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Sweet Tyranny: Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture, and Imperial Politics

Author(s):Mapes, Kathleen
Reviewer(s):Allen, Samuel

Published by EH.NET (January 2010)

Kathleen Mapes, Sweet Tyranny: Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture, and Imperial Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. xi + 307 pp. $30 (paper), ISBN: 978-0-252-07667-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Samuel Allen, Department of Economics and Business, Virginia Military Institute.

Kathleen Mapes? carefully researched account of the American sugar beet industry in the first half of the twentieth century provides a thorough and vivid look at the myriad interest groups impacted by political and economic changes. The story is sweet ? not in any simple or soothing sense, but rather the sweetness derives from the complexity of flavors that Mapes deftly unwraps one layer at a time. Like many American agricultural conundrums, those facing the sugar beet industry at the turn of the last century were complicated because there were many simultaneous puzzles to solve. Prior to reading Mapes? work one might be inclined to think of the sugar beet industry as a plain, unsophisticated root crop. However, Mapes? telling story reveals the interconnected pressures of international trade, relations with Cuba, American imperialism in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, racism, and migrant and child labor. She meticulously merges together the stories of these groups, to provide a comprehensive synthesis for the actions and government policies that ultimately determined the fate of the fledgling domestic sugar beet.

Much of the story takes place in Michigan where Mapes depicts rural townspeople anxious to coax plant owners to their towns in hopes that a local sugar beet refinery would boost land values, employment, and economic growth generally. Farmers, too, were eager to contract with plant owners to ensure the viability of their farms. Meanwhile plant owners and the ?beet lobby? cautiously weighed-in on national issues with aspirations of garnering U.S. government support and avoiding the full competitive brunt of cane sugar producing locales in tropical climates ? including U.S. territories. The ?boosterism? exhibited by rural communities in Michigan and throughout the Midwest led to an explosion of sugar beet factories, growing tenfold between 1892 and 1906. This created new demand for work in the fields that was largely met by immigrant laborers.

The book is divided into 9 chapters, and in each Mapes delves deeper into the relations of the critical interest groups. Following the initial chapter on rural industrialization and imperial politics, the remaining chapters explain the unique qualities of contracts for growing sugar beet; as well as the realities of migrant families and child labor and the changing nature of stereotypical Midwestern family farms into ones where race and class take on new levels of importance.

The story is prophetic in many ways. For example, the actions of rural Americans reveal a serious disconnect between their expectations (and the prospects of a sugar factory in a given town) and the national debate on tariffs and protectionism. Essentially this serves as a reminder that the weather in Michigan was (predictably) somewhere else a few days earlier, and forecasting proactively is vital.

The owners of sugar beet refineries contracted with farmers to grow sugar beets. The especially stringent nature of these contracts ? which specified exact tracts of land to be planted with specific seeds provided by the plant owners at set dates ? resulted in considerable turmoil. Some farmers felt unfairly treated and initially threatened not to grow any beets. By banding together, they had significant bargaining power. Perhaps because the new refining plants represented an enormous capital investment relative to other agricultural processors of the day, their owners relented to these early demands from farmers and paid them more. Yet, Mapes explains how subsequent negotiations concluded much differently. They were anything but straightforward.

As Mapes shifts her attention to the workers it is apparent that the sugar beet industry demonstrates key properties of the U.S.?s transition from a nation with family farms to one of industrialized agriculture. Here the changing technology (capital intensive sugar beet refineries) and the changing workforce (through the growing importance of migrant labor) combined to meet the growing product demand (for sugar). Mapes astutely recognizes the people and institutions facilitating these changes ? which often used racist language as a plea for ?civilized? outcomes ? have lasting impacts on the demographic and industrial make-up of the country. Economists and development scholars would be wise to keep these lessons in mind.

Next, Mapes highlights the changes to the industry during World War I. The war-time inflation led to greater tension between farmers and plant owners; however, it also heightened the interest of those in Washington, DC. Despite higher war-time profits in the industry, the greater profits did not improve relations.

Finally, Mapes devotes the last few chapters to the debates about immigrants, migrant labor, and child labor. Again the relevance of these issues is widespread in the sugar beet industry. In her epilogue, Mapes concludes with a brief account of the ongoing political prowess of the sugar industry and more importantly an overview of why the issues of free trade, protectionism, globalism, family farming, and the polarized nature of the political process in these areas are so fundamental to the direction of our nation. Mapes hammers home these points in a concise and compelling manner.

Mapes? copious notes refer to citations at the end of the book so as to minimize the disruption to the flow. While ideal for a general reader, it would be significantly more useful for other historians if the references from the notes section were also included in the book?s index.

Overall, this book weaves together with amazing detail the threads from a vast array of relevant economic, social, and cultural realms. Outcomes were frequently bitter, and the tyranny of the politically powerful within U.S. institutions is quite apparent, but it would be hard to imagine that Mapes omitted any of this story?s sweet complexity.

Samuel Allen?s research in economic history pertains to workers? compensation insurance, labor laws, and working conditions in the United States, primarily during the early twentieth century. A recent paper is ?Lifting the Curse of Dimensionality: Measures of the Labor Legislation Climate in the States during the Progressive Era,? published in 2009 in Labor History. Allen teaches economics at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII