This article re-examines the records and correspondence of Samuel Oldknow, a late eighteenth century textile manufacturer, within the context of the environmental humanities. Oldknow’s papers, a portion of which are held at Columbia University, are most often used by economic historians to date the beginnings of the factory wage labor system. We highlight, instead, the environmental implications of Oldknow’s cotton enterprise by juxtaposing documents related to the global reach of Oldknow’s empire with evidence of his transformation of the local landscape of northern England. This process of re-scaling captures a sense of what we call the “social climate” of the British cotton industry understood as a collaboration between the non-human environment and the structure of human social organizations. The Oldknow archive points to scientific investigations into the best growing conditions for different species of plants, contains factory memoranda that show how schedules were adapted to the flow of local waterways, and has sketches for fabric patterns that utilized the soft drape of cotton for a new flowing silhouette embraced by London ladies. Today, the archive deserves a reconsideration as scholars suggest that the eighteenth century was not just the beginning of modern capitalism, but also the beginning of a new era of unprecedented human influence on the planet. By examining both the long-distance trade relationships and local land policies of this precocious British textile industrialist, we show that this eighteenth-century archive may provide a model of new interdisciplinary cooperation and story-telling.
Myers, Bernadette and Moe, Melina
"Greening the Archive: The Social Climate of Cotton Manufacturing in the "Samuel Oldknow Papers, 1782-1924","
Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 8, Article 10.
Available at: https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/jcas/vol8/iss1/10