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Big Cotton: How A Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map Hardcover – December 29, 2004

12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In the beginning was the plant—Gossypium malavaceae. From this common variety of swamp mallow came the fiber that brought success and hardship in equal measure to the humans who domesticated it. Screenwriter and journalist Yafa lyrically tells a tale of slimy merchants, corrupt politicians and downtrodden farmers and workers upon whose backs huge fortunes were made. Coming from a Europe starved for cotton fabrics, Christopher Columbus exploited the American natives' mastery of the plant. The Puritans of New England entered into the slave trade to finance their insatiable need for cotton cloth. And in the American South an entire civilization was based on "King Cotton": a flourishing slaveholding civilization featuring ostentatious plantation houses stuffed with the goods of conspicuous consumption. The cruelty and reward, Yafa shows, continue to this day. Cotton farmers in Mali are impoverished due in large part to U.S. government subsidies to corporate agribusiness. But despite much fascinating information, the book disappoints. Yafa has jammed his narrative with too many wild characters, outrageous stories and goofy personal asides. Some may tire quickly of the details of warp and weft and the workings of the spinning jenny. Yet for all the flaws of the single-lensed view of history, Yafa tells a tale that covers a wide, dramatic swath.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

You are what you wear. Or read. Or eat. Or something like that. In the spirit of recent books like Salt and Coal, A novelist and playwright, Yafa examines world history through the prism of a tiny little fiber called cotton. He touches on everything from science and economics to race and popular culture, painting nuanced portraits of cotton’s far-reaching effects on the English mill system, B.B. King’s blues, and controversies over bioengineering, among other topics. It’s a good, solid history, but at times Yafa veers into unrelated topics. He also overgeneralizes, especially when it comes to politics and current events. Yet, as Yafa shows, cotton spurred great battles and changed the world—and continues to do so today.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (December 29, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670033677
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670033676
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.4 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,020,274 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Todd A. Schneider on February 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I spent my first 24 years working on the family cotton farm in apparent ignorance of cottons significant impact on this nation and the world. I only wish I had access to such a book while I was growing up so that I could better understand and appreciate the history, and future, of cotton. Now, at least, when I talk of my formative years on the farm, I can provide some relevant and interesting facts about the industry.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an enjoyable look into the history and myriad uses of cotton, a material we use every day but rarely give much thought to. Stephen Yafa has a personal interest in the subject in that he is a native of Lowell, Massachusetts, the first American cotton mill town. I have a personal interest in cotton as well, being descended from generations of cotton planters and farmers in the southern US. I was always grateful that my parents were able to make the jump away from cotton so that I didn't have to depend on the stuff for my livelihood, but the pervasiveness of the plant in human history and its impact on so many different regions came as a surprise to me as I read Big Cotton.

Yafa begins Big Cotton with a discussion of the early origins and spread of the cotton plant in ancient human history. The strongest sections of the book deal with the impact cotton had on the Industrial Revolution and the growth and development of the United States. The later chapters deal with more social and cultural history and provide some intriguing speculations on the role genetically modified cotton will play in the future. Yafa also gives some interesting information on the role of cotton in international affairs, as Chinese cotton production rises and as US cotton subsidies jeopardize the livelihoods of West African cotton farmers.

Yafa writes in an informal, breezy style which is pleasant and often witty. (He apologizes in the introduction for the many unavoidable puns about the thread of the story and such, but these add to what is already a pleasureable reading experience.)
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Lou on October 20, 2006
Format: Hardcover
"Gunsligers, snake-eyed varmints, low-down horse rustlers, and lily-livered scumsuckers bit the dust when John Wayne pulled out his six-shooter and started fanning the trigger." (p. 213) Trigger???

That sentence should give you an idea of just how jarring, flip and accurate this author is.

Three crops are the foundation of modern Europe's (and America's) economic and imperial hedgemony over the rest of the world: spices, sugar and cotton. Cotton is, simply, the genesis of the industrial revolution and the resurrection of American slavery. As such, the subject is incredibly important. Mr. Yafa isn't up to the task.

Yes, he's trying to write a popular history rather than a scholarly treatise. But his focus is virtually completely on America. As such is scope is simply too limited.

He mentions aniline as the foundation for synthetic indigo dye in passing in a long, rambling aside about blue jeans. Aniline and the coal-tar it's derived from are the cornerstones of modern chemistry, the chemical industry and the modern (early 20th century) German economy. Eh. No biggie.

If the guy could write, I'd probably be more forgiving of the book's shortcomings. It is a big subject.

Despite the importance of cotton, there aren't very many books extant about its history. Yafa doesn't have the sweep the subject deserves, but you will learn a few things, at least some of the outline of the story.
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23 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Harley Metcalfe on May 14, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Having farmed cotton for over 30 years, I am familiar with the subject of this book. The inaccuracies are numerous, an example being, the caption under the picture of a cottonpicker opposite page 239 stating " Mechanical harvesters span ten to twelve rows at a time." The largest picker today is only six rows wide. I found the same type of inability to get the facts correct and exaggeration throughout the book. There was also a feeling of a slant, as if, the author already had an opinion on the subject before he started his research on the book and made the research meet the opinion.

It seems the author should continue writing fiction and leave alone historical subjects where accuracy and objectivity are needed. I would skip this one.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on March 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Cotton is " a scrawny, gangling plant that produces hairs about as insubstantial as milkweed," writes Stephen Yafa, but the full title of his _Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map_ (Viking) makes clear how much the world prizes these insubstantialities. The humble fiber here has a grand history, from its first domestication over five thousand years ago to its current genetic modifications. Cotton may not actually be historically as all-powerful as Yafa makes it seem; like any book that casts an intense regard on a limited subject, _Big Cotton_ can make it seem as if cotton is really more important than, say, coal or sugar, which have in their turn inspired innovation and greed. Nonetheless, this is an excellent world-wide history, and by the end, Yafa has fully justified his subtitle.

First domesticated independently on different continents around 5,500 years ago, the family _Gossypium malavaceae_ bears protective lint around its seeds, fibers that can be spun into fabrics. The original cotton introduced to Europe came from India in the seventeenth century. What made chintz an irresistible fad was that the Indians had found ways to die the cotton with brilliant colors that were slow to fade as the cloth was used or washed. Consumers so prized chintz that they ignored import bans, and eventually English inventors built factories to take production to an industrial scale. The resulting mill system was enormously lucrative, and also famously cruel, employing children as young as eight for thirteen hour days in hot, dangerous factories in which they constantly inhaled cotton fibers, producing what was eventually known as byssinosis, or brown lung disease.
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