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Cotton Exchange board.
Cotton Exchange board.

The Cotton Museum

Field review by the editors.

Memphis, Tennessee

Run-of-the-mill cotton enthusiasts wouldn't have been allowed entry into the Cotton Museum when it was still the Memphis Cotton Exchange, a commodities pricing and regulatory organization founded in 1874 (other major cotton cities had their own exchanges). The "Private Members Only" stencils are still on the glass revolving door to the outside world. It was an Old Boys Club, whose members, if photographs and displays in the museum are correct, spent a lot of their working time smoking and playing dominoes.

Cotton and lady's head.

The Exchange became obsolete in the late 1970s thanks to computers. It closed, sat unused for decades, then was restored and opened to the public -- finally -- in 2006.

Pulse of Cotton Pricing

The visual anchor of the old Exchange is its ceiling-high cotton price chalkboard. Underneath, a bank of wooden Western Union phone booths have been reworked into viewing stations for old industrial films about plantation life and oral histories of cotton workers. A dummy listens to a phone in one booth, while above, on the trade board, one dummy reads a stock ticker while another, on a ladder, chalks the latest prices circa May 1939 (The dummies and big board reminded us of the waxy workers at the towering lead wall of the X-10 Atomic Reactor).

Servants and Rulers of Cotton

Cotton Royalty.
Cotton Royalty.

Enemies of cotton.
Enemies of cotton.

Exhibits arrayed around the former trading floor range from a grim set of slavery-era manacles to the peppy "Culture of Cotton" display, which features crowns, gowns, and a cotton bouquet carried by Memphis's annual Cotton Queen. A caricature of the androgynous "King Cotton" sports a bale for a body and a boll for a head, a wacky 20th century style of cartoon royalty.

Real cotton can be seen everywhere in the museum, in field sacks, burlap-wrapped bales, puffy bolls flecked with seeds, and stringy fibers like Halloween spray can cobwebs. A Cotton Timeline notes for posterity the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker and the eradication of the boll weevil. A display of byproducts, always a fun stop in an industry museum, includes examples of cotton's use in salad dressing, LCD screens ("including some of the video stations in this museum"), artificial leather, and rocket fuel.

Cotton Exchange board.

Cotton Bale: Test Your Strength.
Cotton Bale: Test Your Strength.

The "Table of Cotton" next to the bathrooms encourages visitors to try their hands at grading the puffy stuff. We couldn't tell the difference between the Strict Low Middling and the Good Ordinary.

Interact with Cotton

The interactive exhibits really kick in over on the "Exploration Hall" side of the museum. You can push buttons to view cotton bugs and weed pests, see a cotton fiber magnified a gazillion times, and fire a biotechnology "gene gun" to blast DNA into seeds. The Frankenscience continues with a display of molecularly-altered waterproof denim, while next to it the "Change the World One Pair of Jeans at a Time" (TM) exhibit touts the benefits of shredded pants as insulation.

Our favorite participatory display was the low-tech "lift this sack of cotton to get an idea of how hard it was to drag through the fields" challenge, a reminder that most of the subjects of King Cotton never got to enjoy playing dominoes in the Cotton Exchange. Happily, everyone is now welcome to pay a visit. You can even purchase a mini-bale of cotton, wrapped in real burlap, as a souvenir.

The Cotton Museum

65 Union Ave., Memphis, TN
Downtown. Entrance is on the south side of Union Ave. just east of S. Front St.
M-Sa 10-5, Su 12-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $9.00
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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