In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cotton

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works

Atlantic History Cotton
Beverly Lemire
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0158


Cotton is one of the catalyst commodities in world history. This fiber was at the center of manufacturing and international trade in pre-modern times, and it became the first industrialized commodity by 1800, with mills and factories spreading from Britain to America and then to all parts of the world by the 20th century. Cotton factories and cotton clothing came to epitomize modernizing societies. This singular history sparked intensive study, yielding a wealth of scholarship on different regions and themes. The Indian subcontinent was the birthplace of the first important cotton culture. Unique Indian technologies of spinning, weaving, dyeing, and printing were developed, resulting in myriad varieties of cloth suited to markets around the world from ancient times onwards. These fabrics became an important medium for design, with products devised for many cultures, animating a dynamic international trading system. After 1500, following European direct contact with India, cotton textiles became increasingly accepted in Western regions, growing in popularity over the 1600s. Dutch and English trading companies followed Portuguese merchants into Asia after 1600, and growing cargoes of cottons returned to European ports. Western consumers of almost every rank embraced the fashion and utility of these fabrics, and designs were modified in India to suit European tastes, even while other world markets continued to be supplied by Indian textiles. By the late 1600s, tensions arose in Europe because of the success of these imports, and many European nations banned Indian cottons outright, in part for this reason. Legislators aimed to protect local textile manufacturing from foreign competition. Most of Europe still lived under regimes of sumptuary regulation that legislated non-elite consumer behavior. Indian textiles disrupted old cultural systems and challenged local textile industries. However, even as legislators moved to ban Indian textiles, European artisans worked to replicate Indian fabrics and claim home and international markets for themselves. Manufacturers in many locales recognized the profits to be gained by producing their own cotton textiles, based on Indian models. Demand for this fabric rose in Western trading networks. The introduction of new cotton spinning technologies in Britain after the 1760s, followed by water- and then steam-powered spinning mills shortly after, launched a new era of industrial production. The spread of power looms in the 1800s consolidated the new systems of manufacturing and fed rising levels of consumption, both unmatched in human history. The ramifications were widespread, including the increasing number of cotton plantations in the Americas and the massive growth of enslavement of African peoples. At the same time, new systems of factory labor and the widespread diffusion of factory technology transformed working lives, introducing men, women, and children to new patterns of labor and the possibility of new patterns of consumption. British colonial power in India grew from the late 1700s; yet the production of cotton textiles persisted in India even while facing new challenges. By the 19th century, cotton epitomized a world of new materials, new technologies, and new inequalities.

Introductory Works

The history of cotton can be approached from a wide variety of perspectives and a diverse range of societal contexts. However, it is indisputable that India stands at the center of the global history of this fiber. Chaudhuri 1985 (cited under Southernization Theory and the Indian Ocean Trading Network) explores this dynamic from a long-term perspective prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Indian Ocean world and thereafter. The author also made a study of the English East India Company (Chaudhuri 2006), one of the largest importers of cotton textiles to the West. Chaudhuri’s cogent political and statistical analysis set a new benchmark for subsequent studies. The complex material evidence of commerce with India is also assessed by curators in works such as Crill 2006, adding an invaluable perspective to statistical evidence of this global exchange (see also Material Culture: Evidence of Historical Transformation). Britain’s 18th-century rise in cotton manufacturing has been studied exhaustively by generations of historians, with each new cohort of scholars bringing new priorities. Wadsworth and Mann 1931 sets the bar high, producing a richly comparative examination of the regional growth of the cotton trade in Britain and employing a wide range of primary sources. This classic study notes that “if the first thought of European manufacturers had been prohibition [of Indian cottons], the second was imitation” (p. 118). France was another region that experimented with cotton production, as both politicians and entrepreneurs were loath to see the advantage go to British manufacturers (Chassagne 1991; Raveux 2009, cited under Regional Impact). John Holker, an English expatriate, spied on British textiles sectors for the French government in the 1750s, especially the Lancashire cotton region, producing a report on his findings, including textile swatches. This exceptional document is now transcribed, demonstrating the intense focus of competing European nations (Lemire 1991, 79–87). Indian cottons were a catalyst for change in many regions of the world, a subject that has inspired extensive research in recent years (Farnie and Jeremy 2004, Riello and Roy 2009, Lemire 2011, Riello 2013). The spread of cotton plantations and cotton manufacturing played a decisive role in many regions of the world, including in the Americas. In the newly founded United States of America the spread of cotton plantations and growth of cotton mills resulted in an entity that came to be called “King Cotton,” defining critical economic, social, and political priorities in the new republic (Woodman 1968, Schoen 2009). In sum, the history of cotton opens a window on commercial interaction, technological transformation, and profound societal change affecting the lives of generations across the globe.

  • Chassagne, Serge. Le Coton et ses Patrons: France, 1760–1840. Paris: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 1991.

    A classic study of the development of the French cotton industry and the role of regional entrepreneurs, by a noted scholar on this subject.

  • Chaudhuri, Kirti N. The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660–1760. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511563263

    Originally published in 1978, this is a classic history of the English East India Company, based on detailed quantitative analysis of Company records. Part of the success of this book rests on the author’s capacity to elucidate a large and complex subject while still keeping contact with historical actors, giving great color to this history.

  • Crill, Rosemary, ed. Textiles from India: The Global Trade. Papers presented at a conference held in Kolkata, 12–14 October 2003. Kolkata: Seagull, 2006.

    A lavishly illustrated volume, arising from a 2003 conference in Kolkata on the same topic. The editor is Curator of East Indian Textiles at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and under her direction this volume explores the broad and complex trade networks into which Indian cottons flowed. The principal emphasis is on commerce in Asia and Africa.

  • Farnie, Douglas A., and David J. Jeremy, eds. The Fibre that Changed the World: The Cotton Industry in International Perspective, 1600–1990s. Pasold Studies in Textile History 14. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    This volume provides wide-ranging assessments of the impact of cotton manufacturing in various regions of the world, being especially strong in Asian examples of this process, while including many chapters on European and American topics.

  • Lemire, Beverly. Fashion’s Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660-1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

    A now classic study exploring the dynamics of popular consumption among the British population, documenting the strategies employed to secure fashion choices.

  • Lemire, Beverly. Cotton. Textiles that Changed the World. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2011.

    Positions the rise of Western cotton industry within the context of the long development of the Indian trade that preceded it. The development of the cotton trade in the West is explored through popular fashion and consumerism. The impact of industrial production is also considered, including its effects on the expansion of slavery.

  • Riello, Giorgio. Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511706097

    A landmark comparative study of the spread of Indian cotton as a global trade good, and the many steps whereby cotton became the foundation of a modern economy, globally.

  • Riello, Giorgio, and Tirthankar Roy, eds. How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500–1850. Global Economic History Series 4. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2009.

    This collection of essays explores the scope of the Indian trade and industry in cotton, focusing on its diverse characteristics and the broad impact of the trade.

  • Schoen, Brian. The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

    The author contributes to the dynamic rethinking of the Civil War, positioning events within the powerful global demand for cotton in the wider Atlantic world, thereby repositioning political interpretations of the Lower South and US policy generally.

  • Wadsworth, Alfred P., and Julia de Lacy Mann. The Cotton Trade and Industrial Lancashire, 1600–1780. Publications of the University of Manchester, Economic History Series 7. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1931.

    This classic text outlines the context in which cotton textile production took hold in this northwest region of England, which became the center of the British cotton industry. Despite this geographic emphasis, the authors present a wide-ranging perspective from across Europe. Despite its age, this volume still repays close reading.

  • Woodman, Harold D. King Cotton & His Retainers; Financing & Marketing the Cotton Crop of the South, 1800–1925. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968.

    A classic treatment of the changes in the financing and marketing of cotton in the American South.

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