The Cotton Plant
The likes and dislikes of perhaps no other plant were as widely discussed in the 18th century as those of cotton: what kind of soil did it favor? What temperatures and rainfall did it require? Could species of cotton be grown in the UK or would colonial control and shipping routes be increasingly important? Various species were compared, with many prizing the long, soft fibers of sea island cotton (gossypium barbadense) grown on the islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.
But, when it became clear that the cotton plant could not thrive in the notoriously damp, grey climate of England, there were concerns that the nation was making itself economically vulnerable by attempting to nurture a domestic textile industry dependent on imported raw materials. Cotton is “a vegetable cultivated in warm climates, particularly the East and West Indies” while sheep wool is “justly esteemed the staple commodity of England,” declared one detractor. Nationalist commentators frequently promoted wool as the natural English fabric. But, as the cotton industry grew and emerged as a profitable sector of Britain’s economy, the debate shifted to how to secure trade routes and suppliers. The reliable delivery of raw cotton became a focus of Britain’s political, military, and, ultimately, imperial ambitions and power for the next century.
Written by a hosiery manufacturer, A Treatise scrutinizes the characteristics and growing conditions of a number of different plants, as well as examining the utility of a range of different fibers. Wool, for instance, is dubbed a "staple commodity," not because it is native to England, but rather because of its "great and various uses" (12). The author also observes that climate and pasture are crucial ingredients in wool production. In one anecdote, the author describes a merchant who took sheep to Guinea only to find on his next voyage that they had lost their wool and become as "sleek as goats" (14).
In the section on "cotton wool," the author notes that "no wool [raw cotton] but yarn only is imported from the East-Indies, it being spun so very cheap by the natives..." but with the invention of Arkwright's spinning machine, "several thousand threads being spun at once by water, which will in time stop the importation from India" (22).
Among the many varieties of cotton, this volume highlights the appeal of “one of the finest cottons,” Sea Island cotton (gossypium barbadense), cultivated primarily off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. The species boasts extra-long fibers (longer than 34 millimeters) and, when spun and woven, produced fine, silky cloth. These long fibers made Sea Island cotton a prize plant which, in turn, fueled the demand for slave labor in American South.
London-based businessman Samuel Salte acted as a middleman between Oldknow’s Northern England manufacturing center and his London retailers. Salte and other wholesale purchasers could advise manufacturers on consumer preferences while also remaining sensitive to their technical capabilities and production capacity. In this letter, Salte orders a shipment of cotton fabrics from Oldknow that will be sent to France for dyeing and finishing. Salte even sketches eleven striped patterns, which he underscores must be made “clear and distinct,” imploring Oldknow: “I must beg you to come as near them as possible.” In another letter, Salte encouraged Oldknow to discontinue the production of simpler calico fabrics, suggesting instead: “We want as many spotted muslins and fancy muslins as you can make – the finer the better.”
Alongside the alignment of national military and economic power to ensure the provision of raw cotton, Britain protected its nascent industrial sector by banning Indian cotton cloth, known as chintz. Although the reduction in supply did little to stem the cloth’s popularity in England, the ban had lasting and devastating impacts on India’s textile industry, transforming India from an exporter of finished textiles to an exporter of raw materials. Textile production would not recover for more than a century and Gandhi would highlight the importance of domestic textile production to economic and political independence.
Prized for its soft drape and seen as a lightweight, comfortable alternative to silk and wool, cotton fabric became incredibly popular in the late 18th century. Muslin gowns, such as those advertised in The Ladies’ Museum, were likely constructed of British-made cotton by the end of the century, when they became popular for daytime and walking dresses. The layout of The Ladies' Museum often took a comparative approach, as in the dual images included here. In October 1830, the magazine notes that silk has been dethroned by muslin for daywear in fashionable French circles. The plates show a French public promenade dress composed of light-weight cotton fabric known as jaconet muslin opposite an English carriage dress, consisting of a pelisse composed of salmon-colored silk fabric known as gros des Indes.