Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber

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9780143037224: Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber

In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky's Cod and Salt, this endlessly revealing book reminds us that the fiber we think of as ordinary is the world's most powerful cash crop, and that it has shaped the destiny of nations. Ranging from its domestication 5,500 years ago to its influence in creating Calvin Klein's empire and the Gap, Stephen Yafa's Cotton gives us an intimate look at the plant that fooled Columbus into thinking he'd reached India, that helped start the Industrial Revolution as well as the American Civil War, and that made at least one bug—the boll weevil—world famous. A sweeping chronicle of ingenuity, greed,  conflict, and opportunism, Cotton offers "a barrage of fascinating information" (Los Angeles Times).

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About the Author:

Stephen Yafa, a novelist, playwright, and award-winning screenwriter, has written for Playboy, Details, Rolling Stone, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

For a scrawny, gangling plant that produces hairs about as insubstantial as milkweed, cotton has exerted a mighty hold over human events since it was first domesticated about 5,500 years ago in Asia, Africa, and South America. Cotton rode on the back of Alexander the Great all the way from India to Europe, robed ancient Egyptian priests, generated the conflicts that led to the American Civil War, inspired Marx’s and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, fooled Columbus into thinking he had reached Asia, and made at least one bug, the boll weevil, world famous. It also created the Industrial Revolution in England and in the United States, motivated single American women to leave home for the first time in history, and played a pivotal role in Mahatma Gandhi’s fight for India’s independence from British colonial rule. In these pages I trace the empires cotton built and destroyed, the fortunes it created, and the revolutions it stirred up along the way as it journeyed west from India to continental Europe, then to Great Britain, and from there to the United States.

While I focus on cotton in America, it truly belongs to the world. Forty billion pounds a year grow on about seventy-seven million acres in more than eighty countries. In Ghana, on the West African coast, mourners wrap themselves in vibrant red kobene cotton cloth to express their close bonds to the deceased. In Ahmadabad, India, where Gandhi held his first fast in 1918 in support of textile workers, exquisitely subtle silk-screened cotton saris hang to dry high aboveground from hundreds of bamboo racks arranged like scaffolding; in Guatamala, women gather each morning and socialize in village circles as they weave and embroider magnificently ornate blouses called huipiles using cuyuscate, naturally colored cotton that grows in soft greens, browns, yellows, and chalk grays. An entire industry in Peru is devoted to the organic cultivation of coffee-latte-hued cotton.

Just about everyone on the planet wears at least one article of clothing made from cotton at some point during the day; inevitably, by-products of the plant show up as well in something that person is doing, whether eating ice cream, changing diapers, filtering coffee, chewing gum, handling paper money, polishing fingernails, or reading a book. The source of cotton’s power is its nearly terrifying versatility and the durable creature comforts it provides.

Cotton is family. We sweat in cotton. It breathes with us. We wrap our newborns in it. In fact, we pay cotton the highest compliment of all: we don’t go out of our way to be nice to it. Look in your closet. The rumpled things on the floor are most probably cotton—soiled shirts and khakis, dirty housework clothes and muddied socks that rise up in dank mounds ready to be baptized with detergent and reborn in the washer, fresh and clean as new snow. Linen, silk, wool—uptown fabrics to be sure, on display in the magnificent Bayeux Tapestry woven shortly after the Norman Conquest or in priceless Aubusson rugs, but not happy to be scrubbed with sudsy hot water and churned like butter in a dryer. Those fibrous divas demand attentive coddling while cotton, the sword carrier, needs only three squares a day and a pair of shoulders to drape itself over. Cotton is the fabric wool would be if it were light enough for summer and didn’t shrink to toddler-size in the dryer; it’s what silk would be if it gracefully absorbed sweat, and what linen might aspire to if it didn’t wrinkle on sight.

Contemporary man-made technical polyesters, all created from petroleum by-products, have come along in their second or third generation to trump cotton as the preferred fabric for strenuous outdoor activity and gym wear. Not a problem. Cotton manufacturers responded by wedding one of the world’s oldest fabrics to futuristic nanotechnology. It is there now to protect you and me from the red wine spilled on our stain-resistant nanocotton Dockers, and as the new century unfolds, the merger of textile and technology will soon be producing bulletproof clothing as light and airy as a Hawaiian shirt. Cotton leads the way.

The common thread in all this (wayward puns, by the way, are inevitable) is cotton’s extraordinary range of practical use. The 500,000 fibers in every cotton boll, or pod, that are spun and woven or knit into fabric for home furnishings, linens, industrial coverings, and apparel account for less than half of the plant’s output. The seeds inside each boll, which is about the size of a walnut, make up 65 percent of the yield from a harvest.

We consume pressed cottonseed oil directly in hundreds of supermarket products—Campbell’s soups, Pepperidge Farm cookies, potato chips, crackers, marinades, snacks, and salad dressing, to name but a few. Procter & Gamble created Ivory Soap from cottonseed in the nineteenth century after a man named William Fee invented a way to knock the kernels free from their hard hulls. That discovery led as well to hydrogenated shortening, or crystallized cottonseed oil better known as Crisco. In its normal state, cottonseed is poisonous to humans and all other nonruminant animals; it contains a toxic pigment, gossypol, that helps protect the plant against insects. However, chemical processing produces a protein-rich flour that is sufficiently low in free gossypol to render it suitable for human consumption. In Central America and West Africa it becomes a beverage fed to children to prevent malnutrition. Low doses of gossypol have also been used for centuries in China as a male contraceptive: it destroys the lining of tubules in the testicles where sperm are produced.

Charles Darwin could have learned everything he needed to know about evolutionary adaptation from a cotton plant. Like Proteus, the Greek god who changed his identity at will, this swamp- loving mallow, a shrub called gossypium, can be as tough as braided anchor rope at one moment or as fine as the fabled sheer muslin of ancient Bengal at another. When it is not helping to clothe us, it is likely to be slipping unnoticed into the things that we use to blow each other apart. Short fibers on the cotton seed, called linters, or, less formally, “fabulous fuzz,” supply the cellulose used in dynamite and other explosives, rocket propellants, shoes, handbags and luggage, book bindings, industrial abrasives, and also in plastics and fingernail polish; chemically treated and ground into pulp, linters show up in food casings for bologna, sausages, and hot dogs; they thicken ice cream and smooth makeup and find their way into lacquers, paint, and automotive parts. They are also processed into materials used in photographic and X-ray film, envelope windows, and recording and transparent tapes. The plant’s discarded leaves, fibers, and stalks, which cotton growers call trash, get cleaned and become mattress stuffing for human use and barn bedding for dairy cows, while cottonseed meal feeds livestock and dairy cattle. Recycled remnants from blue-jean factories make up 75 percent of the content of United States paper currency. There are three-fourths of a pound of cotton in each pound of dollar bills. Nothing from stem to stamen goes unused in a cotton plant.

For cotton, that range of accomplishment also extends beyond the pragmatic into realms of human activity where most other plants never get past the gate: music, literature, art, pop culture, and romance. Gone With the Wind is as much homage to the antebellum culture of cotton as to the glory that once was Atlanta. Elsewhere in the South, at another place and time, cotton’s culture also became a major contributor to the blues when slave field-hollers melded with church music and took a secular turn toward human heartbreak. Blacks fleeing the impoverished cotton fields and oppressive racism of the Mississippi Delta added a raw authentic voice to popular culture, bending their guitar strings to cry out their despair. In a lighter moment, cotton’s indomitable insect foe, the boll weevil, gave rise to a host of tunes that turned tragic devastation into street entertainment. “The Boll Weevil say to the Farmer, ‘You can ride in that Ford machine,’” Leadbelly sang, “‘but when I get through with your cotton, you can’t buy no gasoline. You won’t have no home, won’t have no home.’”

By the early years of the twentieth century, cotton had insinuated itself into regional common language as well. Born in the South, if you heard anyone say she was “fair to middlin’,” you knew things for her were better than just okay. While strict middling has long been the whitest, cleanest cotton that commands the best market price, colloquially “fair to middlin’” middle-grade cotton came into common use as an understated way to tell friends and neighbors the speaker was feeling on top of the world. The fiber easily embraced love-talk too. If you “cotton to” a fella, you’re stuck on him. You’re stuck because cotton seeds are sticky, which is why you say you cotton to him, because if you weren’t stuck on him ... well, you get the idea. And when you’re in high cotton, hon, you’ve got the world on a string!

There are unconscious references, too, that enrich our daily conversations, whether we are following the thread of an idea, weaving a plot, spinning outrageous yarns, or even knitting our brow over an unraveling relationship. It may be that we habitually borrow from the textile crafts that transform fluffy cotton hairs into fabric simply because they mimic the way our minds work—one thought linking to another to form a complete image or idea, much the way individual warp and woof yarns intertwine to create whole cloth. One way or another, it sometimes seems, cotton is always with us.

Like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, “deferential, glad to be of use/Politic, cautious, and meticulous,” the fiber appears to have made its way in the world by combining protean service with humility, abetted by an outsized need to please. As many have learned the hard way, that can be a lethally deceptive disguise. No legal plant on earth has killed more people by virtue of the acrimony and avarice it provoked. No other plant ignited a civil war that sent more American men to their deaths than all other wars combined. Cotton’s manufacture into cloth sentenced hundreds of thousands of young orphaned English children to labor imprisonment in the squalid, filthy cotton textile factories of nineteenth-century Manchester, England. Across the sea in the fields of the American South, it enslaved generations of uprooted Africans who were robbed of their freedom and brutalized as a matter of course.

Later, in the twentieth century, cotton crops became one of the world’s most persistent and heaviest users of toxic pesticides, creating lethal environmental and health hazards that continue to plague many countries. Cotton has been responsible, too, for an ecological disaster of epic proportions in Central Asia, where rivers feeding the Aral Sea, one of the world’s largest inland lakes, were diverted to provide crop irrigation and in the process brought human misery and the massive destruction of flora and fauna to a vast populated area.

At the other extreme, cotton manufacture stimulated innovations and inventions that transformed creaky, rural late-eighteenth-century England into the world’s greatest industrial power before leaping the Atlantic to spur a struggling new democracy into becoming an equal among giants. Until cotton changed our country’s fate, we were a pesky upstart crow with grand notions and empty pockets. After Eli Whitney invented a gin to separate green cotton’s sticky seeds from its valuable hairs, or fibers, oceans of fluff erupted all over the South, and suddenly our fledgling nation owned a crucial piece of the action in international trade. As the South began to supply raw material to England’s booming textile mills as well as to our own, a superpower was born. Although a colonial rebellion and a constitution gave birth to the United States, cotton added the economic muscle that any country or individual needs to achieve true independence. It was a revolutionary act all its own.

The history of cotton is filled with similar tectonic disruptions of the status quo that the fabric and fiber either instigated, accelerated, or at the very least encouraged. More revolutions are imminent as we continue to plant and export cotton seeds that carry gene-altered biotechnology to India, Brazil, and numerous other countries. Cotton is leading the way for changes (and controversies) that will redefine and dominate agriculture in the coming decades.

When we export genetically modified seeds to countries where controls over its use are difficult or impossible to enforce—most of the countries on the planet, that is—we run a serious risk of inviting ecological disaster. Third World nations like Mali and its neighbors are seizing upon American cotton and the lavish subsidies our government awards to its growers as evidence that we are as selfish and callous as our enemies maintain. Rancor over the dumping of subsidized American cotton on the world market at artificially low prices brought the 2003 World Trade Organization summit in Cancun to a screeching halt. As such pressures mount, major changes may be imminent in our trade relations as well. Yet the rewards, financial and human, for many may be worth the gamble.

Cotton always seems to force the issue, whatever the issue may be. That can be bad for nations and individuals caught up in a tangle of opposing motives and goals, but to a writer like myself it’s also the stuff of compelling conflict, and it accounts for much of what drew me to the subject. I was also drawn to the extraordinary feats of imagination and ingenuity required to convert a fluffy mass of nothingness into something of substance. Looking at an opened boll of flimsy lint, the last thing you can envision is the tightly woven gold-encrusted flowing robe presented to Cortez by a Yucatan chief in 1519, or the magnificent pre-Andean textiles of Peru—or for that matter even a pair of sweat socks. Stepping across a stream in Lancashire, you would hardly guess that more than two hundred years ago a man named Richard Arkwright was able to harness its hydraulic power to drive intricate mechanical spinning machines that had never before existed and, by doing so, create the Industrial Revolution.

Whether you find the story of cotton to be a tribute to man’s remarkable ability to achieve or a cautionary tale, you’ll likely come away as I did with a profound respect for the power of the plant. “You dare not make war upon cotton!” South Carolina senator James H. Hammond thundered on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1858. “No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is king!” I discovered the truth to be a little more insidious. Kings are mere mortals; they die and the world keeps turning. This plant, by contrast, has eternally rewarded and punished with the haughty abandon of a capricious god. It has also stirred up more mischief than any penny-ante royal no matter how venal, and yet it remains so casually seductive in its look and feel that we are willing to forgive its sins even as we continue to pay for them. Some of us have a lot to learn from cotton.

ONE
Spun in All Directions
l


The trees from which the Indians make their clothes have leaves like those of a black mulberry....They bear no fruit, indeed, but the pod containing the wool resembles a spring apple.
—Theophrastus (372–287 b.c.)

They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned ...,” the sea captain wrote with wonderment in his logbook about the natives he had encountered. Soon after that, the...

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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2009. Paperback. Book Condition: New. annotated edition. Language: English . Brand New Book. In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky s Cod and Salt, this endlessly revealing book reminds us that the fiber we think of as ordinary is the world s most powerful cash crop, and that it has shaped the destiny of nations. Ranging from its domestication 5,500 years ago to its influence in creating Calvin Klein s empire and the Gap, Stephen Yafa s Cotton gives us an intimate look at the plant that fooled Columbus into thinking he d reached India, that helped start the Industrial Revolution as well as the American Civil War, and that made at least one bug the boll weevil world famous. A sweeping chronicle of ingenuity, greed, conflict, and opportunism, Cotton offers a barrage of fascinating information (Los Angeles Times). Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143037224

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Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2009. Paperback. Book Condition: New. annotated edition. Language: English . Brand New Book. In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky s Cod and Salt, this endlessly revealing book reminds us that the fiber we think of as ordinary is the world s most powerful cash crop, and that it has shaped the destiny of nations. Ranging from its domestication 5,500 years ago to its influence in creating Calvin Klein s empire and the Gap, Stephen Yafa s Cotton gives us an intimate look at the plant that fooled Columbus into thinking he d reached India, that helped start the Industrial Revolution as well as the American Civil War, and that made at least one bug the boll weevil world famous. A sweeping chronicle of ingenuity, greed, conflict, and opportunism, Cotton offers a barrage of fascinating information (Los Angeles Times). Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143037224

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