issued in the U.S. for cotton harvesting machines.  With more and more cotton picking machines being bought by landowners, field hands who used to pick cotton found themselves replaced by these new-fangled cotton-picking machines. 

While a skilled field hand could pick 20 pounds of cotton in an hour, a mechanical picker could pick 1,000 pounds in that same hour.  It didn’t take long for owners to realize that a bale of cotton (a bale of cotton weighed 500 pounds) cost them 8 times more to have them picked by hand than if they had them picked by machine.  In other words, a cotton picking minute — on the whole — was definitely more beneficial to owners when done by machine.

By the late 1960s, 96% of cotton crops in the U.S. were done by mechanical cotton picking machines.

But is “cotton picking” an insult? 

The phrase “cotton picking” arose in the southern U.S. states sometime during the 1700s and was used to describe something that was unpleasant or troublesome.  Back then, cotton was a garden crop tended by white as well as black Southerners and the cotton was turned into cloth for home use in much the same that flax was turned into cloth for home use in the North.

Cotton-picking” became part of the vernacular in the U.S. and in time, it was the phrase swapped in for unacceptable comments such as “God-damn” or “damn” when in polite society or if women were present.

The verdict:  Cotton pickin’ minute is not a racial slur but calling someone a cotton picker could be considered an insult.

Related Entry:  “Screw Loose” from March 3, 2011.

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4 Responses to “Cotton Pickin’ Minute”

  1. William said

    Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam both said in some of the older cartoons.

  2. Jeremy Busch said

    I feel the sports quote at the beginning of this article mis-uses the phrase. A cotton pickin’ minute, as a euphemism, it just doesn’t have any meaning there. The author is implying that it is an actual unit of time, not a polite replacement for god damned, which always implies extreme doubt and suspicion.

  3. Interesting! I’ve heard this phrase my whole life and never gave it this much thought. My grandma was real proud of how much cotton she could pick as a girl (daughter of a white sharecropper in Baldwin Co., AL).

  4. Philip Hudson said

    Claude Rice’s having picked 1,193 pounds of cotton in 12 hours and 35 minutes, may or may not be a record. For a better understanding we need the date when this cotton picking was done and other information. Cotton was picked manually two different ways. In earlier times, the cotton gins could only process cotton that was free from burs and stems of the plant. The picker had to be careful so that only the locks of cotton with seeds in them went into his sack. Later the cotton gins were able to gin cotton while mechanically separating the cotton locks from the burrs and stems of the plant. Sometimes the latter hand picking method was called pulling boles, but we just called it cotton picking. Also, to determine whether this was a cotton-picking record, the stage in the process when the cotton was weighed has to be determined. The statement that the boy sold his cotton for ten cents a pound is also not a viable statistic. Cotton pickers were paid for the act of picking. They did not sell the cotton; they sold their labor. Ten cents a pound may be a good price for selling one’s labor, depending on when the picking was done. Cotton is sold after it is cleaned, ginned and baled. Ten cents a pound is much too low a price for cotton now or in the recent past. During the great depression it went for two cents a pound and was left unpicked in the field because that would not pay for the production. In the 1940s and 1950s, when I was engaged in cotton production, baled short staple cotton was about thirty cents a pound and was very profitable for the farmer. When synthetic fabrics came on the marked the cotton market declined greatly. Production is up now but foreign production is high and competition is stiff. The price of ginned and baled cotton today is from 60 to 70 cents a pound and is marginally profitable. Consider the impact of inflation and the 1950s price of cotton would be about $4.00 per pound. I would not think of investing in cotton production at the present time. The return on investment is much too low. If Mr. Rice picked cotton free from burrs and stems his record is good but not exceptional. This would mean he picked a little over a bale of cotton, which is 500 pounds after the seeds are extracted. My father routinely picked a bale of cotton a day from his fourteenth year onward. I’m sure he did better than Mr. Rice. If Mr. Rice was picking cotton with burrs and stems attached, his is no record at all. Most manual pickers of cotton with burrs and stems included exceeded his record. It takes over 1,500 pounds of burr cotton to make a bale and many people could pick a bale of burr cotton a day. I myself escaped the rigors of cotton picking. When I began working cotton as a lad, we had a large crew of hand pickers, thirty or forty, and I was kept busy supervising the workers transportation and ice water, weighing the cotton, and taking the cotton to the gin. During cotton-picking season, I typically slept in my bed only on Saturday night. The rest of the time I was managing the workers, driving to and from the gin, and waiting at the gin for my truck to be “ginned off. I slept on the cotton while it was waiting to be ginned.

    Until key questions are answered, Claude Rice’s reported record cotton picking is impossible to confirm.

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