This award supports doctoral dissertation research on changes in the notion of sugar that resulted from new modes of sugar production that were first implemented in the late 19th century. Between 1875 and 1925, in response to massive competitive pressure, the nature of sugar production in the Caribbean and throughout the cane-growing world was radically transformed. New sources and systems of free and coerced labor took the place of slavery, and small animal-powered plantations gave way to huge, technically sophisticated factories. The dramatic political, social, economic, and environmental changes brought by industrialization and centralization have been extensively studied. Yet the most remarkable change of all was perhaps the most subtle, a transformation of the very idea of sugar itself and what it meant for sugar to be pure. Until the end of the nineteenth century, "sugar" denoted a natural substance, something that could only be valued through the knowledge and skill of experienced individuals using all their senses and their judgment. But during the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th, this kind of evaluation of sugar's quality was superseded in commerce and production by a new concept of value, the chemical determination of its sucrose content. This dissertation explores the effect of this change in the meaning and nature of sugar and purity on the global production, labor, and trade in sugar; and how the sugar economy itself shaped those new ideas of value.

Intellectual Merit

The project focuses on two particular economic and intellectual relationships: first between the United States and Cuba, the source of half of US-consumed sugar; and second between Cuba and Glasgow, which provided the heavy equipment and expertise for modern sugar factories in Cuba and around the world. By analyzing published books and journals, factory production records, correspondences, and especially legal and trade disputes, in Cuban, British, and American archives, this project will demonstrate how this shift from sensory to scientific knowledge reshaped the nature of trade, production, and the organization of work in the world of sugar. The project will reconsider commodities and processes of commodification in history. Unlike the mechanical commodification of cotton, wheat, and other well-studied examples, sugar became a globally tradable item through the standardizing power of science. This research will clarify how natural products become globally exchangeable goods, and how that process affects the people and places touched by exchanges. It will use the history of science, especially science and empire, to understand the history of global trade; conversely, it will use the history of commodities and trade to help understand how science is contested and stabilized across vast distances.

Potential Broader impacts

This dissertation project will be of interest to scholars of business, economics, and trade as well as to historians of science. In addition to publishing a scholarly book and articles based on the dissertation and delivering presentations at professional scholarly meetings, the Co-PI intends to publish two articles aimed at nonspecialist audiences. These articles would use the sugar example to emphasize challenges facing all modern commodity exchanges, such as determining when dispersed producers, traders, and consumers should trust what they are buying and selling when such trusts depend on scientific measurements made on the far side of the planet.

Project Report

My dissertation, entitled "Inventing Purity in the Atlantic Sugar World, 1860-1930," illuminates the invisible labor that makes a complex natural substance like sugar appear a uniform global commodity. Drawing on both published sources and extensive archival research in the continental United States, in Scotland, and in Puerto Rico, "Inventing Purity" provides new insight into the workings of the empires of commodities that define modern capitalism. While the notion that sugar has a single valuable molecular essence—sucrose—has been used to explain its history as a commodity, my dissertation shows that this essentialism is not a natural fact but a product of the political economy of the late nineteenth century itself. Following an introduction that lays out the history of concepts of purity in the sugar trade, the dissertation is divided into three main chapters. Since the seventeenth century, sugar production had relied on the experienced multisensory techniques of enslaved craftsmen. After 1860, new and sophisticated factories began to appear throughout the Caribbean, producing sugar of unprecedented consistency and purity. Chapter 2 explores how the work of chemists was essential to managing labor within these new factories, where they attempted to eliminate the need for artisan work. Yet the more successfully chemists extracted sucrose from sugarcane, the more mechanical and obvious they made that extraction appear, and the more they effaced their own necessity. This chapter thus shows how the nature of skilled labor changed, and how it remained the same, within the new industrial Caribbean. These efforts to use scientific expertise to de-skill sugar production were made possible, Chapter 3 shows, by the persistence of craftsmanship and cooperative production where those machines were themselves built. Glasgow’s sugar-engineering firms cultivated relationships with faraway plantations and central factories, ensuring that their draftsmen and engineers could design, maintain, and repair machines that would last many decades. The devices that facilitated sugar’s commodification, therefore, have human histories themselves. This chapter brings Glasgow into the history of the Atlantic and global sugar worlds, and contributes to our understanding of the history of the long-lived technological artifacts that help manufacture our modern world. Finally, Chapter 4 reveals how the valuation of sugar became a central political issue in the postbellum United States. The Federal government feared its enforcement of sugar tariffs was being undermined by adulteration and fraud on the part of Customs officers. The Treasury turned to chemists for supposedly objective valuation, but found that complex chemical techniques even harder for the state to reliably supervise. Instead, powerful refiners could manipulate the means of tariff enforcement for their own competitive advantage, which led directly to the rise of the Sugar Trust monopoly in the 1880s. For several decades, this powerful conglomerate influenced the US government's trade and foreign policy in the Americas and the Pacific. By weaving together the history of science, the history of capitalism, and the history of American politics, the story this chapter tells has implications for historians’ understanding of regulatory power and corruption in the formation of the modern American state.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Frederick M Kronz
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology
United States
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