Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Catherine Greene

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Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Heritage Floor; detail), 1974–79. Porcelain with rainbow and gold luster, 48 x 48 x 48 ft. (14.6 x 14.6 x 14.6 m). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography

Catherine Greene
b. 1755, Block Island, Rhode Island; d. 1814, Cumberland Island, Georgia

Catherine Greene was married to the Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene. In 1783, they settled on a plantation in Georgia, where he died three years later of sunstroke. Catherine assumed management of the plantation, Mulberry Grove, and around 1792 took in as a boarder Eli Whitney, who in 1794 patented the cotton gin, a machine for separating cotton from its seeds. There has been a long debate in historical literature on Catherine Greene's role in the invention of the cotton gin. Three scenarios have been proposed: first, that Greene, not Whitney, was the true inventor; second, that she solved a critical problem that paved the way for Whitney's invention; and third, that she made no technical contribution whatsoever. Scenario 1 was first proposed in 1890; modern scholarship almost universally supports scenario 3. What is known is that Greene provided financial backing and a workshop; that she had more experience than Whitney with cotton and the problem to be solved (de-seeding); that Greene had to sell Mulberry Grove to offset the costs of lawsuits arising from patent disputes; and that Whitney paid her royalties on his patent. None of these definitively prove or disprove any of the scenarios. Greene moved to a new plantation on Cumberland Island in Georgia with her second huband and remained there for the rest of her life.

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