Apr 20, 2018
Geoffrey Cobb is the author of the book Rise and Fall of the Sugar King which shows what it really cost to create the sugar industry. He’s got touching stories of how Henry Havemeyer would stop at nothing just to see his company thrive. We discuss how this has personally affected him and we’re sure from this, you won't be able to view sugar the same way.
[01:48-2:25] Intro: Today we are joined by Geoffrey Cobb who is the author of the book 'The rise and fall of the sugar king'.
[2:25-3:05] Can you tell us more about Dominos sugar? It was started by two brothers, Henry who did the marketing and Theodore who handled the technical side. It was doing well, but then after the civil war ,more people discovered that they too could refine sugar which created a lot of competition and in turn forced them to cut down on their prices which put a strain in the business.
[3:05-6:31] Could you please tell us more about the conditions of the refinery? They picked Polish-speaking immigrants that didn’t know English and this was because they knew that they were desperate and would do anything. They would work for 12 hours a day in temperatures that ranged from 110 to 130 degrees and at almost 100% humidity. Most workers would wear loin cloth because of the heat. There were a number of accidents in the refinery that left some workers sick and/or disable and without compensation. There were deaths, too, especially on hot summer days yet the refinery didn’t stop working even after the workers demanded for better working conditions.
[6:31-8:29] Tell us more about the turmoil in the States and around the world because of this? In 1882, there was a fire that completely engulfed the refinery to the ground. It cost them 1.5 million, which in today’s economy is about 1.5 billion to reconstruct. The workers then protested about the poor working conditions which was resolved, but went onto becoming a recurring problem.
[8:29-10:53] The sugar industry really shaped the economy and the skyline when it comes to the sugar industry. What would the city have been without it? In the 1830's there was a vision of Williamsburg being a posh residential area. It didn’t happen due to a real estate bubble burst which left large tracks of land which later became sugar refineries. Henry Havemeyer later remarried Louisine Havemeyer who brought great awareness to impressionist art, which some she later donated to metropolitan museum.
[10:53-12:03] Did the art come from the mansion facing central park? Yes. The mansion was decorated by Louis comfort Tiffany.
[12:03-14:35] Could you tell us more about the sugar trust? In the 1880's the competition became cut throat and the only way to survive was to limit the amount of sugar produced and to increase the price. Henry Havemeyer then convinced other sugar producers to set up a sugar trust that would control the price and supply. This, in turn, made them very wealthy, affecting the economy of the United States. In 1858 with the start of the civil war in Louisiana where most of the sugar come from, the supply was cut off and sugar had to be imported from different places such as Cuba, Egypt, Puerto Rico, and Brazil but mainly from Cuba. This sparked the Spanish-American war.
[14:35-14:55] What made Henry Havemeryer push the American government to fight with Spain? He wanted to buy up the sugar plantation where the raw sugar way raised.
[14:55-15:24] It was all about the money, right? Right. And as soon as Cuba was freed from Spain and Puerto Rico became an American territory, they reconfigured the economy to best suit them.
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[16:13-18:09] Does Met Museum have a responsibility to talk about the money and the history of the art hanging on their walls? Unfortunately, there is no stipulation for this even though there is a lot of criminality surrounding the Havermeyer's wealth acquisition.
[18:09-19:39] What did the president of the United States say about this? He asked that justice be served for the fraudulent behavior that cost the country a lot.
[20:06-21:34] What kind of emotion does seeing sugar evoke from you knowing what you know now? I am now aware of how many lives were lost and ruined for the production of that sugar. I cut my story off at 1909 but this went on till 2005. I have a visual attachment to sugar.
[21:34-22:33] Why did the union solider need so much sugar a month? It’s not clear but a logical argument would be that they were cooking up boozes.
[22:33-27:41] What was the influence of the Sherman act? After the sugar trust was formed, the New York State sued them for being illegal which they won. They then incorporated in New Jersey and they were able to run the sugar trust fund through Henry Havermeyer. Through bribing top government officials, Henry Havermeyer was able to maintain and run his business empire without problems despite breaking the law. Henry was also known to destroy anyone that attempted to come into competition with him as in the cause of Claus Spreckels, a sugar king from California, and The Arbuckle which cost a lot of money.
[27:41-30:09] Let’s talk about his family
that’s living today.
After his death, there was an investigation and they found out that Henry had illegally received a huge amount of stock in the American Sugar refining company which violates the security exchange commission laws. The family divested and the sugar monopoly was broken up by the government, but they still held huge amount of stock worth millions.
His daughter, Electro, set up foremost museum of Americana, and the son became a family historian. They’re still wealthy people to date.
[30:09-31:10] What’s happening to the modern Domino sugar building? The building is landmark and it rapidly transformed into something different. It was set up as an industrial building but now it's going to be luxury offices and condos. I would love people to remember that there's a unique and tragic history attached to this building which is one of the reasons I wrote the book.
Special thank you to Michael Kawochka from Warren Lewis Sotheby's International Realty for making this introduction and helping with the interview!
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