Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/About cotton

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2656619Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II — About cotton1859-1860C. P. William


More cotton is bought and sold at Liverpool than at any other place in the world. The locality where cotton brokers “most do congregate,” is the area enclosed by the Liverpool Exchange-buildings, on the east side of which they may be seen gathered together every forenoon. Although “the flags” is their particular meeting-place, however, they are not in the habit of behaving after the manner of the sharebrokers hard by, of whom it is related, that having subjected the curious or unwary invader of their domain to the extremities of contumely and ill-usage, they finally deposit him outside the sacred precincts, presenting an appearance strongly contrasting with that which he bore previously to his ill-advised entry. It would probably strike a stranger on his first visit to “the flags,” that there was no such appearance of hurry or bustle as his previous notions of the magnitude of the cotton-trade would have led him to expect; and he would perhaps be tempted to suppose from finding those whom he should meet there perfectly willing to enter into conversation on the current topics of the day (occasionally interrupted, it is true, to answer an inquiry as to Bowed at 6, or Surat at 5 to 5), and from his observation of the easy style of talk going on around him, that he had happened to make his appearance at a time when no particular business was going forward; and yet very likely he would be told on inquiry that the sales for the day would probably be 8000 or 9000 bales—which latter is about the average—worth perhaps 100,000l. By way of getting a clearer idea of the manner in which this amount of business is transacted, let us take the liberty of paying a visit to one of the sale-rooms in the immediate vicinity of the Exchange area: and here on entering we see conveniently disposed a large number of brown paper parcels, a glance at the open ends of which is sufficient to inform us that they are cotton samples. We do not wait here long before an individual enters, and says interrogatively to the presiding salesman, “Bowed,”—or it maybe Orleans or Mobile—“six three?” which demand, being interpreted, signifies that the inquirer is a buyer of Bowed—so called from a former method of cleaning by means of a bow—Orleans, or Mobile cotton, at 6d. per pound. Sundry of the brown paper parcels are opened and spread out before him, showing that every one of them contains perhaps 25 pieces of cotton, each piece the sample of a bale; and after a very brief inspection, he desires that certain of these may be “sent in to him.” This he does in order that he may view them at “his own light,” and may compare them with other samples which in his tour round the market he has seen and had sent to him from various sale-rooms. It may be here explained, that these sale-rooms are plentifully supplied with north or east light, and that each broker, from custom, is able to judge better as to the colour and general appearance of the cotton—on which in a measure its value and suitability for his particular purpose depend—in his own sale-room than elsewhere. West or south light is never used.

Other buyers enter, in rapid succession, the sample-room in which we have taken up our position, and inquiries are made for cotton of various kinds and prices: for Maranhams, Pernams (a contraction for Pernambuco), or Bahias; for Egyptians, or possibly for Dhollerahs, Comptas, Tinnevellies, or Oomrawhuttees, all which strange sounds represent varieties of East Indian growth. It will be observed, that the word cotton is seldom, if ever, mentioned; contraction is the order of the day; time and breath are saved by asking for “Orleans,” or “Maranham.” It will also be noticed that American descriptions are vastly more inquired for than any other kinds; which arises from a reason analogous to that assigned as the cause of white sheep eating so much more than black ones; viz., that there arc so many more of them. The differences in the requirements of buyers cannot fail to have been remarked: thus, one “doesn’t care for colour, but must have staple;” another “isn’t so particular about staple, but wants colour;” another “can’t do with sand” (on which point more hereafter); and so on. Amongst other things, it is very likely blue or red cotton will be spoken of. But is not all cotton white? Broadly speaking, no doubt it is; but there are various tints of blue, yellow, and red, not certainly approaching indigo on the one hand, or scarlet on the other; but still sufficiently marked to be readily distinguished by anyone when attention is drawn to the subject, and comparison instituted between different samples; and perceptible at a glance to the practised eye of the broker. From all these inquiries it may be gathered that the value of cotton depends upon the length, strength, and fineness of the fibre or “staple,” modified by conditions of colour and cleanliness. Accordingly, with reference to the first of these points, the article is divided into “long” and “short” stapled. To the former of these divisions belongs that class of American called Sea Island, which takes its name from the place of its growth, and which is the finest and highest priced cotton known; also all cotton from Brazil, the West Indies, and Egypt. The second division includes all kinds of American, save Sea Island, and all descriptions of East Indian. It has been already stated that America supplies by far the largest quantity of cotton; in proof whereof, I here venture to present some figures, at the prospect of which, however, as they shall be few in number, I respectfully submit that no lady or gentleman who may honour me by reading this paper has any cause for alarm. During the year 1859, the total import into the kingdom was 2,828,000 bales, of which 2,085,000 were American, 510,000 East Indian, leaving only 233,000 as import from Brazil, the West Indies, and Egypt.

Of these 2,828,000, 2,709,000 were received into Liverpool, against about 119,000 into London, Glasgow, and Hull, the only other places which import the article. One week’s sales in Liverpool have before now been as much as the whole of last year’s import into the rest of the United Kingdom. A price current, now before the writer, gives nearly one hundred quotations of different descriptions and grades, varying from 4d. a pound for ordinary Surat, to 2s. for fine Sea Island. The grades quoted in each different description of cotton are, “ordinary,” “middling,” “fair,” “good fair,” “good,” and “fine,” which one would suppose to be a division sufficiently nice. But in practice, a much more minute subdivision is used, and it is common enough to hear brokers speak of “low and good ordinary,” “barely middling,” “middling fair,” “fully fair,” and so on.

These explanations may be supposed to have been offered in the sale-room to which we are paying an imaginary visit, and the buyer whom we first saw, has in the mean time examined the samples sent in to him, and now comes to make an offer. “We’ll give you 6 for the B A 100 by the Mississippi,” says he. “Can’t take it.” “Well, will ths buy them?” “I don’t know, but I’ll see our principal, and if you’ll call in five minutes I’ll give you an answer.” Accordingly, when the buyer calls at the expiration of that time, he is told, “We’ll put those hundred down to you at 6ths:” he gives the name of the spinner for whom he acts, and the affair is settled. This is all that passes in a transaction involving perhaps 1200l. or 1400l; nay, in busy times, thousands of bales are often bought on the first inspection of the samples, without leaving the spot. No contract other than an oral one passes between buyer and seller: such bargains are annually entered into to the amount of dozens of millions sterling, yet disputes are almost unknown, and are, when they occur, generally settled without trouble or expense by reference to brokers not interested in the disputed transactions.

Payment for cotton bought, is due (less three months’ interest) in ten days from the date of purchase. In the supposed sale just recorded, the buyer paid for the cotton th of a penny per pound less than the price first asked, and if the seller had not made this concession, the transaction would probably not have taken place; and though at first th of a penny appears a trifling matter, yet when it is stated that the average weight of American bales is about 440 lbs., it will be seen that on one hundred such, this ths represents to the spinner a saving of between 11l. and 12l., sufficient to pay part of the carriage to his mill, besides his broker’s commission for buying, viz. 10s. per 100l. value. This does not seem a very large remuneration, yet a little calculation shows that the buying and selling commission on the average daily sales of 9000 bales must amount to nearly 1000l. per diem, or at the rate of more than 300,000l. per annum. In addition to this commission, the samples are for the most part, after they have served their purpose, a perquisite of the broker;—no insignificant one either, though each separate sample weighs but a few ounces; it being understood that the yearly value to many firms is sufficient to defray all their counting-house expenses.

We noticed that many of the buyers, in making known their wants, objected to “sand,” and it was intimated that there was something further to be stated on this point. Of course everybody has heard of what is called the San Juan difficulty; but not everybody, perhaps, has heard of another dispute respecting American territory which is now in progress. The American nation not being particularly ready to cede to Great Britain, or to any other Power, that to which it conceives it has any claim, it will probably surprise many people to be told that a large portion of American soil has lately passed into British possession; and not only so, but that it is absolutely in England at the present moment, though it must be confessed that England has paid pretty dearly for its acquisition. It was not to be expected that an article of such importance as cotton could escape the usual lot, and remain free from adulteration. Accordingly, when the spinner comes to open and inspect his purchases at the mill, he frequently finds concealed therein substances which are certainly not cotton. Formerly flint stones were the principal articles selected as substitutes; and the manufacturer used often to discover that instead of the “fair bowed” which he had bought and paid for, he was favoured with a considerable weight of geological specimens. But it seems at length to have struck certain individuals on the other side of the Atlantic, that this was at best but a coarse and vulgar fraud, unworthy of an enlightened age and people, and that it was possible to carry out the principle of sophistication on a far more extended scale, and in a much more refined manner.

Accordingly the system of “sanding” sprung up, and instead of bales consisting of American cotton, they are frequently found to consist of America itself, to the extent of 10, 20, or in many instances of more than 30 per cent.

The extent to which this practice has reached may be imagined, when it is known that, taking the adulteration at 10 per cent. on the import of the last crop, which is stated to be a very low estimate, a quantity of sand equal in weight to more than 200,000 bales, or 40,000 tons, is found to have been bought and paid for as cotton by Great Britain, at an expense of upwards of 2,000,000l. sterling; and that there are now lying at Liverpool at least 100,000 bales of this sanded cotton, which spinners will not buy at any price.

But it may be asked, “cannot they purchase it at an allowance in price proportionate to the amount of adulteration?” To this it must be answered that cotton is now bought by sample and not by inspection of the bulk of the article, which indeed would be almost impracticable from the nature of the packages and other causes. When the cotton is warehoused on its arrival from abroad, a sample is taken from each of the bales, but these are pressed so hard, that it is impossible to penetrate more than a few inches into them. If, therefore, as is generally the case, the surface layer be clean cotton, it is evident that the sample can be of no value as an index of quality; but supposing the sample when first drawn to be fair, in the very act of drawing, and at every subsequent examination it is liable to lose some of the sand which it contains, and very shortly to become nothing better than “a delusion, a mockery, and a snare.”

This sandy adulteration, too, is more difficult to deal with than the simpler one before mentioned: when stones are found in cotton bales, it is at once evident that they have no business there; they were not represented in the sample, and were, therefore, not expected; consequently an affidavit is made of their presence, and a claim for compensation is preferred. It is true that a spinner has occasionally suffered the inconvenience of having his mill burned down, in consequence of contact between a flint and the iron machinery; but as this is not of very frequent occurrence it may, perhaps, be taken out of the account.

But as regards sand, which is nominally, if not actually or fairly, represented in the sample, it is plain that if the spinner make a claim on this score, he is liable to be told that the price he paid, was calculated upon the fact of the presence of this sand, and that it would be a point of no small difficulty to settle such a claim equitably, if allowed at all. No wonder, therefore, that there are so many bales of cotton at Liverpool which manufacturers decline to touch.

The money actually paid to America for this stuff does not represent the extent of the evil; freight, warehouse rent, and other charges are all incurred on this mass of useless earth, just as though it were what it ought to be; to say nothing of the damage caused to machinery, and the detriment to the health of the work-people in factories where the adulterated cotton is used.

This fraud has assumed such proportions that active steps are taking for its abatement. It is clear that the check must ultimately come from the consumer, for as long as a market exists for such cotton, so long will people be found to supply it. Whatever may be the result of the means adopted with a view to the suppression of this gigantic swindle, it cannot be denied that its perpetration is a strong argument against our remaining, longer than can be avoided, dependent upon one country for the largest supply of so important an article as cotton.

It is stated by those whose assertions are worthy of respect, that cotton could be grown in Africa, and laid down in England at considerably lower price—quality for quality—than that brought from New Orleans. No doubt time and capital are requisite to render Africa to any extent available as a source of supply; but most certainly 2,000,000l. sterling might have been far better spent in this direction during the past year, than in paying for an enormous quantity of useless and mischievous rubbish, and in thus helping to encourage and support a shameful and systematic fraud.

C. P. William.