Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


The Port of History Museum in Philadelphia houses a collection of textiles characteristic of the types the French were trading with Africa between 1880 and 1900 in the early stages of European colonial rule within that continent.1 The collection emerged in the era of "cotton imperialism1 when Europeans began competing with African cloth industries by importing their own cloths to Africa. (Johnson) The economic historian Hopkins reports that by the turn of the century textiles constituted "about a third of the value of total imports into French West Africa and about a quarter of total imports in British West Africa". (Hopkins, 177)

The Port of History collection significantly adds to our understanding of this trade in a number of ways.2 First of all, it identifies the actual manufacturers of the cloths. Secondly, it documents the channels through which they were transported to and within Africa. And, finally, it enables us to see the actual cloths.

The collection can provide such rich data because of its own curious history. While the 800 or more European manufactured textiles were intended for trade to Africa, they were never actually sold to the African consumer. Instead, they found their way to several turn-of-the-century French expositions, such as the 1900 Exposition Universelle de Paris shown here, where they were exhibited by the French to advertise and boast, to the European community, of their commercial successes in their newly formed African colonies. John McKenzie argues that expositions after 1880 had become venues through which Europeans could make known to the public their "penetration everywhere of manufactured exports such as textiles...and all other hallmarks of the civilized world". (McKenzie, 97-99). After being exhibited, the cloths were donated (or sold) to the Port of History Museum in Philadelphia, then known as the Commercial Museum because of its own commercial interests.

This commercial and exhibition history immediately becomes apparent when we look at the collection. There are three aspects of it that I wish to stress in particular. The first is related to the condition of the cloths themselves. Many are just fragments of larger pieces. Some of the smallest are even joined with others to form a book of fabrics much like an upholsterer's sample book. It is clear from this mode of presentation that the cloths had been prepared for a display that would demonstrate the range of cloth designs offered through French trade.