Promoting the Beet Sugar Industry: Claus Spreckels before Congress (1889-90)

Claus Spreckels was the father of the American beet sugar industry. In the early 1890s, beet sugar production had surpassed cane sugar production, and Spreckels’ statements in the 1890 document are based on the idea that this modern, “scientific” way of producing sugar would dominate the market in the future. The peak of this development was reached in the early twentieth century when Congress began subsidizing domestic beet sugar production. The document provides, first, insights into the beginnings of this subsidy regime and how political decisions were negotiated among the economic and (dependent) political elites in the late nineteenth century. Second, it illustrates Claus Spreckels’ perception of the U.S. as a land of opportunity.


From: “The Sugar Beet,” in Revision of the Tariff: Hearings before the Committee on Ways and Means, Fifty-First Congress, First Session, 1889-’90 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890), 1098-1103, here 1098, 1099, 1103.

“Mr. Claus Spreckels, of Philadelphia, next addressed the committee. He said: Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee, I appear before you, gentlemen, to state that I think the greatest industry, the greatest agriculture for the farmers, is the industry of beet, and I have taken it up on that account. I guess you are all aware that our farmers complain that their property is going down and that their farms do not bring as much now as they did twenty years ago. There is a reason for it, and they will continue to deteriorate more and more. In former years they got more for their wheat, and their land was not worked as much as it is now and it is going down deeper in the mire all the time. There is one single thing for the farmers to cultivate that will bring their farms up, and that is the beet culture; nothing else will do it. I say to you gentlemen that as sure as I stand before you the time will come when the American people will raise their sugar in their own country and export it, instead of importing it. I sunk a good deal of money in it, and three years ago I went to Europe to study and to order machinery. I formed a corporation with six gentlemen as associates—I am the seventh—and I said to them, ‘What stock will you take?’ Each of them took $10,000, making $60,000, and I said I would take $440,000. I wanted it done that way so that if there was a loss I would stand to lose nearly all; so I kept that amount of stock and I have got it to-day. I went to Germany to examine to see if we could do it. Of course the first difficulty is in the labor. Our labor is $2 a day. Now, the beet culture requires a good deal more labor than other farm products. Now, the people said that they could not cultivate this beet because they had no labor. I said them, ‘Let us see; you have your youngsters here, fifteen, sixteen years old; you can put them to work at this. When they are doing nothing else they are off fishing or hunting. Put them at this and learn them to be industrious.’ So they have taken young people there and a young fellow has come and said, ‘These are the clothes I bought for myself and I have $35 in a savings bank.’ This industry helps to make them an industrious people, and instead of running around, they will save money and make themselves good farmers.…

Mr. Carlisle. How many crops of beets can be cultivated on land without some other crops? Mr. Spreckles [sic.]. The experience in Germany has been that after, perhaps, twenty years they could not raise beets every year, and they have come to the conclusion that it is best to raise them every third year. The next year they will plant barley, then they will plant wheat, and then they go back to beets again. Mr. La Follette. With that rotation, can we have beet cultivation indefinitely? Mr. Spreckels [sic.]. Yes, sir. I know that in California, where they have new land, they can not come up tp Germany in grain raising now. I know when I was a boy there it was hard to get bread as it was so high. They raise wheat and hogs now. Bismarck says, ‘You shall raise those hogs here.’ I say that ut us the beet culture of Germany that has given them these advantages. Mr. McKenna. Now, if we introduce the beet culture here, what becomes of us? Mr. Spreckles [sic.]. We consume it; we do not export it now. Germany exports perhaps this year 700,000 tons.…

This, I will tell you, gentlemen, I look to see you raise in this country all the sugar that is consumed here. It will come as sure as I stand before you. Mr. Gear. How long a time will it be before it comes? Mr. Spreckels. If you assure us that there is not to be any change in the tariff, and you had one hundred Claus Spreckels, I think we would do it in three or four years. I have so many irons in the fire that I have to watch them pretty closely to keep them from buring. Mr. Gear. Your irons never will burn. We know all about you.”