BIG COTTON: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map. By Stephen Yafa. Viking. 398 pp. $25.95
In his 14th-century bestseller Voyage and Travels, the English knight Sir John Mandeville described a half-animal, half-plant he called the “Vegetable Lamb.” Each pod on this amazing Scythian shrub, he wrote, contained a tiny lamb, and lint from the animals could be harvested and spun into a light fabric. For many Europeans, this fanciful account represented the first encounter with cotton, a crop that would transform their clothing, their working lives, and their place in the political world.
In Big Cotton, journalist Stephen Yafa traces the history of the plant and its products, beginning with the near-simultaneous domestication of wild cotton in Africa, South America, India, and Mexico around 3500 b.c. Cotton fabric woven in India was a luxury in ancient Greece and Rome, and in the 1660s a craze for Indian cotton chintz infected central and northern Europe. The popularity of the fabric helped drive the English invasion of India; the colonial government promptly outlawed the Indian manufacture of cotton fabric, requiring instead that raw domestic cotton be shipped to English mills. “By depriving India of the fruits of its own labor,” Yafa writes, “England all but guaranteed that the crop would one day come to symbolize colonial subjugation and provide a rallying point against it.”
The overwhelming demand for cotton goods in Europe also spurred the development of the first factory system and, in the words of one contemporary admirer, forced “human beings to renounce their desultory work habits.” In the late 1700s, fear of industrial piracy was so intense that the British refused to let cotton mill workers leave the country. But American entrepreneurs eventually smuggled some secrets out and, with the help of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (patented in 1794), launched a homegrown industry. The na tion’s textile center of Lowell, Massachusetts, hired thousands of New England farm girls to work 14-hour days with little respite, and thereby planted the seeds of the labor movement.
Northern industrialists, dependent on Southern slave labor for raw materials, were latecomers to the cause of abolition, but by the end of the 1850s, Yafa writes, many were “no longer willing to pay for their conscience with their cotton.” For their part, many Southerners believed cotton exports would underwrite their ultimate independence. In the decades after the Civil War, farmers attempted to rebuild the devastated Southern cotton economy, but they were stymied by low prices and the invasion of the boll weevil.
American cotton continued to dominate for a time. Some growers moved west, and in the late 1800s a Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss bolstered the consumer demand for sturdy cotton fabric. Today, however, domestic production of cotton (like that of some other crops) survives mainly on federal subsidies, and the U.S. textile industry is swiftly disappearing; more than 210,000 of its workers have lost their jobs since 2000. China has produced more cotton than the United States in recent decades; indeed, its mills are by far the most productive in the world.
Yafa has a weakness for trite metaphors and puns, and his eagerness to entertain occasionally gets in the way of the story. Still, his tale is ably constructed, dense with well-described heroes and villains, and largely worthy of its substantial subject.