Blood-Bought Sweets
January 7, 2016 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Quakers pioneered social enterprise. They were also the first to fail: How hard was it to opt out of the slave economy in the U.S. before the Civil War? Pretty hard, as the "free produce" movement discovered: In 1829... the members of [the Female Association for Promoting the Manufacture and Use of Free Cotton] reported their contractors had spun 2,515 pounds of cotton. Compared to the approximately 78 million pounds of cotton produced across the country in the year 1800 alone, it was a drop in the bucket. The economics of slavery previously.
posted by Cash4Lead (12 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Cotton, prior to and during and after the Civil War was the oil of its time, driving the economies and industrialization of Britain and very important to the economy of the United States. Slavery could not exist with out the banks in the North. To see just how important to the world cotton was, read the highly detailed and comprehensive book called EMPIRE OF CONNON: A GLOBAL HISTORY, by Sven Beckert, pub. 2014.
posted by Postroad at 12:57 PM on January 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

posted by Postroad at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2016

Yeah, this is an interesting episode in American history - the free produce movement also saw what we might call the first ethical product labelling. I wrote about this a little bit recently. One free produce story this doesn't seem to get into is that of Lydia Maria Child, best known for her seminal cookbook and housekeeping book The American Frugal Housewife, who, with her husband, attempted to get New England off slave-produced sugar by growing sugar beets. Unfortunately, it bankrupted them, which is one thing that drove her to work as an editor for anti-slavery publications.

For those interested in deeper information about Free Produce and other "consumer activism" buycotts and boycotts, in addition to Faulkner's book I recommend Buying Power: A History of Consumer ACtivism in America.

John Woolman is a big figure in American Quaker history
, and is remembered at a historic house set aside as his memorial, run by volunteers, largely Quakers, who work to continue his legacy.

The Levi Coffin mentioned in the story is also memorialized at the Levi Coffin House, one of the most interesting historic houses I've ever been to. It's a well-documented Underground Railroad location with several architectural features designed specifically for hiding refugees from slavery.
posted by Miko at 2:01 PM on January 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

Interesting article, thanks for posting. I was surprised to read that the Quakers shamed people who failed at their business. I didn't know shaming was part of their religion. But also, in relation to the social enterprise effort, it seems so contrary to their belief in "practice what you preach." These people attempting to do business outside of the slave economy had everything working against them. You would think the Quakers would cut them some slack, so to speak!
posted by pjsky at 2:19 PM on January 7, 2016

posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 2:31 PM on January 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the shaming and prohibitions on marrying-out are difficult aspects of early Quakerdom.

These free produce endeavours may have been unsuccessful, but in the UK exceptionally successful Quaker companies like Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry sprung out of the free-labour sugar movement. It didn't all go perfectly, as the 1908 libel trial shows, but ethical manufacture can be successful.
posted by scruss at 2:42 PM on January 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

It's really interesting that there's so much focus on ethically produced food today, and so little on cotton (well, clothes made from it under near-slavery conditions).
posted by miyabo at 3:50 PM on January 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Food hits our "moral rightousness purity instinct" more directly than clothes. There is a strong atavistic urge to evaluate the morality of food. Sadly it doesn't generalize as well to the rest of the economy.

Also sadly, it makes people want to treat disordered eating as a moral problem (solved by the sufferer snapping out of it and being a good person), moreso than other comparable symptoms of mental illness (where we acknowledge it's a symptom of stress or poor coping skills - where a root issue must be addressed).
posted by idiopath at 4:29 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I didn't know shaming was part of their religion.

It's certainly not now, but Quakerism has evolved and branched quite a bit since the early 1800s.
posted by Miko at 4:53 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hey Postroad,
The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies May be a good companion book to Empire of Cotton. Ruthless greed and ambition, plus enough wealth to start industrialization and the Enlightenment.
posted by ridgerunner at 7:04 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite] 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars--that's just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today's dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.
Yale History Professor David Blight, from his excellent course The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:12 PM on January 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

From the use of the word "sweets" I assumed this was going to be about maple syrup vs cane sugar.

There have been a few articles recently pointing out that the reason "grade AAA" maple syrup has no character or flavour beyond sweetness is because that was the point: the classification was invented by people trying to make general-purpose sugar without slave labour.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 10:35 AM on January 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

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