Cotton is an incredibly versatile textile. It can be used for a number of different domestic purposes: to clothe yourself or dress your table. Such objects can be found in our dress and textiles collection, including cotton pockets and decorative domestic textiles. This cotton in its varying degrees of thickness and decoration would have been seen in the houses of all classes during the transatlantic trade route period: the sixteenth century through to the early nineteenth century.
The pockets would have been worn by all classes of women in society. The plainer ones, such as this, may have been worn by a person of lower income. The more elaborately decorated pockets were perhaps for a wealthier woman. The pockets were to be worn around her waist, sitting at each side of her hips. They would fit underneath a petticoat or gown; slits in skirts ensured pockets were accessible by the wearer. They are also probably English.
This cotton textile fragment may have been used as a valance on a bed. The printed cotton such as this would have been purchased by wealthy individuals. It was produced by the well-known French manufacturer Christophe-Phillip Oberkampf and forms one of the many toiles in our collection.
Although the cotton was manufactured in England and France, the cotton would have been imported from elsewhere. So, where did the cotton really come from?
Cotton could be grown in European countries, such as England, but the mild climate meant that only a small amount of cotton could be produced. In hotter climates the same sized piece of land could produce a huge amount more cotton than in the cooler European countries. Raw cotton is the organic product, tufty and soft in nature, which has not been manufactured or processed. When it arrived in Europe, the raw cotton was spun into threads and woven to form a length of cloth. The majority of cotton was transported from warmer climates.
As we have already seen in my first Reframing our Dress and Textile Collection blog post, the transatlantic trade route enabled the dealing of goods from one country to another. Discoveries of new territories meant routes were penned, maps formed and routes followed. Raw cotton was just one of the many things traded between the four continents. Raw cotton was exported from America and transported via the infamous route to European countries.
So, America traded raw cotton with Europe. Who, then, was farming the cotton? Along with cotton, Africans were transported along these very trade routes. A large majority were sold as slaves to work on American soil. During this period, America owned the Caribbean islands and thus Africans were enslaved on the Caribbean and in America. Cotton during this period was produced by slaves, either in places like Georgia in America or on Caribbean plantations.
Black slaves were put to work on plantations, growing and tending to cotton crops. African individuals forced to work produced the raw cotton that would be woven by Europeans to form clothes and domestic products. Although African individuals did not make the textile itself, weave the cloth or print a scene, they are an are integral part of the cotton trade story from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century.
These two examples show how intrinsic slavery was in the production of cotton goods. All types of people would have purchased, used and owned cotton products, whether a pair of pockets or a bedcover. Although the final product was not created by an enslaved person, slavery is inescapable when we discuss textiles made of cotton during this period.
By Vanessa Jones, Assistant Curator of Dress and Textiles