Figured cotton gowns such as this were very popular in the 1820s as the cotton economy boomed and advances in dyeing and printing technology made a wide variety of colors and patterns available to middle-class consumers. This dress was made from cotton that was likely grown by enslaved people in the American south, woven into cloth, dyed, and printed in the textile mills of New England or England, and then shipped to Illinois on an expanding network of railroads and steamships.
This dress is a tangible reminder that slavery was not just a Southern issue in antebellum America. Cotton was the backbone of the American economy before the Civil War. Southern plantations, New England textile mills, northern banks, and East Coast shipping companies all had overlapping interests in the cotton industry. “King Cotton” was also the driving force for territorial expansion into the American southwest and the cause of the sectional crisis over whether or not to permit slavery in the territories. At the heart of the cotton economy was a worldwide hunger for affordable cotton to produce bedding, shirts, and dresses such as this one.