Ginning for Cotton: Why Grain is Hot and Clothing's Not


Any student who takes United States history knows that cotton shaped the US more than perhaps any other plant or animal (excepting, naturally, the bald eagle) by turning almost the entirety of the South into an agricultural powerhouse and prompting the large-scale importation of slave labor. Cotton remains very much an American production in the 150 years since the Civil War ended -- or, if you prefer, the War of Northern Aggression -- and a vital part of the textile industry's $17 billion market. Cotton is quite clearly no longer king on the world economy, however, since the fiber has lost serious value in 2014 after two separate peaks in 2013 where cotton sold for nearly $1 per pound compared to about about 75 cents today. This can be partially attributed to the slowdown of the global economy, but a corresponding commodity, grain, hasn't felt the doldrums quite like cotton. The reason for this is surprisingly simple: clothes, it turns out, are a luxury good, while grain consumption, especially in the form of alcohol, is not.

How The United States Lost Cotton

During the Civil War, the Union blockaded the ports of the Confederates so that Johnny Reb couldn't sell the cotton to European textile mills and provide the South with the lifeblood of its economy. As a result, huge quantities of cotton were delivered to southern ports and simply left to rot on the side of the pier since only a few ships (immortalized as the blockade runners) would risk sailing forth into the gunsights of Union warships in order to sell the woolly plant. The aforementioned European textile mills didn't simply stop operations, however, even though the South accounted for more cotton production than all other nations combined. Instead, novel entrepreneurs took up the cash crop world-wide, especially in Egypt, where unlimited sunlight and water enriched by crocodiles made for perfect growing conditions of the high-demand crop. Egypt overtook the United States after the Civil War ...

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