Inventing purity in the Atlantic sugar world, 1860-1930
Author(s)Singerman, David Roth
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Program in Science, Technology and Society.
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This dissertation illuminates how expert labor makes a complex natural substance into a uniform global commodity. Drawing on both published sources and extensive archival research in the continental United States, in Scotland, and in Puerto Rico, it provides new insight into the workings of the empires of commodities that define modem capitalism. Chapter 1 shows that the notion that sugar has a single valuable molecular essence sucrose- has been used to explain its history as a commodity. Yet this essentialism is not a natural fact but a product of the political economy of the late nineteenth century itself. From the seventeenth century on, sugar production had relied on the experienced multisensory techniques of enslaved craftsmen. But after 1860, newly sophisticated factories began to appear throughout the Caribbean, producing sugar of unprecedented consistency and quality. Chapter 2 explores how the work of chemists was essential to managing labor within these new factories, whose owners 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. These efforts to use scientific expertise to de-skill sugar production were made possible, Chapter 3 shows, by the persistence of craft and cooperative production in Glasgow, where those factories' machines were built. Sugar engineering firms cultivated relationships with distant plantations, ensuring that draftsmen and engineers could design, maintain, and repair machines that would last many decades. It therefore shows how the devices that facilitated sugar's commodification have human histories themselves. Finally, Chapter 4 reveals how the valuation of sugar became a central political issue in the postbellum United States. The Federal government feared its means of enforcing sugar tariffs was being undermined by fraud on the part of Customs officers and by new forms of sugar itself. But supposedly objective chemical techniques were even harder for the state to supervise. In showing how powerful refiners shaped scientific practices to their own advantage, this chapter provides a new framework for historians' analyses of science, commodities, and corruption in the nineteenth century.
Thesis: Ph. D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society (HASTS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Program in Science, Technology and Society, 2014.Cataloged from PDF version of thesis.Includes bibliographical references (pages 258-280).
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Program in Science, Technology and Society.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Program in Science, Technology and Society.