The Reputation of the Staple: Cotton and Sugar in the Lower Mississippi Valley and Atlantic Mercantile Networks, 1795–1820

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:20 PM
Chamber Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Patrick F. Luck, Johns Hopkins University
In the mid-1790s, Louisiana’s plantation economy underwent a fundamental reorientation. Having long grown indigo and tobacco as their main staples by the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 cotton and sugar had become the dominant staples of the region. Still, planters growing the new crops faced the challenge of overcoming the questionable quality of planters’ crops in both domestic and foreign markets. Due to local climate, and the newness and variety of the crops grown, merchants often feared that the region’s crops would not fulfill their or their clients’ needs.  This paper will argue that planters and merchants began in the mid-1790s to develop a way that was mutually satisfactory for assessing and ensuring quality. In the early years of production, reputation became the key mode by which this was done. Planters used a variety of strategies to create and protect reputation. In some cases they appealed to the government to pass and enforce regulations on crop quality, a move often encouraged and praised by distant merchants. In others, they depended on the personal reputations of producers. Merchants as far away as Europe encouraged this process by keeping track of the crop quality of individual producers and praising, often publicly, those who produced good crops and chastising those who did not.  Still, as the period progressed, the early tools of regulation and personal reputation became less important and were replaced by more impersonal market tools such as regional reputation and the grading of crops into predefined, if at times still ambiguous, quality categories. What had started out as a market dependent on personal relationships that spanned the Atlantic, had, by the 1820s, become far more impersonal and indirect if not yet the fully commodified market that would arise in the mid to late 19th century.