|Date(s):||September 18, 1895 to September 19, 1895|
|Tag(s):||Economy of the South, Atlanta Exposition|
|Course:||“Fundamentals of Environmental History,” Auburn University|
Representatives of the Department of Agriculture spent weeks arranging the exhibit at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. Train cars had begun arriving in the city mid-summer, loaded with materials from a number of federal institutions and departments: the Smithsonian, the Forestry Department, the Postal Service, etc.. The specimens and demonstrations would fill the 65,000 square feet of the Government Building, erected with appropriations from Congress, with the intent of encouraging renewed economic partnerships with Southern manufacturers. That was the understanding of the Agriculture Department workers who installed the massive fish tanks that would house fresh and saltwater specimens from the Southern states. This exhibit proved to be one of the most popular on the opening day of the fair, September 18th. The Atlanta Constitution writes, “The people were loath to leave this place. They watched the gyrations of the impudent looking sheephead, the gay evolutions of the glided species; the sluggish movement of the catfish, the peculiar antics of the crabs.”
By the second day of the fair, most of the fish were dead. The pump works that supplied running water to the tanks had shut off during the night, suffocating many of the freshwater fish in the exhibit. The Constitution described the scene: “Huge catfish floated on the top of the aquariums with their white bellies turned upward in death, and the splendid specimens of trout, which attracted so much attention on opening day were woefully decimated.” This exhibit, and others like it spread throughout the various buildings of the fair, had an explicit commercial purpose. Despite intonations regarding the fair’s educative value, exhibits like the native fish species were designed to cast the South as a trove of untapped natural resources.
North Carolina emeralds, Georgia pine, Alabama iron ore, and (of course) cotton were some of the exploitable raw materials on display. Both North and South recognized the potential in these undeveloped materials, though regions differed in their view of how these would figure into the future of the South and its people. Northern boosters largely sought to integrate Southern industry into an existing network of manufacturing, centered in northeastern cities. The South could supply Massachusetts textile mills with cotton, Pennsylvania steel mills with ore, and could otherwise become a dependable repository for Northern investment capital. Southern journalists and businessmen however were actively engaged in crafting a regionally distinct culture and a financially independent economy. One of the express purposes of the 1895 Exposition was to entice new Southern trade partners in Central and South America, and throughout the fair, technologies were venerated that could satisfy the South’s vision for a new industrial society. The modern Southern textile mill was an invention that would, over the following decades, come to dominate the Southern economy. Not unlike the fish, many Southerners would become victims of these changes.
Robert Wiebe writes of an ongoing, Southern identity crisis in the late 19th century. “They simply saw no conflict between popular control and modern technology. [….] What they did reject were the current means of America’s industrialization - the corporations, the systems of credit and distribution, the alterations of political power. In trying to destroy the lot of them, they planned a revolution without quite realizing it and, as it happened, lost at every turn.” The systems designed to keep the fish alive failed to work correctly in the South and herein lies a parable. The industrialization of the South looked different, and the insistence with which Southern leaders developed a manufacturing economy blinded many to the costs of integrating new technologies and systems into an ill-equipped society. The naïve predispositions of Southern institutions would cause them to lumber blindly into building an unsustainable, extractive, and fragile economic system that would lock the region in poverty for much of the following century.