The British cotton industry and domestic market : trade and fashion in an early industrial society, 1750-1800
The British market has until now received little of the credit due it as the chief support of the cotton industry during the final fifty years of the eighteenth century. The manner in which this support was extended involved a restructuring of the economy, as illustrated by a qualitative change in the consumer habits of the population; the advent of a mass consumer society. The demand for cotton textiles was a distillation of many amorphous desires and aspirations that flourished in eighteenth century Britain. This was not a frivolous whim on the part of a small host of women, but a powerful economic force which might be tapped through the female section of the society, but which involved the entire society on a fundamental level. When the fashionable urge was translated into a demand for inexpensive, attractive cottons the industry was tied to one of the most potent commercial forces of that period. As a result of recent research, historians are coming to recognize a feature of economic development in the last half of the eighteenth century never before sufficiently acknowledged. This quality in the economic life of the nation set it off from all previous eras. During that time an economy developed and prospered that was geared to the profits of popular fashions, produced cheaply and in quantity for the mass market. Never before had a trade developed so quickly, exclusively on popular demand for mass-produced fashionable textiles. The provision of news on current fashions throughout the nation sparked generalized interest in British manufacturers among the middle and working classes. These classes were the basis of the market on which the cotton. industry depended for its vitality; it was among these sections of society that the creations of the cotton industry found the great new markets of the eighteenth century. Institutionalized dessimination of fashion information in print; a homogeneity of demand throughout the nation and the ranks of the nation; and the diversification and development of cotton products in response to this demand were the principal characteristics of this economic and social phenomenon.