Beverly Lemire

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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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 the early 1800s, with 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 merch ants 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. By 1700, however, tensions arose because of the success of these imports. These textiles were well suited to express plebeian fashions, and many European nations banned Indian cottons outright, in part for this reason. 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. 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 also fed rising levels of consumption, both unmatched in human history. The ramifications were widespread, including the increasing number of cotton plantations (and the growth of slavery) in the Americas. New systems of factory labor and the widespread diffusion of factory technology transformed diverse regions of the world, introducing men, women, and children to new patterns of labor and new patterns of consumption. Cotton now epitomized the modern world.

Article.  11321 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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