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The Industrial Revolution: How Cotton Changed the World

Updated on May 9, 2014


Picture of cotton plant from cotton farm in Edenton, NC.
Picture of cotton plant from cotton farm in Edenton, NC. | Source

There were many great milestones in the history of world civilization that helped to shape the world as it is known today. One of the most important and all encompassing turning points in history was the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution not only changed how the world though in regard to production and invention, but was also responsible for many anthropological changes in family dynamics and the women’s sphere. With the help of the production of cotton many advanced in regard to invention, the expansion of slave trade, congressional laws, diplomatic relations, and imperialism were introduced to the world. With these advances in invention historians can see how this simple cash crop changed the world as it was known in the areas of wars, expansion, colonialism, sanitation, suffrage, and anthropology.

A little history on the cotton gin

Cotton helped to start the Industrial Revolution with the invention of the flying shuttle and the steam powered engine. Industrial expansion in Britain began in the mid-eighteenth century with the textile industry, when consumer demand spurred a transformation of the British cotton industry. The first important technological breakthrough came in 1733 when Manchester mechanic John Kay invented the flying shuttle, which sped up the weaving process.[1] In the following years many inventors invented better shuttles, some adapted for steam power which would allow the weaver to work faster. Production was key to many textile factories due to the high demand of cotton. The long list of industrial innovations in yarn-spinning technology, including the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, and the water-powered spinning mill--in combination with the roller printing machine, steam engines, and power looms--all enabled British manufacturers to supply their home market and to export machine-spun cotton yarn and machine-loomed cotton cloth to their colonies.[2] During the seventeenth century, English consumers became fond of calicoes-inexpensive, brightly printed cotton textiles from India. Cotton cloth came into demand because it was lighter and easier to wash than wool which was the principle fabric of European clothes before the nineteenth century. Demand for cotton was so strong that producers had to speed up spinning and weaving to supply growing markets. To increase production they turned to inventions that rapidly mechanized the cotton textile industry.[3] Not only did the suppliers of cotton have to focus upon the rapid production of the textile, they also had to find the resources for the raw cotton itself.

By the late eighteenth century, plantation owners in the southern United States realized the need for raw cotton and began growing cotton instead of the previous dominant cash crop, tobacco. The only problem was that the type of cotton that could be grown was at first an uneconomical crop that would take a long time to separate the seeds. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made it easier to process cotton. With a gin a slave could clean 50 times as much cotton as by hand.[4] Soon the cotton industry in the United States became the primary source for raw cotton. The need for the cash crop came at a high demand in regard to human life. Plantations needed workers to pick the cotton and they needed cheap labor. Slavery was the answer to many plantation owners’ dilemma for the hundreds of cheap laborers they needed to produce the raw cotton that was needed by the textile mills in Great Britain. This solution to the need for cheap labor started a movement that ultimately divided the United States and started the American Civil War. The American Civil War was the first war to affect not only the country it was taking place in, but also other countries. Great Britain depended upon the American south to produce the raw cotton that was needed and even supported the South during the American Civil War against international law. Several times the two nations came to the brink of war. In November of 1861 the USS San Jacinto stopped a British vessel and arrested two Confederate envoys en route to London. In 1862 two powerful cruisers were built for the Confederates in English shipyards. They were soon put to sea and wreaked havoc amongst northern merchant ships. When two ironclads were also built for the Confederates, the United States made it clear that it would declare war upon Britain if the ships were delivered.[5] This need for cotton changed the diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the United States. The United States was not the only country Great Britain sought to gain cotton through by any necessary or unnecessary means.

British imperial rule in India, from its modest seventeenth-century coastal beginnings to its most dramatic early twentieth-century manifestations throughout the Subcontinent, was inextricably bound up with the international textile trade.[6] Furthermore, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Manchester cotton manufacturers attempted to ameliorate their dependence upon the United States cotton supply by promoting cotton cultivation in India, thus accelerating India's ruralization and the decimation of its textile industry.[7] With cotton as an export, Great Brittan used cotton as another excuse to colonize India, and for a hundred years the country was under British Imperial rule. In the 1750s company merchants began campaigns of outright conquest in India, largely to protect their commercial interests. In 1857, widespread campaigns of conquest left most of the subcontinent under British control. Under both company rule, and direct colonial administration, British rule transformed India. They built extensive railroad and telegraph networks that tightened links between India and the larger global economy. They also constructed new canals, harbors, and irrigation systems to support commerce and agriculture.[8] Though Britain brought many advances to India through the inventions of the industrial revolution that had begun upon their own shores, they also brought a wake of war for cash crops such as cotton.

Colonial India
Colonial India | Source
The Poor Law Act
The Poor Law Act | Source

England did have its fair share of problems where cotton was a major concern. With the onset of the cotton famine England passed such laws as the Poor Law Amendment Act, and gave a voice to the working class laborers in England. The passing of such laws as the Poor Laws began the start of welfare systems. During downturns, local governments and charities adopted ad hoc methods for relieving the unemployed, and many skilled workers received unemployment benefits from their trade unions. The Poor Law remained an important source of income assistance to cyclically unemployed workers for at least three decades after the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. [9] This need for a welfare system in England coincided with the American Civil War. Due to the blockage of merchant ships from cotton in the American south, England faced a cotton famine and many laborers in the textile mills were without work. At the peak of the cotton famine, in December 1862, 266,500 persons were receiving poor relief in twenty-three distressed Poor Law unions, out of a population of 1,870,600. An additional 200,000 to 236,000 persons received relief from charitable funds. In total, 25 to 27 percent of the population of the distressed region obtained help through either public or private sources.[10] Not only did the textile manufacturers in Northern England suffer, but so did those in Southern Scotland. Paisley suffered because of the war. The cotton famine of 1862-1863, the result of the Confederate cotton embargo and the Northern blockade of Southern ports, cut off the town's supply of raw cotton that was used in the manufacture of cotton thread.[11] This placed many workers at odds with their professions and their own personal beliefs in regard to suffrage. The reaction of people in Southern Scotland to the war in America was extremely complex and refutes the idea that there was a strict polarization of opinions along the lines of social class or party political affiliation. Commentators examined war-related issues and, according to their attitudes toward such issues, formed their own opinions. This came out of a selfless devotion to principle and an awareness that the Civil War could prove instrumental in advancing political reform at home.[12] Though the people of Southern Scotland would have eventually formed an opinion on the American Civil War, they would not have been as directly affected by the war if it was not for the need for cotton from the southern states.

Brief history of the Industrial Revolution

Not all advances made by the industrialization of cotton were negative ones. The production of cotton into ready made clothing helped to improve health and sanitary conditions amongst the working class laborers of northwestern England as well as helped increase the amount of jobs that were available to the laboring class of England. Industrial production led to dramatic reductions in the cost of clothing, so by the early nineteenth century all but the desperately poor could afford several changes of clothing.[13] Having more than one outfit helped keep people cleaner and spread less disease. The standard of living was invented in building codes after governments saw the need in overcrowded tenements. By the later nineteenth century government authorities were tending to the problems of the early industrial cities. They improved municipal water supplies, expanded sewage systems, and introduced building codes that outlawed the construction of rickety tenements to accommodate poorly paid workers. Those measures made city life safer brought improved sanitation.[14] This improved sanitation also led to an improvement in lifestyles and helped to change the anthropological aspect of family dynamics. For the first time in the history of civilization we begin to see the beginning of the nuclear family. Though in many cases the wife and children worked in factories as well, we see more of a trend in the male head of the household leaving the family home to work outside of the homestead and in an industrialized setting. This change in family dynamics led to many changes especially for women and the new women’s domestic sphere.

The women’s sphere was a major gain for women of the early 19th century. As the middle class grew, so did the women’s role at home. While the man ventured forth into the world, the woman at home gained an independent realm of her own, one no longer under constant male domination.[15] Without a husband present, a woman of the early 1800s had more control over her life than her mother and grandmothers did before her. The woman at home took responsibility primarily for housekeeping, child rearing, moral and religious life. In her own domestic space, she gained both a new degree of autonomy and a new degree of authority over others.[16] With the men going outside of the home to work and the women remaining at home with children and housework, we can see a major anthropological shift in family dynamics. The wife instead of the husband become the hub of the household and is responsible for major decisions that affect the family during day to day and extraordinary occasions. This major anthropological change is a direct result of the expansion of industrial societies that were created out of a need for a simpler way of life.

In today’s society we have learned that cotton is “the fabric of our lives” through the media advertisements of the material itself. It is true that cotton is indeed ‘the fabric of our lives”. Without this cash crop the Industrial Revolution would not have progressed as fast as it had nor would we have seen the events in world history that occurred because of this material. The flying shuttles and mules would not have been needed to produce readymade cotton at such as fast pace because there would have been no demand for the fabric. The cotton plantations of the American south would not have revived the slave trade if it was not for the ever growing demand for raw cotton to be shipped to England and other countries. The American Civil War would not have happened if it was not for the need for slave labor to pick the cotton making it so international laws regarding trade during times of war would not have been addressed. The Poor Laws in England would not have been passed so soon if it was not for the lack of cotton during the cotton famine and the anthropological changes in family dynamics as well as the women’s sphere would not have come as soon if it was not for cotton. As stated previously, this simple cash crop changed the world as it was known in the areas of wars, expansion, colonialism, sanitation, suffrage, and anthropology. Without cotton to propel the Industrial Revolution as far as it did, we would not be where we are today as a civilization.

[1] Jerry Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, and Heather Streets. Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History. (Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2008) 499

[2] Michelle Maskiell “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000.” Journal of World History 13.1 (2002) 28. accessed September 27, 2010 from Project Muse Database

[3] Bentley, 499

[4] Mark Carnes and John Garraty, The American Nation: A History of the United States. (New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2008) 234-235

[5] Carnes, 383

[6] Maskiell, 34

[7] Suzanne Daly. “Spinning Cotton: Domestic and Industrial Novels.” Victorian Studies. Volume 50, Number 2, (2008) accessed September 27, 2010 from Project Muse Database

[8] Bentley, 542

[9] George Boyer, “The Evolution of Unemployment Relief in Great Britain.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34.3 (2003) 394 accessed September 27, 2010 from Project Muse Database

[10] Boyer, 401

[11] Lorraine Peters, “The Impact of the American Civil War on the Local Communities of Southern Scotland.” Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 135. Accessed September 27, 2010 from Project Muse Database

[12] Ibid. 142

[13] Bentley, 503

[14] Bentley, 505

[15] Nancy Woloch, Women and the American Experience. (Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2006) 116

[16] Ibid.


Bentley, Jerry, Ziegler, Herbert, & Streets, Heather Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2008

Boyer, George. “The Evolution of Unemployment Relief in Great Britain.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34.3 (2003) 393-433. Accessed September 27, 2010 from Project Muse Database

Carnes, Mark & Garraty, John The American Nation: A History of the United States. New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2008

Daly, Suzanne. “Spinning Cotton: Domestic and Industrial Novels.” Victorian Studies. Volume 50, Number 2, (2008) Accessed September 27, 2010 from Project Muse Database

Maskiell, Michelle “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000.” Journal of World History 13.1 (2002) 27-65. Accessed September 27, 2010 from Project Muse Database

Peters, Lorraine. “The Impact of the American Civil War on the Local Communities of Southern Scotland.” Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 133-152. Accessed September 27, 2010 from Project Muse Database

Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2006


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    • DTXBusiness profile image

      Tanvir Alam 

      2 years ago from Dhaka

      Nice Article and very much Informative.. Thanks for Sharing

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      6 years ago from Dubai

      Nicee.. lot of things to learn on cotton.. thanks..


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