Long-forgotten cotton riots illustrate power of consumer

Recent research by history professor Beverly Lemire highlights just how political a garment can be. These are new discoveries because centuries of old newspapers have recently been digitized a

23 January 2010

Recent research by history professor Beverly Lemire highlights just how political a garment can be. These are new discoveries because centuries of old newspapers have recently been digitized and made searchable.

The woman's printed, cotton dress caught fire quickly, but it wasn't just the suffering that shocked University of Alberta historian Beverly Lemire when she discovered the story.

It was the bravery.

For the first decades of the 18th century, these ordinary women saw cotton as a symbol of respectability. Even though parliaments across the European continent banned the fabric to protect homegrown wool industries, the women kept wearing the dresses in the streets, getting beaten for it, stripped in public, burned by sulphuric acid, and even set on fire and killed.

But they didn't give in, and eventually laws and attitudes changed. Then they were forgotten.

Memories faded. Newspapers and court records started to mould. Copies on microfiche were buried in library basements where no one had the time to pour through them.

Now, finally, libraries are digitizing records and putting them online for researchers around the world to search, click by click, at their computers. And that's how Lemire found her everyday heroines.

"I was shocked. I just sat back. I read it again," she said of the day she found the woman burned to death for the crime of cotton. Link boys, teenagers who would hold a torch and walk you home through dark streets for a penny, saw the woman walking alone and threw the torch. "Why? Why would they do this?" said Lemire. "What toxic political environment made them feel they had the authority? "You're not supposed to be shocked -- you know, the neutral observer -- but I was shocked."

Lemire is writing a book on cotton as one of the textiles that changed the world. Her manuscript is due in April, but discoveries like this make her struggle to stay on schedule. They fascinate her because they illustrate the power of personal consumer choices, ones we still make every day today, whether we shop at big-box stores or wear hemp and organic cotton.

Printed or calico cotton first came to Europe after 1498, when Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India. The fabric was cheap, with colourful patterns far brighter than the dull reds and browns of wool European peasants were already wearing. Plus it was washable and colourfast, an amazing feature to arrive just at the time when European society began to associate clean garments with respectability. Think of the adage mothers kept for years after: cleanliness is next to godliness.

But just as the popularity of cotton took off , it was banned. The records show periods of widespread, frequent street mobs for several years. They peaked in 1719 and 1720, then died out and peaked again in the mid 1730s. The acid thrown at women was the same common industrial acid thrown at schoolgirls walking the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan today. Women wearing cotton dresses would be threatened with death and husbands also beaten as they tried to protect them. They were fined and sent to prison.

The riots became sporadic and died off by the 1740s. Britain didn't lift the ban until 1774, after its own cotton manufacturing industry had taken off.

Machines to manufacture cotton clothes kicked off the Industrial Revolution, and for about 150 years after, Lemire said, nearly every significant country developed a cotton industry of its own as it grew into a nation.

Even Edmonton had its jeans factory, the Great Western Garment Company, until it was bought out by Levi Strauss & Co. and then closed in 2004. "GWG did make the best jeans," Lemire said. "Now Asia has reclaimed textiles once again. "For something that's so common now, (cotton's) impact was so profound," she added. It's arrival in Europe "was probably one of the most violent periods of political fashion that I've ever seen."


Applebee's Original Weekly Journal Saturday, August 13, 1720

They write from Gloucester ... Thomas Singer an officer of the Excise at Bristol, was try'd for killing a Weaver, and was found Guilty of Manslaughter only; because he did it in Defence of his Wife, who was Assaulted by a Gang of Weavers who tore her Callacoe Cloths off , and used her very Unmercifully.

Weekly Journal or British Gazatteer (London, England) Saturday, July 21, 1722

"The Close of last Week a Woman near Haymarket, passing along about 11 at Night, some Link-Boys set fire to her Calico Gown and Petticoat, which blazing fiercely upwards, she was burnt to that degree, that she died the next Day."

For more snippets of history from 18th-century newspapers, go to edmontonjournal.com/education