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).


One of the most familiar concepts to historians interested in Anglo-American topics is that of the Atlantic Economy. Political independence did not bring economic independence to the newly-found United States, and until after the middle of the nineteenth century trans-Atlantic trade continued much as it was in the colonial period, based on the exchange of primary produce for manufactured goods. Basic statistics confirm that Britain and the United States were each the major trading partner of the other in the first half of the nineteenth century. In this period, between a third and a half of all U.S. imports were drawn from Britain (Table 3), while Britain depended on the U.S. to feed its most important industry, rising American imports of raw cotton topping 80 per cent of total input at mid-century (Table 2). Given Britain's global dominance of cotton manufacturing at the period, it is not surprising that the U.S. was by no means the only destination of exports, but exporting obviously began there (with 97 per cent of the market in the mid 1780s) and even at midcentury was more than a third by value (Table 1).

TABLE 1: U.K. Export of Cotton Goods to the U.S.A.

These figures do not simply confirm the concept of the Atlantic Economy, they serve as a reminder that cotton occupied the key role in that complimentary relationship. At the local level, data on the trans-Atlantic connection serves to further emphasise its importance; for instance Sir Francis Baring, the leading London merchant of his day, estimated in 1812 that between a quarter and a third of Manchester's trade went to the U.S., and in the satellite manufacturing town of Bury (where the Peels of calico printing fame dominated) it was as high as a half. Thegreat port of Liverpool, as is well known, was built on the trans-Atlantic cotton trade. However, such statistics provide only the profile of the subject. Proper understanding requires a study of the organisation and personal connections behind the data. Some research has been done on basic organisation, but the identity and trans-Atlantic connections of the leading entrepreneurs is a surprisingly neglected subject.

The main thesis of this paper is that, like the two economies, the personnel of the trans-Atlantic cotton trade can readily be identified in close and complimentary relationships. However the relationship was by no means an unchanging one; Britain's industrial revolution was the central feature of the period, and this necessarily involved changes in leadership and trading organisation that had repercussions through the emerging international economy. To simplify, the subject can be considered in three overlapping phases, (1) the eighteenth century merchant community, which spanned the Atlantic, (2) the basic nineteenth century structure of commission agents (merchants) financed by merchant banks, and (3) the slow rise of manufacturer-merchants. We can examine each of these in turn.