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catharine littlefield greene, catherine littlefield greene
Courtesy of Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah,
Ga.

This painting of Greene (oil on panel, 32
3/4" x 25 3/4"), dated circa 1809, is
attributed to James Frothingham.

Catharine Littlefield Greene, Brain Behind the Cotton Gin

March 04, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Catharine Littlefield Greene stood out among her Revolutionary War-era counterparts, engaging in political discourse, maintaining friendships with men and generally thinking outside the box. Although Eli Whitney is usually credited with inventing the cotton gin, Greene might actually have come up with the idea.

Catharine Littlefield Greene's Early Days

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Nicknamed “Caty” and “Kitty,” Littlefield was born on Feb. 17, 1755, on Block Island, R.I., to Phebe Ray and John Littlefield. According to UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography, Littlefield’s mother passed away when she was 10 years old, and she was sent to live with her charismatic Aunt Catherine Ray Greene. Littlefield was given an upper class education, and attended her Aunt Catherine’s frequent “social gatherings.” In July 1774, at age 19, Littlefield married Nathanael Greene, who was 14 years her senior.

Notable Accomplishments

When her husband died of “severe sunstroke” in June 1786, Greene was left alone to raise their five children and oversee the family plantation. In 1892, she rented a room out to a Yale College graduate, Eli Whitney, who worked as a handyman around the house. Being from New England, Whitney was unfamiliar with cotton farming, but Greene quickly brought him up to speed. She explained the difficulties of raising green-seed cotton, and is said to have encouraged Whitney to create a machine that could clean the cotton. 

The details of her suggestion are ambiguous, but ultimately led to the invention of the cotton gin. Some say Greene “financed the patent and fabrication” of the machine, but others suggest Whitney partnered with Yale graduate Phineas Miller, “who owned a cotton plantation on Cumberland Island, Georgia.” Women were not allowed to hold patents at the time.

Matilda Joslyn Gage, writing in an 1883 pamphlet entitled “Woman as Inventor,” said the cotton gin “owes its origin to a woman, Catherine Littlefield Green.” Gage goes on to describe Whitney as familiar enough with “the use of tools” to be able to build the machine. Nonetheless, the young man’s first contraption featured inefficient wooden teeth and he nearly quit, but Greene’s suggestion to substitute wire for wood proved successful.

According to The National Archives, Greene’s “support, both moral and financial were critical” to Whitney’s efforts. Whitney faced challenges of his own when he and Miller began charging farmers a fee to use cotton gins, and disgruntled farmers started building their own.

The Rest of the Story

As the New Georgia Encyclopedia explains, Greene eventually remarried, this time to Phineas Miller. They lived at Mulberry Grove, Ga., but their plantation failed and they were forced to sell it. Their next plantation, Dungeness, was successful, and Greene lived there until she died in 1814. She is buried at Dungeness.

As for why Greene did not attempt to patent the cotton gin herself, Gage suggests that doing so “would have exposed her to the ridicule” of friends and “a loss of position in society,” which disapproved of women’s involvement in any "outside industry." 

In a biography of Littlefield Greene, titled “Caty,” authors John and Janet Stegeman and Harvey H. Jackson describe Greene’s close friendships with George and Martha Washington, and with several other men. Her preference for the company of men and her love of political discourse prompted “gossip and near scandal,” but Greene’s life “has importance even beyond the study of women in the years surrounding the Revolution," according to Books-A-Million.
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