Not Just Peanuts
One Crop’s Career in Farm and Factory
The industrial revolution arrived in a Western Europe already short of many raw materials, with shrinking forests and often overworked soil; it was accompanied by unprecedented population growth. And since most nineteenth-century industrial goods still required large inputs of cotton, wood or other natural products—only the twentieth-century chemical revolution would dispense with that—where were the necessary farm goods to come from?
The most famous answers—such as the rise of American cotton and wheat exports, and the development of rubber plantations—are the stuff of legends, but millions of humbler farm goods also had a brief day in the sun as coveted producer goods. The strangest case may be guano—vast deposits of bird excrement shipped from Latin America to Europe in the years between the discovery of soil depletion in Western Europe and the development of chemical fertilizers. When these new agro-industrial inputs already had a very different role in more locally oriented economies, strange transformations could occur. Consider the career of the peanut.
Like potatoes, corn and tobacco, peanuts came to much of the Old World via the New. (They were known in Africa before Columbus, but seem not to have spread from there to Europe or Asia.) Spanish traders brought them to the Philippines, from whence intra-Asian networks took them to the mainland; and it was there that they attracted attention. A highly labor-intensive crop with a taste very different from basic grains, peanuts were never a staple anywhere—especially not in the sparsely populated New World. They remained the stuff of decorations, sauces and snacks. But for poor people in densely populated areas they were nonetheless very important.
Peanuts would grow on the thinnest and sandiest of soils, and in fact gradually improved them and held them in place. This made them perfect for places where population pressure had led to earlier ecological mismanagement: when Chinese who cut down trees to make farms of the Yangzi Valley highlands found the soil eroding too fast, they found that switching to peanuts could help save their farms. Farmers in the post–Civil War American South, inheriting land exhausted from growing too much cotton, also made peanuts an important part of living with a legacy of ecological decay.
Moreover, every part of the plant was usable: the vines made excellent pig food and the shells a useful fuel, and the oil was good for both cooking and heating. And while peanuts required an enormous amount of extremely dull post-harvest work such as cleaning (dirty peanuts easily get mildews that ruin the entire pile), this was work that even small children could do, thus adding one more contributor to the tight budgets of many poor families. The labor requirements were too burdensome for any family to put all its land into peanuts, but the enormous (and high-protein) yields per acre made peanuts an ideal homemade safety net for those taking a gamble in cash crops: Many South Chinese and Indian peasants who were switching some of their land into lucrative but risky sugar in the nineteenth century switched the rest of it into peanuts, which became a home-grown food supply protected from the ups and downs of prices. (These same qualities made peanuts a favorite of reformers seeking to improve rural diets, from Georgia to Jiangsu: Suggested recipe lists compiled by American 4-H clubs and Chinese Nationalist extension agents alike contain any number of ideas for sneaking more protein and vitamins into poor people via peanuts.)
Then, around 1900, everything changed. German and American chemists (including the famous George Washington Carver) discovered dozens of industrial uses for the peanut and its oil: as a lubricant, a paint ingredient and a soap ingredient. (In parts of Europe, peanut oil replaced increasingly pricey olive oil in this process.) Demand boomed and exports soared—first from China, then India, and then from West Africa. In Seattle, the main port for U.S. imports, special wharves were built in the 1920s just to accommodate peanut oil tankers. And with demand soaring, prices soared, too. Since peanuts were not a large part of the cost of any final industrial product, Western markets were not very price sensitive; needs kept growing faster than supplies, especially during and immediately after World War I.
But prosperity had its perils, too. Because much of the land on which peanuts had traditionally been grown would support nothing else, it was often land that none but the poor had bothered to claim: dry former river beds, sandy wastelands and rocky hillsides. But now that these lands could generate cash, richer and more powerful people became interested in them, often “rediscovering” old deeds. In some cases, peasants had once paid a nominal fee to secure use of these lands from owners who were glad to get anything from land they couldn’t or wouldn’t farm themselves; now, all of a sudden, these rents could double or triple overnight. In parts of the North China peanut belt, local “sand land wars” raged throughout the 1920s, often ending with the eviction of the earlier peanut growers.
Even the winners in those battles found their triumph short-lived. When peanut prices got high enough, large-scale production for the market expanded on lands more fertile than those traditionally set aside for peanuts in Asia. West African peanuts, in particular, soon claimed an ever-growing share of the world market. Thanks to higher productivity, they survived the 1930s slump in peanut prices that drove many Chinese and Indians out of the world market. Finally, a bubble created by industrial innovation fell victim to industrial innovation: a new round of chemical discoveries in the 1930s and 1940s created synthetic substitutes for industrial peanut products.
Before long, peanuts were again marginal, except perhaps to North American children. But their rise and fall are more than a curiosity. They stand with many other now-forgotten booms created between the time when the industrial revolution placed massive new demands on the land, and the time when chemists rerouted much of that demand underground: to products of the mines, as transformed in laboratories.
How To Turn Nothing Into Something