As has been stated, cotton is a vegetable fiber coming from the seed pod of the cotton plant. This plant is indigenous to many countries, and was used in different parts of the world at the dawn of history. Its use in India seems to extend farther back into the centuries than in any other country, judging from the fact that in writings of 800 B.C. a highly developed cotton industry is mentioned. For hundreds of years India was the center of this industry.
In Egypt we find mention of cotton grown about 325 B.C. From the writings of Nearchus, who descended the Indus and navigated the coast of Persia, we learn that cotton was raised in Persia, but it is likely this was originally brought from India. One of the early articles of trade in the Red and Mediterranean Seas was cotton cloth. The introduction into Europe was, however, very slow. Its manufacture was carried into Spain by the Moors and gradually spread into Northern Europe. Even in the fifteenth century it was not at all common in Europe, as shown by the fact that cotton was supposed by some to be the fleece of a sheep which grew on a plant, and when hungry stooped over and ate grass from the ground.
In America the cotton industry is much older than in Europe. Columbus discovered cotton in the West Indies.
Cortez found the Mexicans weaving clothes, also carpets, tapestries, and many other articles, from cotton dyed with vegetable dyes. Magellan found it in Brazil, showing it to be indigenous to the American continent as well as to India. The Peruvians, as we have seen, had a highly developed textile industry when conquered by Pizarro in 1527-1532, and cotton was one of their most used textiles.
The manufacture of cotton into cloth by hand processes is much more difficult than the manufacture of wool and linen. Great manual skill is required, as well as the proper atmosphere. These essentials the Hindu has possessed for ages, and generation after generation of cotton spinning and weaving have produced a perfection which no other nation has been able to reach. In fact, until the invention of modern textile machinery, Europe could in no way compete with India. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before the introduction of power machines for spinning and weaving, when the trade between England and India had become flourishing, India cottons became very popular in England; so alarmed were the people lest these cottons should ruin the English woolen and linen industries that laws were passed limiting the use of cotton among the middle classes.
We have seen that cotton is indigenous to many lands. It may be raised successfully between the latitudes 300 North and 400 South. The great cotton-producing countries between these limits are the Southern United States, Egypt, India, Brazil, and Peru. In other countries cotton is raised to some extent, but not enough for exportation. The United States leads in production with about three-fourths of the world's crop; Egypt is second in amount exported, although India raises more. Texas is the largest producing state in America, while the other states along the Gulf coast, as well as Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, contribute their share.
The conditions which determine where cotton shall be raised most successfully are climate and soil. The season must be a long one, with rainfall during the first part and sunshine during the latter part. For the. best crop, the soil should be a light loam. A heavy soil produces too much foliage and not enough fiber, a sandy soil does not hold enough water, but a light loam holds heat and water and produces the best results. The nearness to sea and sea level also affect the quality of cotton, the altitude and the presence of salt in the soil apparently influencing the growth of the plant.
Cotton belongs to the genus Gossypium of the order Malvaceae. Many species are named by botanists; the four principal ones, however, are:
Gossypium hirsutum - most American cottons.
Gossypium Barbadense - Sea Island and Brown Egyptian.
Gossypium Peruvianum - South American.
Gossypium Herbaceum - short staple - Asian.
These species are shrubs, growing to a height of from three to six feet, having many branches, and bearing alternate three-pointed leaves. The flower has five petals, varying in color from white to yellowish pink. The fruit, or so-called boll, has from three to five segments, and when ripe bursts open, disclosing a mass of soft, white, downy fibers, which are attached to the seeds. These fibers, before ripening, are tubular cells pointed at one end and attached to the seed at the other. As the seed ripens, the pressure inside the pod causes the cell wall to flatten, the walls become thicker, and with the flattening comes a spiral twist to the cell, due probably to the withdrawal of the protoplasm and the manner in which the material is deposited on the inside of the cell wall.
There are several classifications of cotton used by buyers or growers. Perhaps the names most commonly used are those suggesting the locality in which the cotton is raised. Sea Island is long, fine, silky cotton, originally raised only on the islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia and on certain other sea islands, but now raised largely in the states along the coast. This cotton is the most valuable on the market, though certain Egyptian cotton is a very close second. That which is cultivated on the Sea Islands is finer than that grown away from the coast. The largest crop in the United States is the Upland cotton grown throughout the South. Orleans cotton is very valuable. Egyptian cotton is long, has a good luster, and is fine. East Indian cotton is coarser and shorter, has not such a good luster, but, as a rule, is very strong. The causes for different varieties of cotton seem to be climate, soil, fertilization, and careful selection of seed, as well as cultivation and some minor influences.