Cotton History

Figure 1.--Here we see children sitting in a cotton wagon in Keiser, Mississippi County, Arkansas. The photo was taken about 1940. Their father or fathers was probably a share croper.

Given the economic and social importance of cotton as a raw material, it is not surprising that cotton has played an important role in history in both the ancient and modern worlds. Cotton fabric has been used since ancient times and the development of cotton agriculture was an important step in the advance of civilization among ancient civilizations. It did not play a major role in European history until the technical developments which led to the industrial revolution, a critical development in the making of the modern world and the rise of the West. Cotton also played a central role in the economic development of the United States, leading to both the expansion of slavery and financing the industrialization of the United States.


Cotton fabric has been used since ancient times and the development of cotton agriculture was an important step in the advance of civilization among ancient civilizations. The original habitat of cotton is unknown. It is a plant that occurred naturally in both the Old World and rhe New World. One source reports that cotton was grown in the Indus Valley of modern India and Pakistan as early as 3,000 BC, but was almost ceratinly grown much earlier. Litle information is available, largely because of the great river valley civilizations, the least is known about the Indus Valley people. Another source suggests that cotton was domesticated about 1500 BC in three different locations: the Indus Valley, Ethiopia, and Peru. [Yafa] It seems likely that the Indus River and Ethiopian developments were related. The domestication of cotton in Peru would have had to have been an independent development. Cotton was also cultivated in ancient China and Egypt.

Medieval Europe

Cotton was virtually unknown in Medieval Euroope until the Crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. The exposure of the Crusaders to luxuruy goods like silk and cotton, fueled European demand. Trade route to India, howevrer, were controlled by the Arabs and this cotton was enormously expensive in Europe. The Poruguese and Spanish voyages of discovery in the 15th century were primarily organized to establish direct trade contacts with the East.


Cotton did not prove to be an immediate success, especially in norther Europe. Here climate was a factor. Another problem with cotton was that it was difficult to dye. Cotton gabric would very quily fade with washing. The Indians had figured out how to do this. It involved anamilzing the fabric, soaking it in solutions such as urine. [Yafa] As trade expanded with India, brightly colored Indian cotton fabric became enormously popular in Europe. European fashions except for the very rich had been rather drab until about 1700. This began to change as Indian cottons began to enter the European markets in quantities. The English acquired the technology for dyeing. The next step to compete with the fabric from India was how to produce it more cheaply. There was no way of under-cutting the Indians with cheaper labor. Thus the only option was to develop new more efficent mechanical process. This lead directly to the most significant development of modern times--the Industrial Revolution. And cotton was at the center of it.

Colonial America

Cotton was grown in pre-colonial America, although I am unsure to waht extent it was actually cultured. Cotton was one of the plants brought to America by the orgiginal English settlers that founded the Jamestown colony in 1607. Cotton was grown in tbe southern states. It was not, however, the mainstay of southern agriculture. Th problm was the seeds. They wre vefy time consuming to remove. This greatly increased the cost of produving it, maning there was little profit in doing so. This only changed when Eli Whitney inventd the cotton gin (1793). One reason that slavery did not blow up the Constitutional Convention was that slavery was seen to be a dying institution and southerners would giv it up because of its inherent inefficency. Whiney's cotton gin changed this. Cotton production soon became an immensly profitable crop. Thisas in part because the cotton gin reduced producion coasts. And because at the same time, the Industrial Recolution had begin in Britain, creating aremendous demand for raw cotton.

Industrial Revolution

Cotton also played a major role in the Industrial Revolution that has so changed modern life. No development in modern history has affected individuals more than the Industrial Revolution and the manufacture of textiles played a key role. Historians debate just where and when the Industrail Revolution began. We would set it at about the mid-18th century in the English Midlands. The first industry affected was the textile or clothing industry--one reason that the study of the clothing industry is so important. It was at this time that workers instead of weaving piece work at home, began to work in factories. Here cotton manufacture became especially important and it was the first industry to be fully mechanized. [Ashworth, pp. 7-8.] Several inventions at this time were responsible, including the spinning jenny, flying shuttle, and a water-powered loom. This was soon followed by the key invention of our time which served as a catalyst for industrial expansion--the steam engine. John Newcomen and James Watt developed the steam engine. The spread of the Industrail Revolution to the Continent generally followed the ame pattern as in Britain with the mechanization and inroduction of the factory system first in cotton mills. [Ashworth, p. 12.]

Slavery in the American South

Cotton is today the most widely used natural fiber in the manufacture of clothing. It has a number of qualities making it ideal for making textiles and clothing. It is a natural vegetable fiber--the most important textile raw material. This was not the case in the 18th century. The reason the shift to cotton occurred was technical advances in first manufactuing textiles and second in the production of raw cotton. Cotton played a major role in the Industrial Revolution that has so changed modern life. The first industrial machines designed for mass production were developed to manufacture cotton textiles. This created a demand for raw cotton. American slavery was declining in importance in the late 18th century. Many even in the South thought that it would eventually disappear as was happening in the North. The Industrial Revolution, however, led to Ely Whitney's cotton gin. Suddenly there was way of supplying the European demand for cotton. The resulting efficiences changed the economies of cotton cultivation. New plantations were founded on King Cotton as Southern planters moved west into Alabama and Mississpi and eventually Texas. Huge profits could be made in cotton. But it was a labor-intensive crop. This meant that large plantations and slave labor were the most effecient production system. A very subsrantial proprtion of American slaves were employed in the production of this single crop. Cotton became the orimary American export commodity, in effect financing America's early industrial development. The revitalization of the South's slave-based economy began a process that was to lead inexorably to Civil War. Cotton today continues to be the most important natural textile, still widely used in the production of clothing.

American Industrailization

After the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney, cotton production rapidly increased and became a leading factor in the drive west. New states were founded in the southeastern United States, all with economies based on the cultivation of cotton on large plantations using slave labor. This domination of the southern economy became known as "King Cotton". The United States rapidly became the principal source of cotton in the 19th century. The export of cotton rapidly became the principal Americam export commodity. These export earnings provided the financing for the American industrial revolution, which primarily occurred in the Northern states. It can be argued that it was the toil of unpaid slaves in the American South that financed the beginning steps toward the industrialization of the United States. The manufacture of cottons goods was one of the principal early American industries. [Ashworth, p. 25.] High tariffs incouraged the purchase of American-produced goods. Southerns objected to these tariffs, preferring to produce cheaper and often hifger-quality foreign goods.

English Cotton Famine

The production of cotton textiles had been transformed by the Industrial Revolution--especially in England. Until the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861), cotton mills in Lancashire were obtaining 85 percent of their raw cotton from the United States. The Federal naval strategy in the War was to blockade the South and deprive its agricultural economy of needed manufactured imports and proceedes from exports sales of cotton. This blockade by October 1861 had begun to affect Lancashire mills. The mills exhaused their stocks of cotton and workers had to be discahrged or put on part time. The Federal blockadecby 1862 was extremely effective and little American cotton reached England. There was extreme distress and hunger among the English mill workers. Nearly 0.5 million people in Lancashire received relief to prevent starvation. Cotton prices skyrocketed from 7 pence per pound in 1861 to 31 pence in 1864. As the Federal firces began to seize cotton growing areas of the Condereracy in 1863, some American cotton began to reach England, but it was not until the end of the War in 1865 that shipments began to reach normal levels. The Federal blockade generated support for the Confederacy, primarily among mill workers and artistocratic elements that still resented the American Revolution and Republican Government. Among the mill workers themselves forced to endure great suffering, hatred for slavery was so wide spread that there was no great public outcry for Britain to support the Confederacy, a step that would have had enormously political consequences for America, Britain, and the entire world. Britain with the Royal Navy certainly could have broken the Federal blockade.

Share Cropping

Sharecropping is an agricultural system which developed in the Southern states during the Civil War. It was a farm tenancy system in which families worked a farm or section of land in return for a share of the crop rather than wages. Sharecropping replaced the plantation system destroyed by the Civil War. The victorious Federal authorities which occupied the South did not seize plantations, but empancipation meant that the owners no longer had a captive labor force. The former planters, even those activly engged in rebellion, for the most part still had their land, but no slaves or money to pay wages. The former slaves on the other hand did not have jobs or land and because they had been denied education, had few options. Sharecropping developed because the former slaves and planters needed each other. The principal crop continued to be cotton. And the planters under the sharecropping system contnued to a large degree to control the lives of the blacks working their land. While the system at first developed to obtain black labor, eventually poor whites also entered the sharecropping system. The system varied, but in many cases all the cropper brouht to the arrangement was his labor. The planter provided the land, but also commonly animals, equipment, seeds and other items. The land owners also commonly advanced credits for the family's living expences until the crop was harvested. The system was open to considerable abuse because the cropers were uneducated, commonly iliterate. Akmost all slaves in the Deep South following the Civil War would have been illiterate. It was illegal to teach slaves to read. By the 20th century black and white cropers would have had some minimal education, but iliteracy was still high. The land owner marketed the crop and kept all accounts. He charged interests on cash advances, often quite high interest. He also commonly operated a store where the cropers had to make their purchases. The normal arrangement was that the the croper got half the proceeds from the harvest. The landowner then deducted cash advances which because of high interest and dishonest accounting commonly left the croper very little. The system continued into the Depression of the 1930s. School portraits from the rural South during the late 19th and early 20th century will often include cropers children. Many did not go very far in school. (The Southern states commonly had very weak compulsory school attendance laws.) The children commonly were barefoot. During the 20th century many wore overalls. After World War II, migrtion to the North, farm mechanization, education, other employment options, and the Civil Rights movement brought the system to an end.

Modern Producers

The Unkited States continues to be a major world cotton producer. The two most important producers are India and China. Harrvests vary and in some years India is the leading producer ' India is the major producer, with harvests about twice that of the United States--5.7 million tons (2015-16). Cotton has been grown in India for millenia, first noted along with the Inus Valley civilization. The climate in northern India is particularly favorable for cotton. China harvested somewhat less, 4.8 million tons. China has some 7,500 textile companies, which produce US $73 billion of cotton textiles annually. Cotton cultivation requires moderate rainfall which causes substantial annual fluctuations. And to protect the crop, there is a huge usage of pesticides and fertilizers with few environmental restrictions. The other major producers re the United States (2.8 million tons), Pakistan (1.5 million tons), and Brazil (1.3 million tons). The Soviet Union was a major producer, but did enormous enviromntal damage in Central Asia. Uzbeckistan and Turkmenistan continue to be important producers. Turkey is the most important producer in the Middle East. Egypt was once very important. The most important Africn producer is Burkina. Australia is the only important producer in Oceania.


Ashworth, William. A Short Histiory of the International Economy Since 1850 (Longman Paperback: London, 1977), 318p.

Yafa, Stephen. Big Cotton.


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Created: 5:49 AM 4/23/2006
Last updated: 4:26 PM 1/28/2017