Were Antebellum Cotton Plantations Factories in the Field?

Alan L. Olmstead, Paul W. Rhode

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Chapter in forthcoming NBER book Enterprising America: Businesses, Banks, and Credit Markets in Historical Perspective, William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo, editors
Conference held December 14, 2013
Forthcoming from University of Chicago Press

Using census data, plantation records, and narrative evidence, we investigate whether the popular expression "factories in the field" appropriately characterizes antebellum cotton plantations. Based on micro-samples of farms, plantations, and manufacturing plants in 1859, we compare the size distributions and input mixes of operations. We inquire whether management practices on cotton plantations were closely aligned with those of modern business enterprises or with Taylor’s scientific management. We find that, by some measures, plantations were an intermediate form of enterprise located between the family farm and the contemporary factory, and in some ways, closer to the factory than to the farm. However, by other more important measures, plantations were very different from factories. We argue that the direct analogies between plantations and factories and labor systems employing modern management techniques obscure more than they reveal.

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This paper was revised on September 2, 2014

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