"View in South Street, New York." Engraving by Ivan P. Pranishnikoff. Harper's Weekly, April 20, 1878. Collection New-York Historical Society. Gift of Harry T. Peters.
Trading Raw Cotton for European Cotton Cloth

Wars in Europe and between Britain and the United States tightened transatlantic commerce for 20 years. With peace in 1815, trade exploded. To capture the new American market, British manufacturers shipped tons of cloth, ceramics, and metal products to the United States. The City of New York outpaced its seaboard rivals in accommodating these British vessels.

What could fill the ships returning to Liverpool and London — Cotton — bales and bales of southern cotton! Packet line service, starting in 1818, transshipped southern cotton across the Atlantic regularly. The inventor of this service was Jeremiah Thompson, owner of the Black Ball Line. He and his rivals turned New York City into the fulcrum of transatlantic cotton and sugar trading, and locked most of its merchants into tacit support for slavery in the American South.


For American consumers who had grown up with simple checked fabrics, machine-made British and French cottons opened up a whole world of color and imagery. They were also much cheaper than the 18th-century Indian and Chinese designs on which they were modeled. But even plain, simple cottons helped change the American wardrobe. By the late 1800s, for example, linen shirts for men were mostly a thing of the past.
"Loading Cotton." Illustration after Albert B. Shults. Harper's Weekly, November 8, 1879. Collection New-York Historical Society.