Sven Beckert, a professor of history with an expertise in 19th century America, is hoping to understand the roots of the global economic ties that bind the world today by looking at one of the first truly global products: cotton.
“Once upon a time, it was the most important agricultural product, the most important export, and the most important industry,” Beckert said. “This is a history of globalization through the lens of one commodity.”
Cotton is a particularly apt product to focus on because it was largely produced in Asia until the 19th century, Beckert said. During the 1800s, however, cotton production, processing, and manufacturing moved west into the United States and Europe, until Asia was largely marginalized in the cotton world.
This was part of a split between East and West that led to the industrialized West gaining the vast economic power that is still felt around the globe today.
“I’m interested in how the world took the shape it did in the 19th century,” Beckert said.
Beckert plans to publish his research in a book, “The Empire of Cotton: A Global History,” though he is still completing the writing.