Common Threads

It may be hard to believe that something roughly the size of this capital “D” could be so powerful—it changed society, created fortunes and helped propel the kind of misery that resonates over centuries. And yet, one seed from the cotton plant is still so important that you’d likely find cotton within arm’s reach right this minute.

The origins of cotton as we know it aren’t well documented. It’s commonly accepted that its use dates back at least 7,000 years to the Indus Valley near what is now Pakistan and India. By the late 1600s, it was a popular and inexpensive product in Great Britain. Alas, those low prices wouldn’t last. The cost of cotton rose during Europe’s Industrial Revolution, a happenstance complicated by the fact that cotton grown in America was superior to what India produced. That led to a stronger demand for American cotton overseas.

By the mid-1800s, “King Cotton” couldn’t have been a more apt nickname for a crop that was dependent on slaves for its harvest. That manual harvesting (hand-pulling the cotton boll from the sharp-prickly plant) was the norm for nearly 100 years following the end of the Civil War. Come the 1950s, machines became responsible for doing what humans had done for millennia.

Today’s cotton fibers are generally sent onward to textile manufacturers for further processing. Since the beginning of this century, most cotton produced ends up on some body—around 60 percent of women’s wear and up to 75 percent of men’s clothing contains some cotton fibers. Statistically speaking, three out of four things you wore this summer were made of cotton.