Cotton has been called the key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Historian Sven Beckert estimates that, by the mid-19th century, one in four Britons depended on the cotton industry for their livelihood. This natural resource fueled the development of global exchange networks, slave labor systems, and industrial factories which, in turn, altered the way that humans thought about and interacted with the natural world.
This exhibition unpacks the Samuel Oldknow Papers, a Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript archive unassumingly described as “the papers of a watermill,” that in fact showcases the growing importance of cotton manufacturing to Britain’s domestic industry both as a hub for growing international trade and a source of employment that shaped many working people’s lives. The Oldknow-Arkwright archive combines the papers of Samuel Oldknow, an English industrialist who was the first large-scale domestic manufacturer of lightweight cotton cloth, and Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning frame. The papers—letters, account books, invoices, and payrolls documenting the rise and fall of a cotton empire—provide valuable insight into many facets of the new factory system, including the extension of global trade networks dependent on slave labor and imported cotton and the transformation of local British environments, from waterways, ports and canals to sleepy agricultural towns. While Oldknow has typically been a subject for economic historians, who tend to focus on this industrialist’s (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to build a modern factory, in fact these papers also capture England in the throes of enormous social and ecological changes.
Displayed here is only a selection of the archive, highlighting the entwined stories of the growth of global commodity networks, the development of modern capitalist institutions, and the beginning of a campaign to vanquish environmental constraints in the pursuit of economic growth. The global cotton trade is captured in Oldknow’s correspondence with a representative in Brazil, who attempted to sell Oldknow’s manufactured goods across South America. The nature of the warm-weather cotton plant appears in political concerns about domestic industrial reliance on a staple that could not grow in England and also in popular discussions of how new lightweight cloths would shape fashion and commodity culture. Finally, we see behind the scenes of land and resource monopolization, as Oldknow writes to his lawyers to make sure that in purchasing land for a new factory, he also had sole right to its waterways.
Melina Moe, Bernadette Myers