There is no material which affects so many manufacturing interests as that which forms the subject of this article. It has now arisen to be the most important of all fibrous substances employed in the arts ; and it is not a little surprising that it has attained to this position within a very recent period. Our country is the chief source of its supply, furnishing as it does about eighty per cent of the whole product. Millions of anxious minds are, therefore, continually directed to the source of its cultivation, because an abundant or deficient crop, by raising or lowering its price, either gives them plentiful labor and the means of comfortable subsistence, or stops the wheels of industry, and makes them go idle in the streets, suppliants for work or bread. In 1641, cotton was first spun in England, on the common hand wheel, but was only employed mixed with wool in cloth ; and small, indeed, was the quantity used, even for this purpose. From 1700 to 1760, the only persons who used it were weavers, who wove it into cloth during the day, their wives and children having spun it in the evenings and leisure hours. It was then a dear material— although much cheaper than fine flax—owing to the difficulty of separating the cotton from its seed, this having been done either by hand picking or by passing it between rotating rollers. Notwithstanding this, however, its use increased, and the demand for it soon exceeded the supply. The invention of the cotton gin gave a wonderful impetus to its culture ; and the inventions of the spinning jenny, mule spinner, and power looms, whereby, from the field to woven fabric, it could be operated by machinery, at last raised it to the pinnacle of manufacturing fibrous materials. In England, in 1757, only 4,765,000 lbs. were consumed; in 1856, no less than 1,023,000,000 lbs. were imported into that country. Previous to the present financial difficulties, the demand for it far exceeded the supply, and would do so now, were these difficulties removed. Before the Sepoy mutiny took place, large meetings of cotton manufacturers were held in England, for the purpose of influencing government to offer greater encouragement to its cultivation in the East Indies and other colonies, because they felt they were entirely dependent on our Southern States, and were becoming more so every year. For the last thirty years its consumption has doubled every twelve years; and at the end of 1856 there was only seven weeks' supply of it in all Great Britain. In its manufacture 379,213 British operatives were engaged, whose yearly earnings exceed $50,-000,000, and the capital invested in machinery and buildings exceeds $200,000,000. Two months ago, owing to the increased demand for cotton, its price had arisen to double what it was ten years since, and many of our cotton manufacturers, as well as those of other countries, had to suspend operations, because the manufactured cloth could only be sold for about the price of the raw material, weight for weight. At present, most of the cotton factories in England are working only on half time, and those of our own country even less than this. Our financial difficulties, no doubt, aggravate this evil, but they are not its sole cause ; it is the high price of cotton. Since so many persons are dependent on cotton manufacturing, it is an important question whether its supply can be increased in proportion to the demand for it, and its price lowered to meet that demand. It appears to us that after the present financial crisis is over, the pri^.e of cotton fabrics must advance considerably, and this will call those factories which are now idle into active operation. The price of cotton cannot come 1 down to the low figure at which it ranged ten S years ago; and our Southern States will main- tain the monopoly of its supply to the world for many years to come, at least, if not for ever. The East Indies was the first field to which the British lotton manufacturers were looking for a future cheap supply, to place them independent of our planters; but the late mutiny of the Bengal army and the insurrectionary state of that country have put East India cotton entirely out of the question. Our cotton crop last year amounted, in value, to $130,000,000; this year, the calculation is that it will amount to $160,000,000. Its value is increasing rapidly every year. It is one of the chief sources of our national wealth; and upon our yearly crop the whole cotton manufacturing world is, at present, depending.
This article was originally published with the title "American Cotton and its Present Interests" in Scientific American 13, 12, 93 (November 1857)