History of Cotton - A Summary Overview

The word for "cotton" comes from the Arabic word, qutn قُطْن which came into widespread use in Western circles circa 1400.(1) This indicates the presence of cotton and cotton products making their way from the Arab world into European commerce along with the spice trade. But it was expensive and only available in small quantities.

Cotton, cotton that was viable for commercial production, comes onto the stage of history as a discovery from the New World openned up by Christopher Columbus and others, in the late 1700s. Peru is seen as the source of Gossypium barbadense and Mexico is the source of Gossypium hirsutum. Peru and Mexico had been cultivating and using cotton for millenia. (1)

As reported in the Cotton Year Book, 1910 and other sources, cotton plants from the West Indes were introduced to Barbados and then to the US state of Georgia. This was before the cotton gin was invented, and the smooth silky fibers of the Gossypium barbadense plants were necessary for any commercial success, because the fibers/lint could be separated from the seeds with minimal of effort.

The British textile industry started using cotton and importing it from the British Terretorial Islands southeast of the US. The comfort of cotton surpassed all other known fibers including wool, linen, and flax.

With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, Gossypium hirsutum became commercially viable and opened a new source of cheaper cotton. This cotton became a major cash crop for the Sothern United Stated economy. America soon dominated the world market somewhere between 1795 and 1820. At that time, nearly 77% of cotton exports into Great Britain were supplied by the United States.

Commercial production of cotton began in Egypt around 1822.

From an article by Seif Kamel, "Between 1818 and 1819, a Frenchman named Jumel, who had been to America and knew something about cotton, tried to persuade Mohammed Ali that an Ethiopian cotton called Maho, after a Turkish bey who grew it in his garden, could revolutionize the whole agricultural output of Egypt. Though Mohammed Ali wasn't convinced, Jamel and a local merchant planted a plot of the Maho cotton nearby the Heliopolis obelisk By 1820 they had shipped three bales of it to Trieste, which convinced Mohammed Ali enough to put Jamel in charge of his own cotton plantations." (2)

This development paved the way for en economic boom for Egypt, because the US cotton supply diminished during the American Civil War (1861–1865). During this time, Europe switched its sourcing to Egypt.

This time period was a golden age for Egyptian cotton. A railroad was built in Egypt and allowed cotton to branch across the country. Egypt became a major producer of cotton and a trading partner with Britain. Great Britain began to invest heavily in Egypt's cotton economy. They sent steam plows, cotton gins, packing presses and more to Egypt. While being backed by foreign investors, Egypt's cotton industry boomed. This increase also caused an increase in immigrants to Egypt. This influx of new workers caused other areas of the economy to flourish as well. For example, homes had to be built to house all of the new immigrants, so jobs were created through the increase of immigrants into the country.

The cotton boom for Egypt ended in 1866 when US producers increased their exports again. English manufacturers, however, continued to value the high quality of Egyptian cotton. The cotton that Egypt produced was more durable and could be made into a very fine yarn.

Global demand for cotton remained high until man-made fibers started taking market share at the end of the 20th century.

Over time in the 1900's, more countries entered the supply chain. The US Department of Agriculture reports on the current producers: "The world's four largest cotton-producing countries are China, India, the United States, and Pakistan, which together account for nearly 75 percent of world production. Other major producers include Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. While cotton is generally a Northern Hemisphere crop, about 8 percent of the world's output comes from south of the equator (primarily Brazil and Australia) and is harvested during the Northern Hemisphere's spring." (3)

Article by Sarah Seaver
July 2010

Footnotes

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton

(2) http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/cotton.htm

(3) http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Cotton/background.htm