Domestic Cotton Policy
By the beginning of the 19th century, cotton was one of the single most important inputs to the British manufacturing sector. But in the 18th century, the question was still up for debate: should Britain should focus on manufacturing cotton when it couldn't grow the plant?
In this letter, Samuel Salte recounts a meeting with the “Lords of the Council for Trade,” in which he presented his "observations on the British Muslin & Callico Manufacture.” Salte was a London businessman who acted as a middleman between Oldknow’s cotton manufacturing center in the North and retailers in the South. Salte’s account of this meeting, alongside the archive’s frequent correspondence between Salte and Oldknow discussing popular fashions and what materials Oldknow should produce, places Oldknow’s operations within the growing importance of national cotton production.
These “Lords of Trade," Salte reports, “hardly knew of a Manufacture of Brittish Muslins,” and were likely only familiar with the high quality, popular fabric imported from India, the trade in which had slowed, though not entirely disappeared, after an important ban was enacted in 1720. In order for British businessmen to invest in domestic manufacture, they would have to be convinced both that domestic manufacturers could produce a rival product and that long-distance trade routes could reliably deliver raw cotton. The proof of domestic production was in the samples Oldknow sent with Salte to show to the Trade Council. (Though the archive does not contain textile swatches, it does have pattern drawings that Salte sent Oldknow sketching out what he thought would be popular patterns.) Salte reports to Oldknow that the cloth from his factory went over very well: “I took with me various Samples. I need not tell you the Compl[emen]ts that were paid. They were equally surprised & pleased at my Exhibition.”
Salte recounts to Oldknow how he overcame his audience’s protests that the very idea of developing British Cotton Manufacture to rival Bengal was “a very wild & Chimerichal Scheme.” Salte pointed out to them the importance of Richard Arkwight’s spinning invention as a key technology for making manufacture of cotton cloth at scale a possibility. Salte transcribed as an addendum to his letter part of his official presentation to the Lords, “Observations of the Brittish Muslin & Callico Manufacture,” in which he underscored how “The mechanical Skill of Mr. Arkwright & other persons connected with him in erecting Mills & Machines for Carding & Spinning Cotton Wool is the primary cause of all improvements in the Cotton Manufacture.”
Cotton manufacturing fueled economic growth and fanned the flames of new debates about what constituted Britain’s national interest. The longstanding English wool industry found itself facing both an identity crisis. The pamphlet displayed here was composed by an embittered wool merchant in 1782 who claims that newfangled calicoes were undercutting the price of ‘homegrown’ woolen fabrics. The title page announces woolen fleece to be the “first and great Staple of our Land,” a role from which it cannot be displaced because “cotton can be no staple, since England does not produce a single ounce.” In a comparison of linen, cotton, silk and wool, this pamphleteer argues that only wool can be a point of national pride and civic duty.
In 1700, Parliament officially banned the retail and purchase of India’s dyed, stained and printed cotton calicoes and silks in England. This was the first of many “Calico Acts” designed to protect English woolen and silk manufacturers from the competition of the cotton imported by the East India Company. Throughout the eighteenth century, silk and wool manufacturers and their advocates maintained an active campaign in support of the bans. The Interest of England Consider’d, published just before the second, even more restrictive, Calico Act, claims that the English wool manufacturing, “at this Day lies bleeding, by reason of the Wounds given her by two sorts of Persons” (6): those Englishmen and women who consume painted, printed or stained Callicos and those who export native English wool to be manufactured elsewhere. Ironically, in attempting to construct an argument for the complete prohibition of these bad Trades” (12), the author appeals to England’s reputation as a vibrant center for trade and commerce: “It was Trade and Commerce that laid the Foundation of [England’s] Glory...and as long as Trade shall be encourag’d and flourish, Riches, and furth Accessions of Power and Greatness may be expected as the genuine Effects thereof.”