A well-woven tale about cotton's place in history


Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map

By Stephen Yafa. Viking. 448 pages. $25.95.

In Moliere's satirical comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the nouveau-riche leading character feels obliged to wear a chintz robe because colorful cotton chintzes and calicoes from India had become all the rage in 17th-century Paris.

That literary tidbit is one of hundreds of items that Stephen Yafa weaves into his story of cotton, a history that reverberates in economics, science, race relations, fashion and popular culture. The book is another in a growing number of recent studies of commodities, including cod, salt and coal.

Yafa makes a strong case that cotton contributed mightily to the rise of Great Britain and the United States as world powers. Indian cotton, he points out, helped create British industrial imperialism, and Southern cotton triggered the American industrial revolution. By 1860, raw cotton made up more than half of all exports from the United States, and during the 19th century, the share of American clothing made from cotton rose from a slight 5 percent to a whopping 80 percent.

But America paid a heavy price. The demand for cotton and the resulting spread of slavery brought on the Civil War, which killed or wounded more than a million Northerners and Southerners. Even when slavery was abolished, it was replaced by an unfair system of sharecropping, accompanied by lynchings and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Starting about 1900, textile manufacturers disrupted the economy of New England by moving many of their mills south, where labor was cheaper. And between 1916 and 1928 and later, after World War II, a decline in Southern cotton acreage forced thousands of African-Americans to migrate to Northern cities.

One reason for the decline was the boll weevil, a bug so destructive that in one Georgia county annual production of cotton fell from 14,000 bales to barely 300 bales. Desperate farmers drenched their cotton plants with Paris Green and other sprays but only succeeded in polluting the soil. Not until the 1980s was a system of monitoring traps devised that detected boll-weevil populations and led to more efficient eradication.

Yafa was drawn to write this book by his youthful experiences in the rundown city of Lowell, Mass., once the greatest textile city in America. A novelist and playwright, Yafa has a knack for unearthing unusual material that breathes life into his work. He paints a vivid picture of Eli Whitney inventing the cotton gin while tutoring on a plantation that was owned by a beautiful widow. He describes the ways in which the music of blues guitarist B. B. King was inspired by his early life picking cotton. And he suggests, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that John Wayne and Elvis Presley might never have become folk heroes had it not been for denim blue jeans.

But it should be remembered that Yafa is not a historian. Sometimes he over-generalizes. For example, he is patently unfair in saying that Zachary Taylor -- an underestimated president -- was "as clueless about the slave debate as he was about everything else." And one wonders whether the 20th century, as he states, really showed a "steady descent from the Age of Abundance to the Age of Anxiety."

There is surely more abundance in America today than during the Great Depression. Aside from that reservation and other minor ones, if I were still teaching history, I would want a few copies of Big Cotton around to pique the curiosity of lively students.

Donald B. Cole is a professor of history emeritus at Phillips Exeter Academy. He is author of The Presidency of Andrew Jackson and A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy.

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