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).


A brisk trade in Indian cloth developed soon after the end of the American War of Independence in 1783 and continued to flourish until Congress enacted a prohibitive tariff in 1816 to protect the nascent U.S. textile manufacturing industry. For the period 1795-1805, U.S. trade with India well exceeded trade with all European nations combined for all commodities (Furber 1938:258). Cloth was the centerpiece of this trade: The piece goods imported in 1804-05, for instance, were about three times the value of all other goods from India, chiefly sugar, indigo, ginger, and a variety of spices and drugs (Bhagat 1970:42). Ironically, this trade was doomed before it began by the rapid growth and spread of the industrial revolution. After centuries of supplying the world with cotton textiles (and to a lesser extent, silk textiles), India was soon to become an importer of cloth manufactured in the West,

The purposes of this paper are to establish that there was a distinct American market for Indian textiles, to identify the varieties of cloth exported for the American market, and to sketch American resources for further study.


For the heyday of the U.S.-India trade, from 1785 to about 1820, there is a tremendous amount of documentary evidence. But because the trade was carried on by a large number of independent businessmen rather than a single trading company, as was the practice in Europe, these materials lie scattered in private collections, historical societies, archives and museums. From these sources the development of a distinct American market for textiles can be discerned.

As early as the 1790s, there were Indian merchants specializing in the American trade. In 1806 Nasserwanjee Manackjee Wadia in Bombay, for example, was known as an agent for the American and French trades (George Nichols nd:34). In Calcutta, where Americans did most of their business, Ram Dulal Dey became such a valued expert that in 1801 more than thirty of his American clients presented him with a life-size portrait of George Washington.

A comment in the 1803-04 journal of Dudley Pickman, a prominent Salem merchant, indicates that the American market may even have had two segments. In describing the Calcutta firm of Durgapersaud and Kallisunker Ghose, he wrote that they "do some Southern (U.S.) business and more Northern business..." (Peabody Museum of Salem: Pickman Journal). Boston merchant Henry Lee in an 1817 letter to members of his firm in Calcutta supports this conclusion, distinguishing among the Indian agents used by Northerners and Southerners: "The Southern ships will go to Ramduloll few to Ruggo Ram - the Salem and Boston to Ramshander Metie and Duggo Pesaud" (Porter 1937:1267).