What was the break even price for cotton between 1800 and 1860?

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matthew mckeon

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My understanding is that maintaining a slave for a year cost twenty dollars. I have no idea where I got that figure, but it has stuck in my head.

There is some talk upthread about slaves "depreciating" Of course slave children were a growing asset.

A question: who set the price of cotton? Was that even in the US, since so much was sold overseas?
 

jgoodguy

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If you google "cotton production costs and returns, United States," you will find that the average cost of production during modern times has been determined, so it is not impossible.
Unless that data is computer and reporting dependent, if so then it is impossible. I was unable to obtain the data for 1950 for example and the Statistical Abstract for 1969 does not contain the data.
 

jgoodguy

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My understanding is that maintaining a slave for a year cost twenty dollars. I have no idea where I got that figure, but it has stuck in my head.

There is some talk upthread about slaves "depreciating" Of course slave children were a growing asset.

A question: who set the price of cotton? Was that even in the US, since so much was sold overseas?
Children take several years to be marketable in some area such as field hand costing the slave owner without any offsetting income. IMHO the "depreciating" of a field hand is only partially offset by slave children.

A number of agents set the price of cotton at various times and places. A cotton factor may lend a planter the amount of some discounted estimate of some part of his cotton crop. There is the sale at harvest time. Also varies where it happens. New Orleans, Memphis or Montgomery for example, then there is the grade of cotton to determine.
 
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Gene Green

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If you google "cotton production costs and returns, United States," you will find that the average cost of production during modern times has been determined, so it is not impossible.
you are missing the main point. antebellum cotton production was based on slave labor. this contrasts sharply with modern times. the idea that has been expressed here is that it is impossible to compute exactly the cost of labor for any given season or crop. there is too much overlap into other areas of slave endeavor and activity. however, as you say , the information is out there and some of it has been conveyed to you. it just isn't spelled out in a report by the dept. of agriculture.
 

mobile_96

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Can't historians study 1000 or more plantations in a particular state? Has anyone tried?
The answer is No! They have not studied 1000 plantations in a particular state. There are not 1000 Records from any given state, much less 1000 from the entire South (that I know of). I've only ever heard there were even a couple Complete records preserved. I had a link to one, but that's long gone from my puter.
Then, there were even problems with that one. Planters didn't always keep 1 book for the plantation expenses/earnings and another for the Family (money spent from the profits), but kept everything in 1 book, so the cost of slaves was counted along side the price of a piano or dishes, or fancy duds for the misses. So all that has to be pulled apart, from all the Records to begin looking at expense/profit.
If you can show me different on the numbers of complete Records I would greatly appreciate the sources. Always willing to learn.
 
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Hunter

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An old lawyer once told me that "if it was easy, monkeys could do it." His point, of course, was that some tasks-even those that many might incorrectly deem impossible-are (merely) very difficult. Some of you conclude that the data does not exist. Have you made a systematic search for it like a historian would? Have you, for example, contacted the various archives, libraries, and historical associations in your state? Or any other state? Is that task time-consuming and labor-intensive? Certainly, but it is what historians do. Is it worthwhile? I think so to those who want to transform unproven assumptions about the profitability of antebellum cotton agriculture into proven theorems.

My original question was simply an effort to find out if anyone had already done this spadework and written about it. Based on everyone's responses so far, I assume you do not know of any such book or article. If anyone new has other information, I would love to receive it. Thanks.
 

Drew

Major
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Oct 22, 2012
Sorry I am so dense. We "won't ever find " the average cost, or no one has tried to find it beyond anecdotal evidence? "There are too many variables," but does that mean they cannot be identified, studied, and controlled for? Is it because the data does not exist, or because economic historians have not chosen to spend the time to find and analyze it?
It means there are too many variables, Hunter. Acquisition cost vs. inheritance, quality of soils, distance to market, all of these things matter. Yes, if we study 1,000 farm records from the period, we might find an "average cost," but it would be meaningless, for the above reasons - too many individual variables to profitability.
 

Drew

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Oct 22, 2012
A question: who set the price of cotton? Was that even in the US, since so much was sold overseas?
The answer is (drumroll), the market. Supply and demand. No one "set" the price of cotton, it was determined at Liverpool, Boston, etc., based upon what was available and what was demanded. There's no conspiracy in this.
 
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Hunter

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My understanding is that maintaining a slave for a year cost twenty dollars. I have no idea where I got that figure, but it has stuck in my head.

There is some talk upthread about slaves "depreciating" Of course slave children were a growing asset.

A question: who set the price of cotton? Was that even in the US, since so much was sold overseas?
Textile companies in the U.S. and England had agents in the U.S. who analyzed reports of expected production, determined their company's needs, and made offers based on the classification of available stocks. In short, the price was determined by supply and demand. If you review antebellum newspapers from the period from October to March of each year, you will find reports of the prices offered at various ports, such as New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, New York, etc. Some papers reported prices offered at interior markets, like Memphis, Montgomery, etc., as well as in foreign ports. Needless to say, this data was very valuable; about the same as injury information and football scores to a bookie or his victim.
 

Gene Green

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wausaubob

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The 10 states of the deep south were all in the cotton market, by 1860. And as this thread illustrates, the peak price of 1845 was not sustainable. As Mississippi and Louisiana tripled production, the world market could not bear it.
The price of slaves in New Orleans remained high. Disease problems in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, made retaining white labor difficult. Whites were fleeing to the Texas or Arkansas frontier. It was hard to keep enslaved labor alive. Which tended to recreate the labor shortage conditions that had created the slave trade in the first place.
New Orleans had a unique trade position in the US. It had a surplus position with almost all the rest of the US states, because New Orleans dealt in sugar and coffee, as well as cotton. New Orleans collected and banked tariffs too. So the New Orleans banks were particularly strong and New Orleans traders were cash heavy.
At least 44% of the slaves in the south were employed in cotton growing. The price of cotton and the price of slaves could not move in opposite directions for very long. Sooner rather than later, they would move together, downward.
The Midwest, along with Missouri and Kentucky, had already gone through a price decline in agricultural commodities and a banking panic, in 1857 and they were recovering by 1860.
By 1860-61 the banking panic was going to hit the deep south.
 
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wausaubob

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See also page lxiv. https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1860/agriculture/1860b-03.pdf?# By 1860 the agricultural economy was becoming rationalized based on railroad and steamboat transportation. The northern tier could produce wheat, cattle, dairy cows, oats and horses.
The vast middle, with a longer growing season, could produce corn, hogs, barley and mules.
The deep south could produce cotton and sugar, and buy whatever it needed from the other sections.
What the southern cotton growers did not see, and which was hidden, was that their best growth market was the US. The population was increasing and the standard of living was increasing. None of the international markets offered that combination.
 

wausaubob

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https://lincolnmullen.com/projects/slavery/ From the pattern shown in Lincoln Mullen's maps, the distribution of slaver was concentrating. A longer growing season, fertile soil, and a railroad or a navigable river all made slavery more profitable.
The international cotton market was competitive. And the price for cotton was dependent the health of the British worldwide mercantile economy.
 
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