COTTON. Although grown in the South since the founding of Jamestown in 1607, cotton did not become a cash crop during the colonial period, and most domestic production was consumed locally in domestic manufacture. By the late eighteenth century, revolutionary inventions in the English textile industry began the process that would transform the American South into the "cotton kingdom." John Kay's flying shuttle (patented 1733) and James Hargreaves's spinning jenny (patented 1770) speeded up weaving and spinning processes, and when these innovations were adapted first to water power and then to steam power, English textile production soared. Cotton imports into England increased fifty fold in the second half of the eighteenth century, but rising prices indicated that the cotton supply was failing to meet the spiraling demand of Lancashire's mills. When trade with England reopened after the Revolution (1783), American planters in the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia found a lucrative market for their long-staple, black-seed cotton. Further inland, only the short-staple (or uplands) variety would grow; and because its green seeds stuck so tenaciously to the staple, they had to be picked out by hand, a time-consuming process that even prevailing high prices could not support.
This all changed in 1793 when Eli Whitney invented his cotton gin, a device that quickly and cheaply separated the seeds from the staple. The new invention allowed Georgia and South Carolina planters to expand exponentially their production of the now-profitable short-staple cotton. Exports increased from 500,000 pounds in 1793 to 18 million pounds by 1800 and more than 90 million pounds a decade later. The cotton belt in Georgia and South Carolina rapidly expanded westward as farmers and planters pushed into the virgin lands in south-central Alabama; into the rich delta lands in Mississippi, northern Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee; and into western Texas. In 1860, the United States produced more than 2 billion pounds (4.5 million bales) of cotton, almost 80 percent of which came from the states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. About 75 percent of this crop was exported, mainly to England where American cotton enjoyed a near monopoly.
Southerners proclaimed that "cotton was king," and indeed the evidence seemed to support this view. Cotton attracted millions of settlers into the Southwest; southern demand for foodstuffs helped bring population into the Old Northwest; eastern merchants found some of their best customers in the cotton belt; New England textile manufacturers and workers relied for their well-being on the South's chief export; and in the last three antebellum decades, cotton provided well over half the nation's exports.
Many small farmers grew cotton, but the most efficient and extensive producers were planters with gangs of slave labor. Planting began in early spring; slaves spent the long hot days of summer thinning the plants and chopping out menacing weeds; picking started in late August and continued for several months. Planters then ginned, pressed, and baled their cotton on the plantation before shipping it to market—usually New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, or Mobile—typically consigning it to factors who sold it to representatives of American and European mills. Factors purchased supplies and other goods for their clients and then, after deducting expenses and commissions, remitted the net proceeds of the crop to the planter.
The Civil War proved the limits of king cotton's power. The Union blockade separated the South from its markets and sources of supply; and the British, despite the so-called cotton famine, neither recognized the South nor attempted to break the blockade. The war left most cotton farmers destitute, their fields and equipment in neglect or ruin, and their black labor force free. Gradually the South returned to cotton but under a greatly altered system of production and marketing. Land was rented out in small parcels, usually under the sharecropping system by which the tenant, in return for the right to use the land
and some equipment, shared his crop with the landlord according to a fixed contract. For his supplies, food, and clothing, the sharecropper turned to a local storekeeper (called the "furnishing merchant"), who furnished goods on credit in return for a crop lien that gave him first call on the sharecropper's proceeds from the growing crop. At first recently freed slaves made up the vast majority of tenants, but in time more and more farmers themselves lost their land and became tenants. In 1880, 36 percent of cotton farmers were tenants; in 1920 this figure had risen to almost 50 percent; and in 1935 it had risen to over 60 percent. By the turn of the century, more whites than blacks were tenants.
Meanwhile, cotton production increased. Within a decade after the end of the Civil War, the prewar high of 4.5 million bales was equaled, and the output continued to grow, reaching 10 million bales by 1900 and 16 million bales on the eve of World War I. Acreage devoted to cotton increased from fewer than 8 million acres in 1869 to 25 million in 1900 and more than 35 million in 1914.
By this time there were signs of serious trouble in the southern cotton belt. Declining prices and production inefficiencies brought poverty and hardship to millions of cotton growers, a condition worsened By the boll weevil infestation that entered Texas in 1892 and gradually spread north and east, reaching Georgia and South Carolina in 1922. The United States lost its complete domination of the raw cotton markets as countries such as India,
China, the Soviet Union, and Brazil increased their production. Rich, irrigated lands in the western states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico were shifted to cotton production; and these areas—free from the uncertainties of weather, the boll weevil, and weed infestation—offered disastrous competition to the older cotton areas. With the Great Depression, cotton prices dropped still lower and conditions reached crisis proportions.
Once again change came to the cotton belt. Cotton acreage, which had reached a high of almost 45 million in 1925, dropped to half that total in the immediate post–World War II years and continued to drop, reaching about 11 million in 1971. Production also declined but at a much slower rate. While acreage devoted to cotton dropped 75 percent from the mid-1920s to 1972, production decreased only about 30 percent, from 16 million to 11 million bales. As marginal lands shifted away from cotton, production on better lands became mechanized and more efficient with the introduction of tractors, plows, weeders, and automatic pickers. Sharecroppers fled the cotton fields or were driven away by the introduction of machinery; output per man-hour on the mechanized cotton farms increased nine times between 1940 and 1973. The eastern cotton states became minor producers as the cotton belt shifted west. In 1970, Texas was the largest producer, followed by Mississippi, California, and Arkansas; and Arizona grew more cotton than did Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
Although the United States remained the world's leading cotton producer in 1970, its onetime near monopoly was gone. By the early 1960s its share of world production had dropped to less than 30 percent, and by 1971, to 19 percent. Moreover, cotton growers, despite increasing efficiency and ample government price supports, apprehensively faced a new threat in the increasing popularity of man-made fibers. Per capita consumption of cotton in the United States fell from 30 pounds in 1950 to less than 19 pounds in 1970, while per capita consumption of artificial fibers rose from 10 pounds to 32 pounds during the same period. Despite these threats to the continued vitality of the industry, the United States recovered its position somewhat in the 1980s and 1990s, accounting for 25 to 30 percent of the world trade in raw cotton by 2000. Although China passed America to become the world's leading producer, the United States remained the world's largest exporter of the fiber, which despite its decline, still contributed over $25 billion annually in goods and services to the American economy at the end of the century.
The processing of raw cotton by modern methods begins with the breaking of compressed bales (average weight 478 pounds). Bale breakers, openers, and pickers loosen and blend the tufts of cotton and remove impurities. Carding engines complete the cleaning process, eliminate short
and broken fibers, and separate and align those remaining into soft, ropelike "slivers." To obtain high-quality yarn, combers process fine (thin) cotton into slivers, removing as much as 20 percent of the shorter fibers. Drawing frames begin the process of attenuating and twisting the slivers and enhance their regularity by drawing them between rollers and arranging them in parallel rows. A series of machines collectively known as "speed frames" conclude the preparation of cotton for the spinning frames, principally by further drawing out and twisting the material into a rope called "roving" and adding strength to the fibers by making them cling to each other more closely. In the spinning stage, frames equipped with ring spindles draw and twist the fibers into yarn while winding them on a bobbin. The process is continuous, with drawing, twisting, and winding taking place simultaneously. During the preparatory and spinning processes cotton suffers a loss in weight of 9–12 percent. In comparison, man-made filament fibers spun into yarn on cotton textile machinery incur a negligible loss. Approximately two thirds of man-made fibers come from chemical producers already processed as filament yarn.
Machines then process cotton yarns into fabrics by knitting, tufting, and weaving. Knitting consists essentially of interlacing a single strand of yarn into a series of interlocking loops. Modern knitting mills produce literally hundreds of items of cotton and cotton-blended apparel. They Also convert considerable quantities of cotton yarn into a variety of tufted products on tufting machines and consume them in various nonwoven constructions, in which machines bond fibers together with adhesives. Manufacturers continue to channel the greatest proportion of cotton yarn into broadloom weaving, where additional preparation is required depending on whether it is destined to be warp (longitudinal) or weft (transverse) yarn. Weaving, conducted on high-speed automatic looms, involves the interlacing of yarn at right angles so as to form a fabric.
Upon leaving the weave shed, most unbleached gray goods undergo one of many finishing treatments. Initially, the fabric passes in succession through a series of scouring, washing, and bleaching units before being dyed and printed. Textile engineers have developed a wide range of mechanical and chemical processes to render the fabric more useful and fashionable. Mechanical processes can stiffen, glaze, and improve the texture of the cloth. Chemistry can also provide additional strength, such as fire retardance and abrasion and wind resistance, or it can impart various qualities desirable in apparel, such as permanent press, crease resistance, and shrinkage control, as well as a silk like sheen and the puckering quality of seersucker.
The breakdown of major end-uses for all fibers reflects the eroding role of cotton in the American textile industry from the mid-1960s to the end of the twentieth century. Between 1968 and 1973, for example, cotton's percentage of total poundage in apparel dropped from 45 to 33 percent; in home furnishings, from 45 to 29 percent; in other consumer-type products, from 45 to 29 percent; and in industrial uses, from 32 to 21 percent. Aggregate cotton consumption by U.S. mills in 1973 amounted to 3,641,700,000 pounds (29.2 percent of total fiber consumption) compared to 3,773,600,000 pounds consumed in 1970 (39.5 percent of total fiber consumption).
During the 1960s the American textile industry be-came increasingly multifiber. The versatility of modern textile technology permitted the processing of cotton, cotton-synthetic blends, and various man-made fibers without requiring a change in machinery layout. In addition, both capital and labor requirements fell as faster and larger-capacity equipment reduced both the number of machines and the number of operatives and maintenance workers needed for a given output. A small number of large, multiplant firms thus account for a high proportion of capital expenditures for plant and equipment as well as for most textile research. During the 1958–1970 period, capital expenditures for the textile industry as a whole increased at an 11.3 percent annual rate. For knit fabric mills the annual rate was 23 percent; for cotton broadloom weaving establishments, on the other hand, the rate was only 3.7 percent per annum.
The new textile technology flourished primarily in the sprawling, single-story structures dotting the southeastern United States, where large pools of white and black female labor are readily available in hundreds of small communities. At the same time, the trend toward technological modernization has hastened the obsolescence of the aged, multistory mills that predominated in New England. By 1970 three-fourths of cotton textile employment was concentrated in the Southeast. Blue-collar occupations—primarily semi-skilled machine tending—constituted 85 percent of textile employment, a smaller share of jobs going to professional, research, clerical, and sales personnel than in most manufacturing industries. Women workers made up more than 65 percent of the employees in knitting mills but only 25 percent of the employees in textile-finishing establishments.
Although cotton manufacturing remains more fragmented and highly competitive than most industries, a trend toward fewer and larger firms is taking place; numerous mergers and acquisitions were effected during the 1960s, and Many small mills shut down. By 1970, the four largest establishments making cotton broadwoven fabric accounted for 33 percent of total industry value of shipments (compared with 13 percent in 1947), while the eight largest firms accounted for 50 percent of the value of broadwoven shipments (compared to 22 percent in 1947). In the 1980s and 1990s, pressures on the textile industry increased as expanded foreign production cut into the U.S. industry's export profits. Then, in the late 1990s, a 40 percent decline in the average worth of Asian currencies, coupled with a 25 to 30 percent decline in the price of Asian yarn and fabric exports, sent the American industry into a crisis. In 1996 alone over 100 U.S. textile mills closed, taking over 60,000 jobs with them. The industry responded by pressuring the national government to help it open new overseas markets and by turning to newer, more efficient production technologies to reduce production costs.
Gray, Lewis C. History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958.
Holley, Donald. The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Kane, Nancy F. Textiles in Transition: Technology, Wages, and Industry Relocation in the U.S. Textile Industry, 1880–1930. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Woodman, Harold D. King Cotton and His Retainers. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968.
Cotton is a fiber obtained from various species of plants, genus Gossypium, family Malvaceae (Mallow), and is the most important and widely used natural fiber in the world. Cotton is primarily an agricultural crop, but it can also be found growing wild. Originally cotton species were perennial plants, but in some areas cotton has been selectively bred to develop as an annual plant. There are more than 30 species of Gossypium, but only four species are used to supply the world market for cotton. Gossypium hirsutum, also called New World or upland cotton, and G. barba-dense, the source of Egyptian cotton and Sea Island cotton, supply most of the world’s cotton fiber.
G. barbadense was brought from Egypt to the United States around 1900. A hybrid of these two cotton species known as Pima cotton is also an important source of commercial cotton. These species have relatively longer fibers and greater resistance to the boll weevil, the most notable insect pest of cotton plants. Asian cotton plants, G. arboreum and G. herbaceum grow as small shrubs and produce relatively short fibers. Today, the United States produces one-sixth of the world’s cotton. Other leading cotton
producing countries are China (the world’s biggest producer), India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Turkey. The world production of cotton in the early 1990s was about 18.9 million metric tons per year. The world’s largest consumers of cotton are the United States and Europe.
Cotton was one of the first cultivated plants. There is evidence that the cotton plant was cultivated in India as long as 5, 000 years ago. Specimens of cotton cloth as old as 5, 000 years have been found in Peru, and scientists have found ancient specimens of the cotton plant dating 7, 000 years old in caves near Mexico City. Cotton was one of the resources sought by Columbus, and while he did not manage to find a shorter route to India, he did find species of cotton growing wild in the West Indies.
The cotton plant grows to a height of 3-6 feet (0.9-1.8 m), depending on the species and the region where it is grown. The leaves are heart shaped, lobed, and coarse veined, somewhat resembling a maple leaf. The plant has many branches with one main central stem. Overall, the plant is cone or pyramid shaped.
After a cotton seed has sprouted (about four to five weeks after planting), two “seed” leaves provide food for the plant until additional “true” leaves appear. Flower buds protected by a fringed, leafy covering develop a few weeks after the plant starts to grow, and then bloom a few weeks later. The flower usually blooms in the morning and then withers and turns color within two to three days. The bloom falls off the plant, leaving a ripening seed pod.
Pollination must occur before the flower falls off. Pollen from the stamens (male part) is transferred to the stigma (female part) by insects and wind, and travels down the stigma to the ovary. The ovary contains ovules, which become seeds if fertilized. The ovary swells around the seeds and develops into a boll. The cotton boll is classified as a fruit because it contains seeds. As the bolls develop, the leaves on the plant turn red.
About four months are needed for the boll to ripen and split open. A cotton boll contains 27-45 seeds and each seed grows between 10, 000 and 20, 000 hairs or fibers. Each fiber is a single cell, 3, 000 times longer than it is wide. The fibers develop in two stages. First, the fibers grow to their full length (in about three weeks). For the following three to four weeks, layers of cellulose are deposited in a crisscross fashion, building up the wall of the fiber. After the boll matures and bursts open, the fibers dry out and become tiny hollow tubes that twist up, making the fiber very strong. The seed hairs or fibers grow in different lengths. The outer and longer fibers grow to 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) and are primarily used for cloth. These fibers are very strong, durable, flexible, and retain dyes well. The biological function of the long seed hairs is to help scatter the seeds around in the wind. The inner, short fibers are called linter.
Cotton requires a long growing season (from 180-200 days), sunny and warm weather, plenty of water during the growth season, and dry weather for harvest. Cotton grows near the equator in tropical and semitropical climates. The Cotton Belt in the United States reaches from North Carolina down to northern Florida and west to California. A crop started in March or April will be ready to harvest in September. Usually, cotton seeds are planted in rows. When the plants emerge, they need to be thinned. Herbicides, rotary hoes, or flame cultivators are used to manage weeds. Pesticides are also used to control bacterial and fungal diseases, and insect pests.
For centuries, harvesting was done by hand. Cotton had to be picked several times in the season because bolls of cotton do not all ripen at the same time. Today, most cotton is mechanically harvested. Farmers wait until all the bolls are ripe and then defoliate the plants with chemicals, although sometimes defoliation occurs naturally from frost.
Harvested cotton needs to be cleaned before going to the gin. Often, the cotton is dried before it is put through the cleaning equipment, which removes leaves, dirt, twigs, and other unwanted material. After cleaning, the long fibers are separated from the seeds with a cotton gin and then packed tightly into bales of 500 pounds
Boll— The fruit of the cotton plant that holds the fiber and seeds.
Cellulose— The main ingredient of plant tissue and fiber.
Cotton gin— Machine (invented by Eli Whitney) that separates the cotton fiber from the seeds.
Linter— The short, fuzzy fiber left on the seed after ginning.
Ovary— The lower part of the pistil where seeds develop.
Ovules— Small structures within the ovary that develop into seeds if fertilized.
Pollen— Fine powder made in the anthers of a flower that carries the male cells.
Stamen— Male reproductive organ of a flower that produces pollen.
Stigma— The part of the female organs of a plant flower (the pistil) upon which pollen lands in the first stage of fertilization.
(227 kg). Cotton is classified according to its staple (length of fiber), grade (color), and character (smoothness). At a textile mill, cotton fibers are spun into yarn and then woven or knitted into cloth. The seeds, still covered with linter, are sent to be pressed in an oil mill.
Cotton seeds are valuable by-products. The seeds are delinted by a similar process to ginning. Some linter is used to make candlewicks, string, cotton balls, cotton batting, paper, and cellulose products such as rayon, plastics, photographic film, and cellophane. The delinted seeds are crushed and the kernel is separated from the hull and squeezed. The cottonseed oil obtained from the kernels is used for cooking oil, shortening, soaps, and cosmetics. A semisolid residue from the refining process is called soap stock or foots, and provides fatty acids for various industrial uses such as insulation materials, soaps, linoleum, oilcloth, waterproofing materials, and as a paint base. The hulls are used for fertilizer, plastics, and paper. A liquid made from the hulls called furfural is used in the chemical industry. The remaining mash is used for livestock feed.
See also Natural fibers.
Basra, Amarjit. Cotton Fibers: Developmental Biology, Quality Improvement, & Textile Processing. Food Products Press, 2001.
Jenkins, Johnie N. and Sukumar Saha, eds. Genetic Improvement of Cotton: Emerging Technologies. Science Publishers, Inc., 2001.
Stewart, J. M. Biotechnology in Cotton Research and Production. CABI Publishing, 2003.
Alaca Company. “Cotton’s Journey” <http://www.cottonsjourney.com/Storyofcotton/default.asp> (accessed November 17, 2006).
Christine Miner Minderovic
Cotton plants are native to several parts of the world, and the use of cotton fiber originated independently at least 7,000 years ago in both the India/Pakistan and the Mexico/Peru regions. One of the oldest extant cotton textiles dates to about 3000 b.c.e. Because cotton plants cannot be grown in cooler locales such as northern Europe, climate was an important limiting factor in the spread of cotton cultivation.
Cotton textiles were traded widely in Roman times, and the growing and production of cotton soon spread from India to Egypt and China. Cotton production did not begin in Greece until c.e. 200 or in Spain until tenth century c.e. By the thirteenth century, though, Barcelona was a thriving cotton industry center specializing in producing cotton canvas for sails. England began using imported cotton in the thirteenth century. Widespread use began in the seventeenth century when significant quantities of raw fiber began to be imported to Great Britain from the expanding British colonies for processing and weaving into cloth.
Cotton textiles were widely used in pre-Columbian Meso-American and Andean civilizations. With the beginning of European colonization of the Americas, cotton originating in Mexico and Peru began to be cultivated wherever climate and soil were suitable. Cotton became an established crop in many parts of the American South, and later spread into the regions now known as Texas, Arizona, and California.
Cotton also became an important global trade commodity. For example, England exchanged American cotton fiber for Indian and Egyptian cotton textiles. Among these trade goods, the finest cotton textiles were from long, fine staple cotton fiber. In fact, Indian prints and gauze cottons surpassed the popularity of fine woolens in the seventeenth century and played a role in greatly diminishing the demand for wool and tapestry textiles.
The cotton trade figured in the American War for Independence, as the British struggled to hold onto their source of raw fiber. Cotton production also played a controversial role in the slave trade; cotton, produced by slaves in America, was among the trade goods used to obtain other slaves in Africa. The emphasis on hand labor in cotton production increased the demand for slave labor at the same time that slave labor became ethically intolerable to many Americans (Parker 1998). The plantation system that was at the heart of cotton production thus was an issue in the controversies and regional disputes that led to the American Civil War.
With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, cotton became a much higher volume commodity, as the machine took over one of the most laborious steps in cotton production, the separation of fibers from seeds. The cotton gin thus was a key component in the development of the U.S. textile and apparel industry. By 1859, twothirds of the world production of cotton fiber came from the United States (Parker 1998).
Meanwhile, immigrants from Europe brought with them the knowledge and the technology to establish textile production in the United States. Using available water power to drive spinning and weaving machinery, New England became the center of the early textile industry. During the Civil War, a severe reduction in cotton fiber available from the American South led the British industry to seek other sources for cotton fiber and thus expanded cotton production globally. In the United States, both the production of cotton fiber and its processing into cloth continued to evolve according to changing economic circumstances. Between World Wars I and II, a majority of the U.S. textile mills relocated from the Northeast to the South and fiber production expanded in Texas and California.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, cotton production was led by China, the United States, Russia, India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Turkey. Cotton fiber had become an important economic force in as many as eighty countries worldwide. Cotton remains the most important fiber in apparel with nearly half of the world demand for apparel fibers traceable to cotton and cotton blends.
Processing Cotton Fiber
Cotton fiber is a seed hair removed from the boll (seed pod) of the cotton plant that bursts open when fully developed. Bolls emerge from blossoms that fall off to leave the exposed boll. One boll can produce more than 250,000 individual fibers. The cotton plant is a four- to six-foot tall shrubby annual in temperate climates, but a treelike perennial in tropical climates. The best qualities of cotton grow in climates with high rainfall in the growing season and a dry, warm picking season. Very warm, dry climates in which irrigation substitutes for rainfall, such as Arizona and Uzbekistan, are also well suited to cotton production. Rain or strong wind can cause damage to opened bolls. Cotton is subject to damage from the boll weevil, bollworm, and other insects as well as several diseases. Application of insecticides and development of dis- ease-resistant varieties have helped achieve production goals for cotton. Recent innovations in organic cotton and genetically colored cottons continue the progression of putting science into the production process.
Processing cotton includes many stages. While picking mature cotton bolls by hand yields the highest quality, mechanized picking makes high production more feasible and affordable. In many countries where hand labor is more affordable than equipment, cotton continues to be hand-picked. Ginning is used to clean debris from cotton and prepare it for spinning into yarn. Grading separates cotton into quality levels in which short fibers tend
to correspond to coarse and long fibers to make very fine quality textiles. Carding is the next step in all cotton fiber processing and is used to further clean and minimally align fibers. An additional processing called combing is used to further clean and align higher quality cottons. Yarn creation involves drawing fibers into a thinner strand that is then spun into a finished yarn ready for fabrication into the textile. So-called greige-good (unfinished) fabrics undergo final finishing, which typically involves singing (burning off loose particles) and then tentering to align the grain of the fabric and adjust the width. Either at the fiber, yarn, fabric, or product stage, cotton may be subject to bleaching to remove natural colors (tan through gray) at which point fashionable colors can be added through dyeing and printing processes. Other final finishing processes might be used to obtain special features such as sizing for smoothness; durable press; a polished surface; or a puckered surface texture.
Characteristics of Cotton Textiles
Cotton fiber varies in length from as little as ⅛-inch linters that are not useable as fiber up to ultrafine long staple cottons of 2½ inches. Short staple fibers (¾–1 inch) are used for relatively coarse textiles like bagging; medium to long staple (1–1⅜ inches) are the Upland cottons used for a majority of cotton products; and extra long staple (1⅜–2½ inches) cottons labeled as Egyptian, pima, Supima, sea island, and Peruvian cottons are used for very high quality exclusive cotton goods. Many are hand picked to achieve top quality. Natural colors for cotton fibers include off-white, cream, and gray; selective breeding of naturally colored cottons has expanded the color range to include brown, rust, red, beige, and green. Higher quality, long staple cottons are closer to white than coarse shorter fibers. But regardless of natural color, bleaching is required to produce white or pure colors.
Cotton fiber is a flat, twisted, ribbon-like structure easily identified under the microscope. This characteristic can be somewhat modified by finishing fiber or fabric with sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) or liquid ammonia and thereby swelling the fiber. This rounder mercerized or ammoniated fiber is more lustrous and stronger than typical cotton. It also accepts dye better than untreated cotton. Applying this treatment in a pattern yields plissé,
a puckered textured surface effect quite unlike the typical cotton fabric surface, which is flat, slightly wrinkled, and somewhat dull. Long-staple fine cottons exceed this standard and are often hard to differentiate from silk in surface smoothness. Cotton tends to be neutral on the skin, so is considered a comfortable fiber for everyday wear.
Cotton is cellulosic and thus has aesthetic, comfort, and performance characteristics reminiscent of linen and rayon textiles. These include high absorbency and low insulation and a tendency to be cool in hot temperatures. Cotton does not dry as quickly as linen and silk. As a relatively heavy textile, cotton is more useful for keeping cool or for dressing in layers than it is in providing warmth. Cotton is subject to linting, that is, the shedding of fibers that can result in bits of fiber lying on the surface of the textile. Cotton is also somewhat subject to abrasion and will become thin or develop holes in areas of recurring abrasion. Highly bleached cotton textiles have lower strength and durability than those that retain natural color. Cotton fibers resist absorbing dyes and fade easily in sunlight and from abrasion. Therefore the "faded" effect commonly found among fashionable cotton fabrics since the 1970s optimizes cotton's natural character.
Cotton is a medium strong fiber with a tendency to wrinkle. Wrinkling is diminished when fibers are long and fine and yarns are flexible. Wrinkle resistant finishes can help overcome lack of resiliency. Blending cotton with synthetic fibers such as polyester is the most common way to overcome wrinkling. This solution without careful attention to yarn quality can lead to pilling as short cotton fibers break off and synthetic fibers hold onto the broken fibers.
The twisted cotton fiber results naturally in a somewhat fuzzy spun yarn that holds onto dirt particles. Water- and oil-borne staining is also commonplace due to high absorbency. Cotton has high heat resistance, is stronger wet than dry, and withstands cleaning, pressing, and creasing very successfully. Cotton is resistant to most cleaning detergents but damaged by acid such as air pollutants. Cotton shrinks back to original dimensions when wet and thus experiences relaxation shrinkage. Because it can be sterilized by boiling, cotton is useful in clean room and medical applications. Cotton seldom irritates the skin or causes allergies. Cotton textiles are flammable and subject to damage by mildew, perspiration, bleach, and silverfish.
Cotton in Fashion across Time
Cotton holds a unique place in history, evolving from being more highly valued than silk and wool in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to becoming an everyday, comfort-oriented textile in contemporary apparel worldwide. Early Indian cottons were so ultra-fine that they were extremely valuable as trade goods and were highly competitive with fine woolen and silk textiles of the era. Cotton was originally available only to the wealthy due to the intensive hand labor needed to process fiber into yarns. In the early nineteenth century, wool held nearly 80 percent of world market share, with cotton and linen taking second and third place. However, by the early twentieth century, cotton became and remains in the early 2000s the leading apparel fiber worldwide. Liberty cottons are an example of the continued success of cotton as a prestige fabric; they have remained a trademark for the very finest Egyptian long staple cottons since 1875 when Liberty of London began copying Indian cotton prints onto ultra-fine long staple cottons. The advent of synthetic fibers proved strong competition for cotton in the 1970s, but cotton production rebounded as comfort became more important to many consumers than price. Faded cotton is an example of the power of the "comfort" aesthetic. Every decade since the 1970s has returned faded cotton to current fashion. While synthetic fibers can achieve the aesthetics of cotton, they only very recently came close to both the feel and the comfort of cotton with the advent of microfiber polyester. The widespread adoption of "casual Friday" dress codes by much of corporate America in the 1990s continued to make cotton an important element in the fashion aesthetic. Cotton has also achieved a good reputation as a "green" textile, because it is biodegradable.
Common Cotton Textile Uses
Cotton is highly valued for comfort and launderability. It is highly tolerant of heavy use. Wordwide, approximately 50 percent of apparel is made of cotton fiber, but pure cotton products are not as prevalent as cotton blends. In apparel, 100 percent cotton cloth is preferred for uses that demand being next to the skin or high physical activity. This includes a wide range of activewear that focuses on jersey, interlock, and sweatshirt knitwear for the upper body and woven textiles such as denim and khaki for the lower body. Apparel for situations where appearance is more important than comfort in physical activity is frequently made from cotton blends.
About 60 percent of all interior textiles (excluding floor coverings) are made of cotton or cotton blends; this category includes sheets, towels, blankets, draperies, curtains, upholstery, slipcovers, rugs, and wall coverings. In many of these applications, cotton's natural character is aesthetically pleasing, but performance characteristics such as high absorbency and tendency to soil are not advantageous. Manufacturers combat this tendency with stain-resistant finishes and often try to achieve the aesthetic qualities of cotton in cotton-synthetic blends.
Industrial uses account for less than 10 percent of cotton production, reflecting the advantages of synthetics for industrial applications requiring strength and durability. Cotton is preferred for many medical uses because it can easily be sterilized, is highly absorbent, and does not retain static electricity.
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Parker, J. All about Cotton. Seattle, Wash.: Rain City Publishing, 1998.
Carol J. Salusso
Cotton is a shrubby plant that is a member of the Mallow family. Its name refers to the cream-colored fluffy fibers surrounding small cottonseeds called a boll. The small, sticky seeds must be separated from the wool in order to process the cotton for spinning and weaving. De-seeded cotton is cleaned, carded (fibers aligned), spun, and woven into a fabric that is also referred to as cotton. Cotton is easily spun into yarn as the cotton fibers flatten, twist, and naturally interlock for spinning. Cotton fabric alone accounts for fully half of the fiber worn in the world. It is a comfortable choice for warm climates in that it easily absorbs skin moisture. Most of the cotton cultivated in the United States is a short-staple cotton that grows in the American South. Cotton is planted annually by using the seeds found within the downy wool. The states that primarily cultivate cotton are located in the "Cotton Belt," which runs east and west and includes parts of California, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, which alone produces nearly five million bales. Together, these states produce approximately 16 million bales a year, second only to China. Business revenue generated by cotton today is approximately $122.4 billion—the greatest revenue of any United States crop.
The cotton plant is a source for many important products other than fabric. Among the most important is cottonseed, which is pressed for cottonseed oil that is used in commercial products such as salad oils and snack foods, cosmetics, soap, candles, detergents, and paint. The hulls and meal are used for animal feed. Cotton is also a source for cellulose products, fertilizer, fuel, automobile tire cord, pressed paper, and cardboard.
Cotton was used for clothing in present-day Peru and Mexico perhaps as long as 5,000 years ago. Also, cotton was grown, spun, and woven in ancient India, China, Egypt, and Pakistan, around 3000 b.c.
Cotton is not native to Western Europe. Around A.D. 800, Arabic traders likely introduced cotton to Spaniards. By the fourteenth century, Mediterranean farmers were cultivating the cotton plant and shipping the fiber to the Netherlands for spinning and weaving. British innovations in the late 1700s include water-powered spinning machinery, a monumental improvement over hand-spinning. An American named Samuel Slater, who worked with British machinery, memorized the plans for a machine spinner and returned to Rhode Island to set up Slater Mill, the first American textile mill to utilize machine spinners. This mill represents the beginning of the U.S. Industrial Revolution, built on the mechanism of the cotton industry.
Two developments spurred the cultivation of American cotton: cotton spinners and the cotton gin. The cotton gin, developed by Eli Whitney in 1793, easily removed tenacious cottonseeds. Southern plantation owners began planting cotton as a result of these innovations, using enslaved labor for harvesting the cotton. Vigorous cotton cultivation in the South using enslaved labor is considered one reason for friction between North and South that led to the Civil War.
Southern cotton was shipped to New England mills in huge quantities. As a result of machine spinning, weaving, and printing, Americans could cheaply purchase calico and it became universally worn. However, labor costs were significant in New England. Mill owners found ways to reduce those costs, first by employing women and immigrants who were often paid poorly, then by employing young children in the factories. After oppressive labor practices were largely halted, many factories moved to the South where labor was cheaper. (Unionizing efforts affected the profits of those mills.) Today, a fair amount of cotton is woven outside the United States where labor is less costly. Polyester, a synthetic, is often used along with cotton, but has little chance of supplanting the natural fiber.
The materials required to take cotton bolls to spun cotton include cottonseeds for planting; pesticides, such as insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides, to battle disease and harmful insects; and fertilizers to enrich the soil.
There are agricultural requirements for growing cotton in the United States. Cotton has a long growing season (it can be as long as seven months) so it is best to plant cotton early—February in Texas but as late as June in northern cotton-growing states such as Missouri. Cotton should not be planted before the sun has warmed the soil. It performs best in well-drained, crumbly soils that can hold moisture. It can be grown between latitudes of 30° north and 30° south. Good cotton crops require a long, sunny growing season with at least 160 frost-free days and high moisture levels resulting from rainfall or irrigation during the growing season. However, too much rain during harvest or strong winds during picking can damage the open bolls and load the fiber with too much water, which can ruin the cotton in storage. Generally, a cotton farmer must farm about 2,000 acres (20,000 hectares) if the operation is to be economically viable. On average, an acre will produce about 1.5 bales of cotton, or about 750 lb (340 kg).
The Production Process
- In spring, the acreage is cleared for planting. Mechanical cultivators rip out weeds and grass that may compete with the cotton for soil nutrients, sunlight, and water, and may attract pests that harm cotton. The land is plowed under and soil is broken up and formed into rows.
- Cottonseed is mechanically planted by machines that plant up to 12 rows at a time. The planter opens a small furrow in each row, drops in seed, covers them, and then packs more dirt on top. Seed may be deposited in either small clumps (referred to as hill-dropped) or singularly (called drilled). The seed is placed 0.75 to 1.25 in (1.9 to 3.2 cm) deep, depending on the climate. The seed must be placed more shallowly in dusty, cool areas of the Cotton Belt, and more deeply in warmer areas.
- With good soil moisture and warm temperature at planting, seedlings usually emerge five to seven days after planting, with a full stand of cotton appearing after about 11 days. Occasionally disease sets in, delaying the seedlings' appearance. Also, a soil crust may prevent seedlings from surfacing. Thus, the crust must be carefully broken by machines or irrigation to permit the plants to emerge.
- Approximately six weeks after seedlings appear, "squares," or flower buds, begin to form. The buds mature for three weeks and then blossom into creamy yellow flowers, which turn pink, then red, and then fall off just three days after blossoming. After the flower falls away, a tiny ovary is left on the cotton plant. This ovary ripens and enlarges into a green pod called a cotton boll.
- The boll matures in a period that ranges from 55 to 80 days. During this time, the football-shaped boll grows and moist fibers push the newly formed seeds outward. As the boll ripens, it remains green. Fibers continue to expand under the warm sun, with each fiber growing to its full length—about 2.5 in (6.4 cm)—during three weeks. For nearly six weeks, the fibers get thicker and layers of cellulose build up the cell walls. Ten weeks after flowers first appeared, fibers split the boll apart, and cream-colored cotton pushes forth. The moist fibers dry in the sun and the fibers collapse and twist together, looking like ribbon. Each boll contains three to five "cells," each having about seven seeds embedded in the fiber.
- At this point the cotton plant is defoliated if it is to be machine harvested. Defoliation (removing the leaves) is often accomplished by spraying the plant with a chemical. It is important that leaves not be harvested with the fiber because they are considered "trash" and must be removed at some point. In addition, removing the leaves minimizes staining the fiber and eliminates a source of excess moisture. Some American crops are naturally defoliated by frost, but at least half of the crops must be defoliated with chemicals. Without defoliation, the cotton must be picked by hand, with laborers clearing out the leaves as they work.
- Harvesting is done by machine in the United States, with a single machine replacing 50 hand-pickers. Two mechanical systems are used to harvest cotton. The picker system uses wind and guides to pull the cotton from the plant, often leaving behind the leaves and rest of the plant. The stripper system chops the plant and uses air to separate the trash from the cotton. Most American cotton is harvested using pickers. Pickers must be used after the dew dries in the morning and must conclude when dew begins to form again at the end of the day. Moisture detectors are used to ensure that the moisture content is no higher than 12%, or the cotton may not be harvested and stored successfully. Not all cotton reaches maturity at the same time, and harvesting may occur in waves, with a second and third picking.
- Next, most American cotton is stored in "modules," which hold 13-15 bales in water-resistant containers in the fields until they are ready to be ginned.
- The cotton module is cleaned, compressed, tagged, and stored at the gin. The cotton is cleaned to separate dirt, seeds, and short lint from the cotton. At the gin, the cotton enters module feeders that fluff up the cotton before cleaning. Some gins use vacuum pipes to send fibers to cleaning equipment where trash is removed. After cleaning, cotton is sent to gin stands where revolving circular saws pull the fiber through wire ribs, thus separating seeds from the fiber. High-capacity gins can process 60, 500-lb (227-kg) bales of cotton per hour.
- Cleaned and de-seeded cotton is then I 0 compressed into bales, which permits economical storage and transportation of cotton. The compressed bales are banded and wrapped. The wrapping may be either cotton or polypropylene, which maintains the proper moisture content of the cotton and keeps bales clean during storage and transportation.
- Every bale of cotton produced in the United States must be given a gin ticket and a warehouse ticket. The gin ticket identifies the bale until it is woven. The ticket is a bar-coded tag that is torn off during inspection. A sample of each bale is sent to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for evaluation, where it is assessed for color, leaf content, strength, fineness, reflectance, fiber length, and trash content. The results of the evaluation determine the bale's value. Inspection results are available to potential buyers.
- After inspection, bales are stored in a carefully controlled warehouse. The bales remain there until they are sold to a mill for further processing.
Cotton growing is a long, involved process and growers must understand the requirements of the plant and keep vigilant lookout for potential problems. Pests must be managed in order to yield high-quality crops; however, growers must use chemicals very carefully in order to prevent damage to the environment. Defoliants are often used to maximize yield and control fiber color. Farmers must carefully monitor moisture levels at harvesting so bales will not be ruined by excess water during storage. Soil tests are imperative, since too much nitrogen in the soil may attract certain pests to the cotton.
Expensive equipment such as cotton planters and harvesters must be carefully maintained. Mechanical planters must be set carefully to deposit seed at the right depth, and gauge wheels and shoes must be corrected to plant rows at the requisite spot. Similarly, improperly adjusted machinery spindles on harvesting machines will leave cotton on the spindle, lowering quality of the cotton and harvesting efficiency. A well-adjusted picker minimizes the amount of trash taken up, rendering cleaner cotton.
There is much discussion regarding the amount of chemicals used in cotton cultivation. Currently, it is estimated that growers use, on average, 5.3 oz (151 g) of chemicals to produce one pound of processed cotton. Cotton cultivation is responsible for 25% of all chemical pesticides used on American crops. Unfortunately, cotton attracts many pests (most notably the boll weevil) and is prone to a number of rots and spotting, and chemicals are used to keep these under control. There are concerns about wildlife poisoning and poisons that remain in the soil long after cotton is no longer grown (although no heavy metals are used in the chemicals). As a result, some farmers have turned to organic cotton growing. Organic farming utilizes biological control to rid cotton of pests and alters planting patterns in specific ways to reduce fungicide use. While this method of cultivation is possible, an organically grown crop generally yields less usable cotton. This means an organic farmer must purchase, plant, and harvest more acreage to yield enough processed cotton to make the crop lucrative, or reduce costs in other ways to turn a profit. Increasingly, state university extension services are working with cotton farmers to reduce chemical use by employing certain aspects of biological control in order to reduce toxins that remain in the land and flow into water systems.
Where to Learn More
Daniel, Pete. Breaking the Land. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Johnson, Guinevere. Cotton. Let's Investigate Series. Mankato, MN: The Creative Co., 1999.
The Cotton Pickin' Web. http://ipmwww.ncsu.edu/CottonPickin (January 2, 2001).
Land of Cotton Online Newsmagazine for the Cotton Industry. http://www.landofcotton.com (January 2, 2001).
National Cotton Council of America. Education Materials. http://www.cotton.org/ncc/education (January 2, 2001).
The Organic Cotton Site. http://www.sustainablecotton.org. (January 2, 2001).
Cotton, a plant of the mallow family, produces fibers that can be woven into cloth. It has been valued since antiquity and its cultivation was an important factor stimulating European colonialism in regions of Asia, Africa, and the Americas; it is still a major trade commodity. Numerous species of cotton exist, but four are of commercial importance: Gossypium arboreum (native to Asia), G. herbaceum (native to Africa), and G. hirsutum and G. barbadense (both native to the Americas). Cotton plants originated in tropical regions, but are now grown worldwide in a variety of climate zones where adequate heat and water are available. The cotton plant produces capsules, called bolls, in which seeds are surrounded by a fluffy fiber, or lint. Cotton producers generally divide cotton into two types: short-staple cotton, which has shorter fibers about one inch long, and long-staple cotton, which has fibers reaching two inches in length. Long-staple cotton is more valuable, as it produces a higher quality cloth. Most cotton grown today produces white or cream-colored fibers, but many other colors, including yellow and brown, also exist. Cotton cloth is comfortable in hot climates and is insect resistant, easily washable, lightweight, and easily dyed. Cotton seeds have a variety of industrial applications, including being used in the manufacture of oils, soaps, detergents, cosmetics, fertilizers, and animal foods.
Cotton was known and used in ancient Egypt, India, China, and the Americas. Europeans probably learned about the value of cotton garments as a result of British and French commercial activities in India in the seventeenth century. Cotton fibers brought back from India led to the establishment of a cotton textile industry in Britain, especially in the city of Manchester. Cotton textile producers originally faced restrictions placed on them by the government at the behest of wool growers, who realized that cotton cloth would compete with woolens. These restrictions were largely unsuccessful, however, as the public increasingly demanded cotton cloth. Cotton in seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century England was spun at home as a cottage industry, but with the Industrial Revolution production began to shift to large industrial mills. New spinning techniques and new mechanical looms stimulated the growth of the cotton textile industry by making cotton production easier and less expensive. The invention of the cotton gin by the American Eli Whitney in 1793 allowed cotton seeds to be easily removed mechanically, eliminating the slow and laborious process of removing the seeds by hand and lowering the cost of cotton production.
To sustain the increased levels of production made possible by industrialization, the British needed new sources of cotton. Both Egypt and the American South emerged as important centers of cotton cultivation supplying British textile mills. India was also a producer, though its cotton was generally considered to be of lower quality, and lack of adequate infrastructure in India made export difficult. The demand for cotton and the resultant need to secure cotton supplies prompted British imperial expansion, and made Egypt and the American colonies especially important. The same applied to the French, who established cotton plantations in their own colonies in the West Indies and in West Africa.
COTTON AND THE RISE OF MODERN EGYPT
Cotton was essential in the rise of modern Egypt, which became a major cotton-producing region in the nineteenth century and continues to be a major producer today. The rise of Egypt's cotton industry was largely due to Muhammad 'Ali (there are various spellings of his name), ruler of Egypt from 1805 to 1848. Muhammad 'Ali's consolidation of Egyptian power and his early modernizing policies have earned him the name "Father of Modern Egypt."
Muhammad 'Ali (ca. 1769–1849) was born in Albania. As a soldier in the Ottoman army, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming governor of Egypt, which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire. An autocratic, ambitious, clever, and crafty person, he quickly became the ruler of a virtually independent Egypt, after eliminating the Mamluk rulers in 1811. Muhammad 'Ali recognized that he could enhance Egypt's independence by using profits generated by cotton exports to expand the military and develop infrastructure. He used cotton profits to finance military expeditions into Syria and other Ottoman territories and to establish industry in Egypt.
Muhammad 'Ali encouraged European experts and technicians to settle in Egypt. Louis Alexis Jumel (1785–1823), a French textile engineer, came to Egypt in 1817 as the director of a spinning mill. A few years later Jumel discovered a cotton bush in a Cairo garden that was producing a superior kind of cotton, with a long staple and strong fiber. Jumel tried growing this cotton himself, and was successful in producing cotton of much greater quality than that previously grown in Egypt. Realizing that this new kind of cotton could revolutionize Egypt's cotton industry and generate large profits for the Egyptian government, Muhammad 'Ali financially supported Jumel's cotton research.
The new Jumel cotton was much in demand in Europe. Under Muhammad 'Ali's orders, Egyptian peasants, called fellahin, began extensively planting Jumel cotton in the delta of the Nile River. The government monopolized the cotton industry, buying raw cotton directly from the growers and selling it directly to European traders. Muhammad 'Ali also organized irrigation projects, provided credit and seed to the peasants, and brought in additional technicians from Europe. Cotton growing required a lot of labor (as did ginning), but under an authoritarian government the peasants had little choice but to accept the orders to grow cotton; the peasants, however, also realized that they too could profit from growing cotton. Muhammad 'Ali tried importing American Sea Island cotton, which was considered the world's best in quality, but this experiment was not successful, as the American plant did not grow well in Egypt (and actually caused an overall decline in cotton output as new fields were dedicated to it). Eventually, however, Sea Island cotton was successfully crossed with the Jumel variety.
By 1836 cotton accounted for 85 percent of Egypt's revenue generated from agricultural commodities, and cotton industries employed about 4 percent of the population, or about two hundred thousand people, during the 1830s. Muhammad 'Ali also constructed factories in Cairo to gin, spin, and weave cotton, bringing him into conflict with the British, who wanted Egypt to produce only raw cotton and feared that textile manufacture would compete with their own cotton mills. Muhammad 'Ali attempted to impose an import substitution policy in Egypt, to protect Egyptian industries, to limit the importation of foreign textiles, and to achieve a favorable balance of trade, but after Egypt's unsuccessful military ventures in Syria, he was forced to agree to the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1838, which abolished free trade and undermined Egyptian industry. Muhammad 'Ali was successful in Syria until the Great Powers, especially Great Britain and France, decided he was becoming too powerful and set out to clip his wings by intervening militarily. Against the Ottomans he had done very well.
Egypt gradually became incorporated into the greater European economic system as a supplier of raw materials. The cotton boom of 1861 to 1866, during the American Civil War, raised prices and increased production. Cotton cultivation had four major effects on the Egyptian state. First, it changed the nature of agriculture, shifting the focus to export crops and especially cotton. Second, it changed Cairo's relationship with the rest of the country, as the capital became an industrial center and purchaser of cotton, even as governmental decentralization gave the provinces greater political autonomy. Third, it integrated the Egyptian economy into the European one. Fourth, it increased state profits and allowed Egypt to engage in industrialization and modernization. Overall, cotton production helped Egypt assume a greater level of economic independence and control than was typical for colonized states, and helped bring about its current position as a leading Arab country.
COTTON IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH
The development of English cotton mills in the seventeenth century stimulated the demand for raw cotton, and Britain attempted to ensure supplies by encouraging plantations in British colonies. The American South was highly suitable for cotton growing. Up until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, only the long-staple, or American Sea Island, cotton (G. barbadense) was profitable. This cotton could only be grown in the hot and humid coastal areas of the Carolinas and Georgia. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 allowed the short-staple cotton, G. hirsutum, to be easily deseeded and thus cheaply produced. This type of cotton grew well in interior regions of southeastern and western North America, and its increased production soon led to the confiscation of Native American lands and stimulated extensive settlement in such states as Alabama and Mississippi, which became centers of the cotton industry. Because cotton production required cheap labor, African slavery became the basis of the production system. The expansion of the cotton industry increased the demand for slaves.
Cotton was important in the development of the United States as an industrial power. In New England states such as New Hampshire and Massachusetts, entrepreneurs established their own cotton mills, producing textiles that competed with those of Britain. New England competed with Britain both for the supply of raw cotton and for markets for cotton textiles. New England cotton mills provided employment and, as output increased, European immigration was encouraged to meet the demand for new mill workers. Cotton profits were also used to stimulate other industries, helping the United States to become an industrial country not long after its independence.
Though cotton had an important role in the formation of American industries, it was also a source of conflict. Mills were located in northern states; production in the South was dependent on slave labor. The conflict over slavery in the United States was largely stimulated by cotton and was a major cause of the Civil War (1861–1865), although much cotton was also produced by those not owning slaves. The expansion of cotton production in states of the lower Mississippi Valley also stimulated conflict over the question of whether or not these new states should allow slavery, as did Northern protective tariffs on these states' textile products. During the Civil War the North blockaded Southern ports, so that cotton could not be exported to Britain. This action drove up the worldwide price of cotton, and Egypt was one of the main beneficiaries of an increased price.
After the Civil War, the cotton industry was in a difficult position, as crops had been destroyed by war, the plantation system had broken down, and slavery was abolished. In the 1880s industrial cotton mills began to relocate from New England to Southern states, taking advantage of lower wages. By 1929 over half of the country's cotton mills were in the South. In 1894 the boll weevil, a small insect that attacked cotton plants, devastated much of the Southern cotton industry, contributing to the region's increasing poverty. Cotton production began shifting to Texas and California, which today are the two leading producing states, by 1930, and was dominated increasingly by large agribusinesses, rather than family farms. Cotton's difficulties continued into the 1980s, with the development of new synthetic textiles and the relocation of many mills to Asia. Within the past few decades, however, cotton has experienced a resurgent demand: Prices have risen and production has increased as consumers return to natural fibers.
Cotton was an important crop during the colonial era and remains one today. It is used for such textiles as the denim used in jeans, important in American and global clothing fashions. It helped stimulate economic development in places such as Egypt, whereas in other areas, such as the American South, it retarded economic growth while allowing milling regions such as Britain and New England to prosper. Overall, cotton played a key role in stimulating Western imperial expansion and industrialization.
see also Muhammad Ali.
Dodge, Bertha S. Cotton: The Plant That Would Be King. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
Fahmy, Khaled. All the Pasha's Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army, and the Making of Modern Egypt. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Owen, E. R. J. Cotton and the Egyptian Economy, 1820–1914. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.
Roberts, Richard L. Two Worlds of Cotton: Colonialism and Regional Economy in the French Soudan, 1800–1946. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Tignor, Robert. Egyptian Textiles and British Capital, 1930–1956. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1989.
Yafa, Stephen. Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map. New York: Viking, 2004.
Few commodities transformed modern local, national, and even global economies more dramatically than did cotton during the early national period. Its profitability in global markets fueled industrial expansion in Europe and eventually the United States, propelled expansion into the Old Southwest of the United States, demonstrated the continued productivity of slavery, and shaped politics within and outside of the South.
Cotton had been grown and used for cloth in Asia and the New World prior to the European encounter with either. In the early eighteenth century, East Indian–produced cotton calicos became increasingly important within the British Atlantic economy, despite imperial efforts to protect the centuries-old English woolen and Irish linen industries. In the eighteenth century, English colonists in the West Indies and Lower South began growing the crop in small amounts in order to make homespun cloth. Such production became both symbolically and materially important during the imperial crisis, as Patriots protested British policies, and during the American Revolution, when war limited access to European cloth.
By 1800, U.S. raw cotton exceeded domestic consumption and had entered a rapidly expanding market among British textile manufacturers. Demand grew in the late eighteenth century in part because cotton clothes could be more easily dyed and cleaned than wool or linen. Inventions such as the spinning jenny, water frame, and Crompton's mule increased manufacturers' ability to meet this demand. Britain's failure to develop colonial sources of raw cotton led British merchants and manufacturers to turn to the coastal regions of the Lower South. There, planters facing sagging indigo and rice markets turned to long-staple Sea Island cotton as a way of getting out of debt. The long, high-quality fibers of Sea Island cotton fetched good prices but could not be grown inland. Experimentation with different seeds and hybridization created shorter-staple crops better suited for up-country soils and climates.
Growing cotton proved only one of the challenges facing planters and the laborers—mostly slaves—who cultivated it. Before the cotton was processed, slaves had to handpick numerous seeds out of the sticky fibers. To avoid this time-consuming task, planters and slaves looked for ways to build and improve machines that could gin seeds out without damaging the plants' threads. In 1793 Eli Whitney invented the most important of these gins, which was soon pirated and improved as the new technology proliferated throughout the Lower South. In addition to this invention, cotton production spawned a host of related technologies, including bagging and balling machines and in the late 1820s a railroad project designed to transport cotton goods to Charleston, South Carolina.
cotton, slavery, and westward expansion
Though yeomen farmers grew small quantities of southern cotton, slavery marched westward along with cotton cultivation. High cotton prices provided both the demand for and the capital necessary to purchase more slaves. This fact led South Carolinians (at the behest of backcountry farmers) to reopen the international slave trade in 1803. After Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808, a robust domestic slave trade transported tens of thousands of surplus slaves from the Upper South to work the fertile cotton fields of western Georgia, Alabama, middle Tennessee, and the Mississippi Valley, usually in small gangs. In addition to adding to the slave population of the Lower South, cotton's continued profitability challenged the common assumption that slavery would ultimately prove unprofitable and that diffusion westward would lead to its natural death. Instead, the sons and daughters of eastern planters, with fixed capital in slaves and often facing soil exhaustion, simply uprooted their entire labor force and headed west for cheaper lands. By the early 1830s the southwestern states of Alabama and Mississippi surpassed Georgia and South Carolina as the largest producers of raw cotton. Considerable diversity existed in the Lower South, but the centrality of cotton for local and state economies guaranteed general regional support for slavery, commercial agriculture, and free trade.
cotton and the national economy
Cotton planters were not the only Americans to benefit from the cotton trade. As it grew in the early nineteenth century, northern merchant houses, creditors, factors, and ship owners became the chief intermediaries financing and transporting the crop to Liverpool and other overseas markets. By the 1820s, New York—aided by a strong financial sector and the United States' first steamship line—became the central cog in a complex trade that imported finished goods to America, distributed them inland and along the eastern seaboard, and then carried raw cotton to Europe for manufacturing. Restrictions on the participation of foreign vessels in the coastal trade gave U.S. merchants and shippers (mostly from the Northeast) a virtual monopoly on this trade. By 1820 cotton composed 40 percent of the value of all American exports, a percentage that grew to 50 percent by 1830 and 60 percent by 1840.
As early as the 1790s, economist Tench Coxe proposed that the growth and manufacturing of raw cotton could make the United States a leading manufacturing nation and help unite different regions. Though some small New England textile mills did exist at that time, not until after the War of 1812 did American textiles become an important sector of the American economy. The Panic of 1819 ruined many of the new businesses created by the war, but cotton manufacturers continued to grow steadily in northeastern cities, shifting production out of homes and skilled small shops into increasingly mechanized factories. Rather than harmonizing the nation's interests, however, the growth of textile firms, which demanded high protective tariffs, conflicted with the commitment of southern cotton planters to overseas markets. Annually, over two-thirds (in some years 90 percent) of U.S. cotton was exported, leading southerners to prioritize free trade abroad over the creation of domestic manufacturing through methods that restricted trade.
Despite some economic diversification in the late antebellum period, the South's continued commitment to cotton production and commercial agriculture dramatically shaped that region's economic development, likely retarding urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. The debates surrounding the rise of King Cotton and the slave power necessary to perpetuate it continued to tear the political fabric of the nation.
Bruchey, Stuart, ed. and comp. Cotton and the Growth of the American Economy, 1790–1860: Sources and Readings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.
Chaplin, Joyce E. An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Schoen, Brian D. "The Fragile Fabric of Union: The Cotton South, Federal Politics and the Atlantic World, 1783–1861." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, 2004.
Woodman, Harold D. King Cotton and His Retainers: Financing and Marketing the Cotton Crop of the South, 1800–1925. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Wright, Gavin. The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton, 1978.
Cotton is a fiber obtained from various species of plants, genus Gossypium, family Malvaceae (Mallow), and is the most important and widely used natural fiber in the world. Cotton is primarily an agricultural crop, but it can also be found growing wild. Originally cotton species were perennial plants, but in some areas cotton has been selectively bred to develop as an annual plant . There are more than 30 species of Gossypium, but only four species are used to supply the world market for cotton. Gossypium hirsutum, also called New World or upland cotton, and G. barbadense, the source of Egyptian cotton and Sea Island Cotton, supply most of the world's cotton fiber. G. barbadense was brought from Egypt to the United States around 1900. A hybrid of these two cotton species known as Pima cotton, is also an important source of commercial cotton. These species have relatively longer fibers and greater resistance to the boll weevil, the most notable insect pest of cotton plants. Asian cotton plants, G. arboreum and G. herbaceum grow as small shrubs and produce relatively short fibers. Today, the United States produces one-sixth of the world's cotton. Other leading cotton producing countries are China (the world's biggest producer), India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Turkey. The world production of cotton in the early 1990s was about 18.9 million metric tons per year. The world's largest consumers of cotton are the United States and Europe .
Cotton was one of the first cultivated plants. There is evidence that the cotton plant was cultivated in India as long as 5,000 years ago. Specimens of cotton cloth as old as 5,000 years have been found in Peru, and scientists have found ancient specimens of the cotton plant dating 7,000 years old in caves near Mexico City. Cotton was one of the resources sought by Columbus, and while he did not manage to find a shorter route to India, he did find species of cotton growing wild in the West Indies.
The cotton plant grows to a height of 3–6 ft (0.9–1.8 m), depending on the species and the region where it is grown. The leaves are heart-shaped, lobed, and coarse veined, somewhat resembling a maple leaf . The plant has many branches with one main central stem. Overall, the plant is cone or pyramid shaped.
After a cotton seed has sprouted (about four to five weeks after planting), two "seed" leaves provide food for the plant until additional "true" leaves appear. Flower buds protected by a fringed, leafy covering develop a few weeks after the plant starts to grow, and then bloom a few weeks later. The flower usually blooms in the morning and then withers and turns color within two to three days. The bloom falls off the plant, leaving a ripening seed pod.
Pollination must occur before the flower falls off. Pollen from the stamens (male part) is transferred to the stigma (female part) by insects and wind , and travels down the stigma to the ovary. The ovary contains ovules, which become seeds if fertilized. The ovary swells around the seeds and develops into a boll. The cotton boll is classified as a fruit because it contains seeds. As the bolls develop, the leaves on the plant turn red.
About four months are needed for the boll to ripen and split open. A cotton boll contains 27 to 45 seeds and each seed grows between 10,000 and 20,000 hairs or fibers. Each fiber is a single cell , 3,000 times longer than wide. The fibers develop in two stages. First, the fibers grow to their full length (in about three weeks). For the following three to four weeks, layers of cellulose are deposited in a crisscross fashion, building up the wall of the fiber. After the boll matures and bursts open, the fibers dry out and become tiny hollow tubes that twist up, making the fiber very strong. The seed hairs or fibers grow in different lengths. The outer and longer fibers grow to 2.5 in (6.4 cm) and are primarily used for cloth. These fibers are very strong, durable, flexible, and retain dyes well. The biological function of the long seed hairs is to help scatter the seeds around in the wind. The inner, short fibers are called linter.
Growing, harvesting, processing
Cotton requires a long growing season (from 180 to 200 days), sunny and warm weather, plenty of water during the growth season, and dry weather for harvest. Cotton grows near the equator in tropical and semitropical climates. The Cotton Belt in the United States reaches from North Carolina down to northern Florida and west to California. A crop started in March or April will be ready to harvest in September. Usually, cotton seeds are planted in rows. When the plants emerge, they need to be thinned. Herbicides , rotary hoes, or flame cultivators are used to manage weeds. Pesticides are also used to control bacterial and fungal diseases, and insect pests .
For centuries, harvesting was done by hand. Cotton had to be picked several times in the season because bolls of cotton do not all ripen at the same time. Today, most cotton is mechanically harvested. Farmers wait until all the bolls are ripe and then defoliate the plants with chemicals, although sometimes defoliation occurs naturally from frost.
Harvested cotton needs to be cleaned before going to the gin. Often, the cotton is dried before it is put through the cleaning equipment which removes leaves, dirt, twigs, and other unwanted material. After cleaning, the long fibers are separated from the seeds with a cotton gin and then packed tightly into bales of 500 lb (227 kg). Cotton is classified according to its staple (length of fiber), grade (color), and character (smoothness). At a textile mill, cotton fibers are spun into yarn and then woven or knitted into cloth. The seeds, still covered with linter, are sent to be pressed in an oil mill.
Cotton seeds are valuable by-products. The seeds are delinted by a similar process to ginning. Some linter is used to make candle wicks, string, cotton balls, cotton batting, paper , and cellulose products such as rayon, plastics , photographic film, and cellophane. The delinted seeds are crushed and the kernel is separated from the hull and squeezed. The cottonseed oil obtained from the kernels is used for cooking oil, shortening, soaps, and cosmetics. A semi-solid residue from the refining process is called soap stock or foots, and provides fatty acids for various industrial uses such as insulation materials, soaps, linoleum, oilcloth, waterproofing materials, and as a paint base. The hulls are used for fertilizer, plastics, and paper. A liquid made from the hulls called furfural is used in the chemical industry. The remaining mash is used for livestock feed.
See also Natural fibers.
Basra, Amarjit. Cotton Fibers: Developmental Biology, QualityImprovement, & Textile Processing. Food Products Press, 2001.
Jenkins, Johnie N., and Sukumar Saha, eds. Genetic Improvement of Cotton: Emerging Technologies. Science Publishers, Inc., 2001.
Stewart, J. M. Biotechnology in Cotton Research and Production. CABI Publishing, 2003.
Christine Miner Minderovic
KEY TERMS. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
—The fruit of the cotton plant that holds the fiber and seeds.
—The main ingredient of plant tissue and fiber.
- Cotton gin
—Machine (invented by Eli Whitney) that separates the cotton fiber from the seeds.
—The short, fuzzy fiber left on the seed after ginning.
—The lower part of the pistil where seeds develop.
—Small structures within the ovary that develop into seeds if fertilized.
—Fine powder made in the anthers of a flower that carries the male cells.
—Male reproductive organ of a flower that produces pollen.
—The part of the female organs of a plant flower (the pistil) upon which pollen lands in the first stage of fertilization.
cotton, most important of the vegetable fibers, and the plant from which the fiber is harvested.
The Cotton Plant
The cotton plant belongs to the genus Gossypium of the family Malvaceae (mallow family). It is generally a shrubby plant having broad three-lobed leaves and seeds in capsules, or bolls; each seed is surrounded with downy fiber, white or creamy in color and easily spun. The fibers flatten and twist naturally as they dry.
Cotton is of tropical origin but is most successfully cultivated in temperate climates with well-distributed rainfall. All western U.S. cotton and as much as one-third of Southern cotton, however, is grown under irrigation. In the United States nearly all commercial production comes from varieties of upland cotton (G. hirsutum), but small quantities are obtained from sea-island and American-Egyptian cotton (both belonging to the species G. barbadense). G. arboreum and G. herbaceum are the chief cultivated species in Asia.
Cotton is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Malvales, family Malvaceae.
Planting and Production
Cotton is planted annually by seed in furrows; the plants are thinned and weeded during the spring growing season. Diseases and insect pests are numerous; of these the most destructive has been the boll weevil, which has caused enormous losses. Genetically altered strains of cotton are being developed that can resist infestation by some insects and damage by application of herbicides.
Mechanical harvesting is preceded by a chemical-defoliant spray to remove the leaves, leaving only the cotton bolls. In the ginhouse the cotton is separated from the seeds by a cotton gin and then baled. The usual plantation bale, weighing 500 lb (227 kg), is covered with jute and bound with iron hoops. The U.S. Dept of Agriculture has established standards for grades of cotton. The manufacture of cotton cloth involves many processes—carding, combing, and spinning—which transform raw fiber into yarn or thread strong enough for weaving.
Uses of Cotton
Innumerable commodities are made from cotton. From the lint (the fiber separated from the seed) come the major products, chiefly textile and yarn goods, cordage, automobile-tire cord, and plastic reinforcing. The linters (short, cut ends removed from the seed after ginning) are a valuable source of cellulose. Cotton hulls are used for fertilizer, fuel, and packing; fiber from the stalk is used for pressed paper and cardboard.
Production of the chief byproduct, cottonseed oil, has grown into a separate industry since its establishment in the late 19th cent. The oil content of cotton seeds is about 20%. After being freed from the linters, the seeds are shelled and then crushed and pressed or treated with solvents to obtain the crude oil. In its highly refined state, cottonseed oil is employed as salad and cooking oil, for cosmetics, and especially in the manufacture of margarine and shortenings. Paint makers use it to some extent as a semidrying oil. Less refined grades are used in the manufacture of soap, candles, detergents, artificial leather, oilcloth, and many other commodities. Cottonseed oil is increasingly important to cotton growers as cotton fiber meets competition from cheaper and stronger synthetic fibers.
Cotton has been spun, woven, and dyed since prehistoric times. It clothed the people of ancient India, Egypt, and China. Hundreds of years before the Christian era cotton textiles were woven in India with matchless skill, and their use spread to the Mediterranean countries. In the 1st cent. Arab traders brought fine muslin and calico to Italy and Spain. The Moors introduced the cultivation of cotton into Spain in the 9th cent. Fustians and dimities were woven there and in the 14th cent. in Venice and Milan, at first with a linen warp. Little cotton cloth was imported to England before the 15th cent., although small amounts were obtained chiefly for candlewicks. By the 17th cent. the East India Company was bringing rare fabrics from India. Native Americans skillfully spun and wove cotton into fine garments and dyed tapestries. Cotton fabrics found in Peruvian tombs are said to belong to a pre-Inca culture. In color and texture the ancient Peruvian and Mexican textiles resemble those found in Egyptian tombs.
Effect of the Cotton Gin
The invention (1793) of the cotton gin, a machine for separating seeds from fiber, and the mechanization of textile production in the Industrial Revolution enabled cotton to supersede flax and wool textiles. Cotton has played a significant role in history. Britain's need for imported cotton fiber encouraged its accession to the Monroe Doctrine; Britain's need for vast African and Indian markets for its cotton manufactures influenced its role as an imperial sea power. Beginning in North America in the Jamestown colony (1607), cotton cultivation became the basis of the one-crop, slave-labor economy of the Deep South and a principal economic cause of the Civil War. The end of slavery and the exhaustion of the soil pushed the Cotton Belt to the west. The demand for and production of cotton in the 19th cent. also provided impetus for the development of global capitalism.
Cotton Production Today
Today the leading cotton states are Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Louisiana. From the early days of the republic until recent years the United States was the world's leading cotton producer and second only to Great Britain in the manufacture of cotton goods. China now is the leading cotton-producing country, followed by the United States and India. Other important cotton producers are Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. China and India are the leading cotton manufacturers, followed by the United States, where cotton mills have relocated from New England to the Southern cotton-producing states. Historically, all cotton-producing nations have depended on cheap labor; although mechanical cultivating and picking devices have long been known, they have been widely used (especially in the United States) only since World War II.
See J. M. Munro, Cotton (2d ed. 1987); C. W. Smith and J. T. Cothren, ed., Cotton (1999); G. Riello, Cotton (2013); S. Beckert, Empire of Cotton (2014).
a valued fiber crop.
An important fiber crop in the Middle East from the early Islamic period onward, cotton acquired new significance in the nineteenth century as the region's paramount export crop and most important raw material link to the world of European industrial capitalism. Egypt took pride of place in the development of the cotton industry as the earliest and long the largest producer of cotton for export. Traditionally, Egyptians had grown several different short-fiber varieties for domestic use, but under Muhammad Ali the government experimented with a locally discovered long-fiber variety of the sort preferred by European textile manufacturers. The first large harvest, overseen at every stage by experts from Syria and Anatolia, was realized in 1822. It brought a good price in Europe, where specialists appraised it as second in quality only to American Sea Island cotton from Georgia.
Poor agricultural practices and quality control, stemming partly from the Egyptian government monopoly's reluctance to reward peasant farmers
for following the advice of the experts, led to a decline after initial success. After the mid-1830s, the frustration of Muhammad Ali's ambitious industrialization efforts, which had included textile factories for producing military uniforms, contributed to the decline. Recovery was unexpectedly prompted by the American Civil War, which made it difficult for European mill owners to acquire high-quality raw materials. Exports soared from 25,000 tons, the plateau reached in the 1850s, to 125,000 tons in 1865. After a postwar readjustment, exports resumed their increase, hitting a record 374,000 tons in 1910. By that time, cotton, to which almost a quarter of all cropped land was dedicated, accounted for 80.1 percent of Egypt's total exports, up from 66.6 percent in 1884. Later, nationalist critics charged the British, in control of Egypt since 1882, with turning the country into a giant cotton farm for the benefit of British manufacturers.
The American Civil War stimulated cotton exports from Syria and Anatolia, as well, but the post-war slump in prices drove production back down. Iran, too, shared in the wartime boom; but there the postwar fall in prices was eventually countered by a twelvefold expansion in general trade with Russia, particularly from the 1880s on. By World War I, Russia received 70 percent of Iranian exports, with cotton the most important product. Volume was 25,000 metric tons in 1913, amounting to some 95 percent of all cotton exports. In the 1930s, the Iranian government entered on an industrialization drive that increasingly exploited cotton for domestic manufacturing. By the end of the decade, production had grown to 38,000 metric tons, of which only one-seventh was being exported; and Iranian mills were supplying half the domestic market for cotton cloth.
Cotton developed as the major cash crop of the Sudan from 1925 onward with the development of new irrigation projects. Turkish production expanded after World War I and boomed in the 1950s when the Korean War raised world commodity prices. The same circumstances turned cotton into Syria's biggest cash crop. Israeli and Afghan production expanded in the 1960s, much of the latter country's cotton being destined for export to the Soviet Union. By the late 1970s, 11.6 percent of the world's cotton production came from the Middle East, and the region encompassed 7 percent of the total world acreage devoted to cotton. The largest outputs, in thousands of metric tons, were those of Turkey (522), Iran (490), Egypt (413), Sudan (166), Syria (150), Israel (65), and Afghanistan (50). Much smaller amounts were produced in Morocco, Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen.
Cotton is the fabric of choice for clothing in much of the Middle East. Its lightness and absorbency particularly suit it to hot climates. Terms of Middle Eastern origin pertaining to types of cotton cloth—damask from Damascus, gauze from Gaza—testify to the long history of cotton textiles and are a reminder of a time when many cities of the area were known for their distinctive weaves and patterns. The transition from handwoven cotton fabrics to factory-made products initially favored the export of raw fiber and the import of inexpensive finished goods. This led, in turn, to disarray in the domestic textile industry, largely based on small workshops. Though tens of thousands of workers were still using handlooms at the end of World War I, and such distinctive local fabrics as the block-printed cottons of Iran and the embroidered tablecloths of Damascus survive to this day as choice products of national handicraft industries, most cotton textile production now takes place in modern spinning and weaving mills.
In 1977 the region produced 500,000 metric tons of cotton yarn, with the highest output from Egypt, Turkey, and Syria. It also produced 2,640 million square meters of cotton fabric, with production concentrated most heavily in Egypt, Iran, and Syria. These figures represent approximately 5 percent of total world production from a region then comprising roughly the same proportion of the world's population.
see also muhammad ali.
Owen, E. R. J. Cotton and the Egyptian Economy, 1820–1914: A Study in Trade and Development. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.
Rivlin, Helen Anne B. The Agricultural Policy of Muhammad Ali in Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961.
Tignor, Robert L. Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882–1914. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Richard W. Bulliet
Cotton, a plant native to most of the warmer regions on earth, including the tropical and semitropical regions of the Americas. It was cultivated and woven into cloth by all three of the great pre-Columbian civilizations: the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas. Long before European contact with the Americas, cotton had been introduced into Europe from the Middle East, and consequently was not particularly impressive to the newly arrived Spanish conquerors. Nevertheless, cultivation of cotton continued after contact, and contributed to a cottage textile industry in Spanish and Portuguese America during the colonial period.
The mechanization of the spinning and weaving processes during the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century increased production of cotton textiles enormously. In the mid-1700s both the Portuguese colony of Brazil and the British Caribbean islands exported large amounts of cotton fiber for the rapidly growing British textile industy. By 1800, however, the United States had replaced the Caribbean islands as the major transatlantic source of cotton, thanks to Eli Whitney's cotton gin.
After independence, during the middle and late nineteenth century (the liberal/positivist period), many Latin American countries, particularly Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, attempted to develop their own textile industries, and in conjunction with this effort they expanded cotton production. In addition, cotton became a very profitable export commodity for Latin American countries after the U.S. cotton industry was destroyed by the Civil War. By the end of World War I, textile manufacturing had been initiated in most Latin American countries, and most countries were producing cotton for domestic use, for export, or for both. Because cotton was intimately connected to industrialization and nascent capitalism, it produced a semiproletarian agricultural work force in many places. Accordingly, wage-earning cotton workers were often among the first agricultural laborers to organize unions.
Cotton again became important in the 1960s, when the United States and its Alliance for Progress encouraged the stimulation of nontraditional agricultural exports in Latin America. Cotton was a natural choice for Central Americans because improved pesticide technology made their Pacific coastal plain ideal for the crop. In Central America, access to credit and other incentives were available for those who would produce and export raw cotton. Consequently, Central American cotton production increased by 500 percent between 1961 and 1973. By 1977, Central America was the third largest producer of cotton for the world market, behind the United States and Egypt.
Vastly increased cotton production in Central America had disastrous economic effects for the poorest agricultural workers. Land that had previously been dedicated to subsistence farming of corn was turned over to cotton. This displacement contributed to the proletarianization process that was taking place among agricultural workers in much of Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately for the peasants who had previously inhabited this cropland, cotton did not provide stable employment for wage laborers. Because of the mechanized nature of modern cotton production, labor demands are relatively low for much of the growing season. Consequently, most of these newly proletarianized agricultural workers were forced to migrate.
Cotton, both as an export commodity and as an input for domestic textile production, continues to be an important Latin American industry. Cotton has also been a source of trade tension between the United States and Latin American countries. In 2007, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that U.S. subsidies constituted an unfair trade practice. Consequently, the WTO allowed Brazil to raise tariffs on select U.S. products in retaliation.
José Romero Loza, Algodón en Bolivia, 2d ed. (1978).
Bertha Dodge, Cotton: The Plant That Would Be King (1984).
Forrest D. Colburn and Silvio De Franco, "Privilege, Production, and Revolution: The Case of Nicaragua," Comparative Politics 17, no. 3 (1985): 277-290.
Robert G. Williams, Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America (1986).
Barry Carr, "The Mexican Communist Party and Agrarian Mobilization in the Laguna, 1920–1940: A Worker-Peasant Alliance," Hispanic American Historical Review 67, no. 3 (1987): 371-404.
Dawn Keremitsis, The Cotton Textile Industry in Porfiriato Mexico (1987).
Michael J. Gonzales, "The Rise of Cotton Tenant Farming in Peru, 1890–1920: The Condor Valley," Agricultural History 65, no. 1 (1991): 51-71.
Cueto, Marcos, and Jorge Lossio. Innovación en la agricultura: Fermín Tangüis y el algodón en el Perú. Lima: Universidad del Pacifico, Centro de Investigación, 1999.
Gómez-Galvarriato, Aurora, ed. La industria textil en México. Mexico City: Instituto Mora, Colegio de Michoacán: Colegio de México: Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas-UNAM, 1999.
Rachel A. May