With the recent economic collapse and rising income inequality, lessons drawn from turn-of-the century capitalism have become frequent. Pundits, policymakers, and others have looked to the era to find precursors to an unregulated market, corrupt bankers, and severe economic inequality. The comparisons are often too simple, however. In their new book, The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans
(Oxford University Press, 2015), Barbara Hahn and Bruce Baker examine capitalism at the turn of the century, telling a more nuanced story about the cotton market, politics, and regulation. The Cotton Kings
examines the ups and downs of the cotton futures market, explaining how cotton brokers were able to keep cotton prices low by controlling information. This enriched the brokers, but impoverished farmers. A small group of brokers in New Orleans successfully cornered the market in the early 1900s, in effect, self-regulating the cotton market and raising prices for years. The Cotton Kings
traces the exciting story of this turn of events and explains why such self-regulation was not enough in the long run. Ultimately, The Cotton Kings
makes a strong argument in favor of federal regulation to control corruption and help farmers and manufacturers alike.
In this episode of the podcast, Hahn and Baker explain this cotton futures market and its ups and downs around the turn-of-the century. They also discuss some of the heroes and dramatic episodes of the historical moment. Finally, they discuss the lessons from that time for our present moment.
Christine Lamberson is an Assistant Professor of History at Angelo State University. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th century U.S. political and cultural history. She's currently working on a book manuscript about the role of violence in shaping U.S. political culture in the 1960s and 1970s. She can be reached at email@example.com.