DuPlessis lectures on woolens, cottons, and early globalization

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

History Professor Robert DuPlessis lectured on “Globalization and the Creation of the ‘Atlantic World’ in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” in the Scheuer Room on Wednesday. Although globalization is often considered “quite a new phenomenon… in the wake of World War Two,” DuPlessis argued that the phenomenon had a longer history, and one that can help us to better understand today’s globalization.

Specifically, DuPlessis considered globalization through the prism of textile trade in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Cloth formed the largest and most valuable single non-food category of goods traded across the Atlantic; the fact that “textiles helped to announce social aspirations… and group self-presentation” puts them at a “fecund intersection of economy and culture” which makes them particularly useful for DuPlessis’ research.

In order to give a sense of the geographic, social, and economic diversity of places affected by the textile trade, DuPlessis focused on the five Atlantic ports of Barcelona, Bermuda, Cape Coast Castle, Jamaica, and Montreal. Through graphs, he showed that during the late 17th century, European woolens and linens, were already present in all of these ports. Cotton was also part of the market in each port, although it generally made up less than ten percent of market share. Woolens had a large market share in Barcelona and Montreal, but also, and this somewhat unexpectedly, in Cape Coast Castle. This shows that already by the late 17th century, “climate was far from the only factor” in determining commodity popularity.

By the late 18th century, woolens lost their market share and cottons “gained wide acceptance,” with the most growth in Europe and North America. This “cotton revolution” was a central characteristic of the globalizing Atlantic, symbolizing the “broad homogenization of material cultures.” Although European traders determined the distribution of textile commodities, “their use was shaped locally.”

In the second part of his lecture, DuPlessis focused on the ways in which local communities shaped their own textile cultures. For example, in Montreal the market share of cotton increased from 7% to one-third from the late 17th to the late 18th century. The domestic use of cotton expanded dramatically, and many garments that had previously been woolen were now made of cottons and calicoes.

Even so, textiles were used to mark social distinctions. Women wore more cotton than men, and settlers wore more cotton than Native Americans, who continued to prefer wool. The traditional matchcoat worn by Native American headmen had once been made of expensive skins and pelts, but now that they could be made cheaply out of wool, any hunter who traded with the settlers could own one. Since simply owning a matchcoat was no longer a distinction, headmen began to make matchcoats out of brightly colored wool with quality detailing. Thus, woolens “both preserved traditional culture and enabled the fashioning new cultures.”

DuPlessis also gave a few examples of how different colonies created “different slave textile identities.” In South Carolina, slaves were garbed in a woolen uniform, but in Haiti, slaves more commonly wore cottons and linens. Finally, in New Orleans, a slave who took money from her master went out to buy cottons and linens, but more expensive fabrics than her master generally chose. This, DuPlessis argued, showed that she felt free to “upgrade or expand her identification, but not to change it.”

He concluded by asking what the development of early Atlantic textile cultures could teach us about globalization today. Firstly, globalization is a process that can be shaped and interrupted by many participants, but one in which some societies have disproportionate power. Secondly, homogenized goods can promote both convergence and divergence of cultures; local culture is informed by, but also inflects globalization. Thirdly, globalization can generate new exclusionary identities or reinforce old ones. Globalization, according to DuPlessis, is a much more flexible process, and a much older one, than we previously may have thought.

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