To survive and prosper in the New World, the courageous settlers of British North America relied on trade. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the colonists shipped large quantities of foodstuffs and raw materials across the Atlantic to England--particularly furs, tobacco, rice, indigo, rum, grain, potash, coal, fish, timber, and naval stores. This external trade contributed 20 percent of total income during colonial times and established a pattern that would endure for many years. Until the 1960s the majority of U.S. exports (by value) consisted of food products and industrial materials, although paradoxically the United States became the world's leading manufacturing power before World War I. Early American settlers also built ships, and U.S. shipping soon played a big role in the Atlantic carrying trade. But, it was in primary and semi-processed products, not finished goods I and services, that colonial America prospered and penetrated world markets. 1
Europe soon developed an insatiable appetite for American commodities--especially tobacco, cotton, wheat, and petroleum. Tobacco brought prosperity to the Chesapeake region and it quickly emerged as the leading export crop, amounting to one-third to one-half of total exports. Despite the health hazards of smoking, American tobacco remains an important export. In 1995, this country sold abroad $6.6 billion in tobacco and tobacco products. But, early in the nineteenth century cotton displaced tobacco as the leading export. American grown long-staple cotton quickly became an essential raw material for the spindles of Lancashire. In the generation before the American Civil War cotton was considered king. It constituted more than half of total U.S. exports, and during the war the South hoped that English dependence on American cotton would bring favorable intervention. As late as the 1920s raw cotton still accounted for more than 20 percent of U.S. exports, and in 1995 it earned a respectable $3.7 billion from foreign sales.