World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

History of cotton

Article Id: WHEBN0032166885
Reproduction Date:

Title: History of cotton  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Cotton, History of agriculture, India, Taşköprü (Adana), Outline of the American Civil War
Collection: Articles Containing Video Clips, Cotton, History of Agriculture
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

History of cotton

The history of cotton can be traced back to domestication, possibly as far back as 4500 BC. Cotton played an important role in the history of the British Empire, the United States, and India, and continues to be an important crop and commodity.

The history of the domestication of cotton is very complex and is not known exactly.[1] Several isolated civilizations in both the Old and New World independently domesticated and converted cotton into fabric. All the same tools were invented, including combs, bows, hand spindles, and primitive looms.[2]:11–13 The oldest cotton textiles were found in graves and city ruins of civilizations from dry climates, where the fabrics did not decay completely.[3] Some of the oldest cotton bolls were discovered in a cave in Tehuacán Valley, Mexico, and were dated to approximately 5500 BCE, but more recent estimates have put the age of these bolls at approximately 3600 BCE. Seeds and cordage dating to about 450BCE have been found in Peru. There is reliable genetic evidence that cotton originated in Peru. At the source of any plant—in this case wild cotton, the genetic variability is enormously greater and one area of wild cotton in Peru constitutes a "smoking gun.".[1][4] The Indus Valley civilization started cultivating cotton by 5th or 4th century BCE. By 3000 BCE cotton was being grown and processed in Mexico, and Arizona. Pre-Incan cotton grave cloths were found in Huaca Prieta in Peru, and date back to 2500 BCE, and cotton was mentioned in Hindu hymns in 1500 BCE.[5]

Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, mentions Indian cotton in the 5th century BCE as "a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep." When Alexander the Great invaded India, his troops started wearing cotton clothes that were more comfortable than their previous woolen ones.[6] Strabo, another Greek historian, mentioned the vividness of Indian fabrics, and Aryan told of Indian–Arab trade of cotton fabrics in 130 CE.[7] Egyptians grew and spun cotton from 6–700 CE.[5]

In the 8th century the Muslim conquest of Spain expanded the European cotton trade. By the 15th century, Venice, Antwerp, and Haarlem were important ports for cotton trade, and the sale and transportation of cotton fabrics had become very profitable.[6]


  • Middle Ages and the Modern Era 1
  • British Empire 2
  • United States of America 3
    • Pre–Civil War 3.1
    • Civil War 3.2
  • Modern history 4
    • Boll weevils 4.1
    • Africa and India 4.2
    • Decline in the British cotton industry 4.3
    • Economy 4.4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7

Middle Ages and the Modern Era

Cotton was a common fabric during the Middle Ages, and was hand-woven on a loom. Cotton manufacture was introduced to Europe during the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily. The knowledge of cotton weaving was spread to northern Italy in the 12th century, when Sicily was conquered by the Normans, and consequently to the rest of Europe. The spinning wheel, introduced to Europe circa 1350, improved the speed of cotton spinning.[8]

Christopher Columbus, in his explorations of the Bahamas and Cuba, found natives wearing cotton ("the costliest and handsomest... cotton mantles and sleeveless shirts embroidered and painted in different designs and colours"), a fact that may have contributed to his incorrect belief that he had landed on the coast of India.[2]:11–13

Cotton cloth started to become highly sought-after for the European urban markets during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, opened Asian sea trade, which replaced caravans and allowed for heavier cargo. Indian craftspeople had long protected the secret of how to create colourful patterns. However, some converted to Christianity and their secret was revealed by a French Catholic priest, Father Coeurdoux. He revealed the process of creating the fabrics in France, which assisted the European textile industry.[9]

British Empire

Cotton's rise to global importance came about as a result of the cultural transformation of Europe and Britain's trading empire.[7] Calico and chintz, types of cotton fabrics, became popular in Europe, and by 1664 the East India Company was importing a quarter of a million pieces into Britain.[9] By the 18th century, the middle class had become more concerned with cleanliness and fashion, and there was a demand for easily washable and colourful fabric. Wool continued to dominate the European markets, but cotton prints were introduced to Britain by the East India Company in the 1690s.[7] Imports of calicoes, cheap cotton fabrics from Kozhikode, then known as Calicut, in India, found a mass market among the poor. By 1721 these calicoes threatened British manufacturers, and Parliament passed the Calico Act that banned calicoes for clothing or domestic purposes. In 1774 the act was repealed with the invention of machines that allowed for British manufacturers to compete with Eastern fabrics.

A spinning jenny, originally invented by James Hargreaves

Cotton's versatility allowed it to be combined with linen and be made into velvet. It was cheaper than silk and could be imprinted more easily than wool, allowing for patterned dresses for women. It became the standard fashion and, because of its price, was accessible to the general public. New inventions in the 1770s—such as the spinning jenny, the water frame, and the spinning mule—made the British Midlands into a very profitable manufacturing centre. In 1794–1796, British cotton goods accounted for 15.6% of Britain's exports, and in 1804–1806 grew to 42.3%.[7]

The British commercial empire grew the cotton industry enormously. British cotton products were successful in European markets, constituting 40.5% of exports in 1784–1786. Britain's success was also due to its trade with its own colonies, whose settlers maintained British identities, and thus, fashions. With the growth of the cotton industry, manufacturers had to find new sources of raw cotton, and cultivation was expanded to West India.[7] High tariffs against Indian textile workshops, British power in India through the East India Company,[9] and British restrictions on Indian cotton imports[10] transformed India from the source of textiles to a source of raw cotton.[9] Cultivation was also attempted in the Caribbean and West Africa, but these attempts failed due to bad weather and poor soil. The Indian subcontinent was looked to as a possible source of raw cotton, but intra-imperial conflicts and economic rivalries prevented the area from producing the necessary supply.[7]

The Lancashire textile mills were major parts of the British industrial revolution. Their workers had poor working conditions: low wages, child labour, and 18-hour work days. Richard Arkwright created a textile empire by building a factory system powered by water, which was occasionally raided by the Luddites, weavers put out of business by the mechanization of textile production. In the 1790s, James Watt's steam power was applied to textile production, and by 1839 200,000 children worked in Manchester's cotton mills. Karl Marx, who frequently visited Lancashire, may have been influenced by the conditions of workers in these mills in writing Das Kapital.[9]

United States of America

Pre–Civil War

Eli Whitney's patent for the cotton gin

Anglo-French warfare in the early 1790s restricted access to continental Europe, causing the United States to become an important—and temporarily the largest—consumer for British cotton goods.[7] In 1791, U.S. cotton production was small, at only 900,000 kilograms. Several factors contributed to the growth of the cotton industry in the U.S.: the increasing British demand; the popularity of wearing a cotton flower to symbolize support of the new nation, innovations in spinning, weaving, and steam power; inexpensive land; and a slave labour force.[11] The cotton gin, invented in 1793 by Eli Whitney, enormously grew the American cotton industry, which was previously limited by the speed of manual removal of seeds from the fibre,[12] and helped cotton to surpass tobacco as the primary cash crop of the South.[13] By 1801 the annual production of cotton had reached over 22 million kilograms, and by the early 1830s the United States produced the majority of the world's cotton. Cotton also exceeded the value of all other United States exports combined.[11] The need for fertile land conducive to its cultivation lead to the expansion of slavery in the United States and an early 19th-century land rush known as Alabama Fever.[14][15]

Cultivation of cotton using slaves brought huge profits to the owners of large plantations, making them some of the wealthiest men in the U.S. prior to the Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Slaves were the most important asset in cotton cultivation, and their sale brought profits to slaveowners outside of cotton-cultivating areas. Thus, the cotton industry contributed significantly to the Southern upper class's support of slavery.[11]

Civil War

"King Cotton", a phrase used by Southern politicians and authors before the Civil War, verbalized their belief that an independent Confederacy would be economically successful, as well as assuring the South's victory if secession from the Union led to war, because of Britain's reliance on the fibre. Senator James Henry Hammond said in 1858:[13]

Without the firing of a gun, without drawing a sword, should they [Northerners] make war upon us [Southerners], we could bring the whole world to our feet. What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?... England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her. No, you dare not make war on cotton! No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King.

Cotton diplomacy, the idea that cotton would cause Britain and France to intervene in the Civil War, was unsuccessful.[16] It was thought that the Civil War caused the Lancashire Cotton Famine, a period between 1861–1865 of depression in the British cotton industry, by blocking off American raw cotton. Some, however, suggest that the Cotton Famine was mostly due to overproduction and price inflation caused by an expectation of future shortage.[17]

Picking cotton in Oklahoma in the 1890s

Prior to the Civil War, Lancashire companies issued surveys to find new cotton-growing countries if the Civil War were to occur and reduce American exports. India was deemed to be the country capable of growing the necessary amounts. Indeed, it helped fill the gap during the war, making up only 31% of British cotton imports in 1861, but 90% in 1862 and 67% in 1864.[18]

Additionally, the main purchasers of cotton, Britain and France, began to turn to Egyptian cotton. The Egyptian government of Viceroy Isma'il took out substantial loans from European bankers and stock exchanges. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, British and French traders abandoned Egyptian cotton and returned to cheap American exports, sending Egypt into a deficit spiral that led to the country declaring bankruptcy in 1876, a key factor behind Egypt's occupation by the British Empire in 1882.

The South continued to be a one-crop economy until the 20th century, when the New Deal and World War II encouraged diversification.[13] Many ex-slaves as well as poor whites worked in the share-cropping system in serf-like conditions.

Modern history

Boll weevils

A boll weevil

Boll weevils, insects that entered the United States from Mexico in 1892, created 100 years of problems for the U.S. cotton industry. Many consider the boll weevil almost as important as the Civil War as an agent of change in the South, forcing economic and social changes. In total, the boll weevil is estimated to have caused $22 billion in damages. In the late 1950s, the U.S. cotton industry faced economic problems, and eradication of the boll weevil was prioritized. The Agricultural Research Service built the Boll Weevil Research Laboratory, which came up with detection traps and pheromone lures. The program was successful, and pesticide use reduced significantly while the boll weevil was eradicated in some areas.[19]

Africa and India

After the Cotton Famine, the European textile industry looked to new sources of raw cotton. The African colonies of West Africa and Mozambique provided a cheap supply. Taxes and extra-market means again discouraged local textile production. Working conditions were brutal, especially in the Congo, Angola, and Mozambique. Several revolts occurred, and a cotton black market created a local textile industry. In recent history, United States agricultural subsidies have depressed world prices, making it difficult for African farmers to compete.[9]

India's cotton industry struggled in the late 19th century because of unmechanized production and American dominance of raw cotton export. India, ceasing to be a major exporter of cotton goods, became the largest importer of British cotton textiles.[20] Mohandas Gandhi believed that cotton was closely tied to Indian self-determination. In the 1920s he launched the Khadi Movement, a massive boycott of British cotton goods. He urged Indians to use simple homespun cotton textiles, khadi. Cotton became an important symbol in Indian independence. During World War II, shortages created a high demand for khadi, and 16 million yards of cloth were produced in nine months. The British Raj declared khadi subversive; damaging to the British imperial rule. Confiscation, burning of stocks, and jailing of workers resulted, which intensified resistance.[2]:309–311 In the second half of the 20th century, a downturn in the European cotton industry led to a resurgence of the Indian cotton industry. India began to mechanize and was able to compete in the world market.[20]

Decline in the British cotton industry

British textile mills in 1913

In 1912, the British cotton industry was at its peak, producing eight billion yards of cloth. In World War I, cotton couldn't be exported to foreign markets, and some countries built their own factories, particularly Japan. By 1933 Japan introduced 24-hour cotton production and became the world's largest cotton manufacturer. Demand for British cotton slumped, and during the interwar period 345,000 workers left the industry and 800 mills closed.

India's boycott of British cotton products devastated Lancashire, and in Blackburn 74 mills closed in under four years.

In World War II, the British cotton industry saw an upturn and an increase in workers, with Lancashire mills being tasked with creating parachutes and uniforms for the war.

In the 1950s and '60s, many workers came from the Indian sub-continent and were encouraged to look for work in Lancashire. An increase in the work force allowed mill owners to introduce third (night) shifts. This resurgence in the textile industry did not last long, and by 1958, Britain had become a net importer of cotton cloth.

Modernization of the industry was attempted in 1959 with the Cotton Industry Act.

Mill closures occurred in Lancashire, and it was failing to compete with foreign industry. During the 1960s and '70s, a mill closed in Lancashire almost once a week. By the 1980s, the textile industry of North West Britain had almost disappeared.[21]


Distribution of the world cotton fibre production, according to a 2007 New Internationalist article[22]

Textile mills have moved from Western Europe to, more recently, lower-wage areas. Industrial production is currently mostly located in countries like India,

  • "Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber" by Stephen Yafa, Publisher: Penguin USA, ISBN 978-0143037224, ISBN 0143037226
  • "Empire of Cotton: A Global History" by Sven Beckert, Publisher: Knopf, ISBN 978-0375414145

Further reading

  1. ^ a b Huckell, Lisa W. (1993). "Plant Remains from the Pinaleño Cotton Cache, Arizona". Kiva, the Journal of Southwest Anthropology and History 59 (2): 148–149. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Yafa, Stephen (2005). Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber. Penguin Group. 
  3. ^ Harry Bates Brown and Jacob Osborn Ware (1958). Cotton (third ed.). McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. p. 1. 
  4. ^ Lecture by Dr. Fryxell, of the Department of Agriculture and Texas A&M University, 1980.
  5. ^ a b Roche, Julian (1994). The International Cotton Trade. Cambridge, England: Woodhead Publishing Ltd. p. 5. 
  6. ^ a b Volti, Rudi (1999). "cotton". The Facts On File Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Society. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Schoen, Brian (2009). The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War. Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 26–31. 
  8. ^ Backer, Patricia. "Technology in the Middle Ages". History of Technology. Retrieved 12 June 2011. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g "Cotton – a history". New Internationalist 399. 1 April 2007. 
  10. ^ Collingridge, Vanessa. "Gandhi in Britain". BBC – Radio 4 Making History. Retrieved 13 June 2011. 
  11. ^ a b c Oyangen, Knut. "The Cotton Economy of the Old South". American Agricultural History Primer. Retrieved 12 June 2011. 
  12. ^ "cotton gin". Encyclopædia Britannica. 
  13. ^ a b c "King Cotton". Encyclopædia Britannica. 
  14. ^ LeeAnna Keith (13 October 2011). "Alabama Fever". Encyclopedia of Alabama. Auburn University. Retrieved 22 September 2012. 
  15. ^ Thomas W. Oliver (15 August 2007). "King Cotton in Alabama: A Brief History". Alabama Heritage. University of Alabama, et al. Retrieved 22 September 2012. 
  16. ^ "The Civil War Era (1850–1877)". Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. History: Government and Politics. 2008. 
  17. ^ Brady, Eugene A. (1963). "A Reconsideration of the Lancashire "Cotton Famine"". Agricultural History 37 (3): 156–157. 
  18. ^ Logan, Frenise A. (1958). "India—Britain's Substitute for American Cotton, 1861–1865". The Journal of Southern History 24 (4): 472–476.  
  19. ^ "We Don't Cotton to Boll Weevil 'Round Here Anymore". Agricultural Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 14 June 2011. 
  20. ^ a b "Cotton – history". Plant Cultures. Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Retrieved 13 June 2011. 
  21. ^ "Boom to Bust – The Decline of the Cotton Industry". Nation on Film.  
  22. ^ a b "The Cotton Chain – The Facts". New Internationalist 399. 1 April 2007. 
  23. ^ "Fair Trade Cotton Market". United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Retrieved 14 June 2011. 


See also


The demand for cotton has doubled since the 1980s. The main producer of cotton fibre is now China, at 24%, past the United States at 19% and India at 13%. In 2005/2006, China manufactured 7.15 million tons of textiles, more than double that of India at 3.1 million tons. The leading cotton exporter is the United States, whose production continues to increase due to government subsidies, estimated at $14 billion between 1995 and 2003. The value of cotton lint has been decreasing for sixty years, and the value of cotton has decreased by 50% in 1997–2007. The global textile and clothing industry employs 23.6 million workers, of which 75% are women.[22]


This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.