Abstract

In the years before World War I, America's federal government played a very limited role in advanced fertilizer research. This changed after 1916 when lawmakers included a provision in the National Defense Act that funded a swords-to-plowshares project to manufacture incendiary weapons during war and chemical fertilizer during peacetime. This essay examines how the Unied States entered a new era in agricultural production in spite of the government's bungled job of enacting its mandate. It argues that 1916 marked a turning point after which federal research helped usher in the chemical revolution in American agriculture. Significantly, it shows how legislators had pitched the arms-to-farms project as a type of federal fertilizer subsidy for farmers, but in practice the law became a corporate subsidy that helped agricultural firms become increasingly sophisticated chemical manufacturers.

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NOTES

1. S. C. Lind,
“The Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory,”
Scientific Monthly
22
(
Feb.
1926
):
169
.
2. Many scholars have emphasized the ways that warfare spurred technological change, especially under the aegis of the modern state. See, Lewis Mumford,
Technics and Civilization
(
New York
:
Harcourt
,
1934
),
86
87
; Merritt Roe Smith, ed.,
Military Enterprise and Technological Change: Perspectives on the American Experience
(
Cambridge
:
MIT Press
,
1985
); Edmund Russell,
War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring
(
New York
:
Cambridge University Press
,
2001
). On the industrialization of agriculture, see, Deborah Fitzgerald,
Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture
(
New Haven
:
Yale university Press
,
2003
).
3. For a political analysis of the Muscle Shoals controversy, see, Preston J. Hubbard,
Origins of the TVA: The Muscle Shoals Controversy, 1920–1932
(
Nashville
:
Vanderbilt University Press
,
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); Norman Wengert,
“Antecedents of TVA: The Legislative History of Muscle Shoals,”
Agricultural History
26
(
Oct.
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):
141
47
.
4. The concept of “hidden-in-plain-sight” governance comes from Brian Balogh,
A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America
(
New York
:
Cambridge University Press
,
2009
). The role of land-grant agricultural research cannot be overstated.
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(
Madison
:
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,
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),
1
; Cyril G. Hopkins,
Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture
(
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:
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,
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). Alan I Marcus highlights the work of state chemists for creating regulations for fertilizers, as well. See, Marcus,
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(
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:
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,
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in
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(
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:
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,
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),
295
310
; Carl Vrooman,
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1917
, entry 139, box 4, Records of the Division of Soil Fertility Investigations, RG 54; W. A. Taylor to G. C. Sevey, May 20, 1920, entry 17, box 4, Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture, RG 16, National Archives and Records Administration II, College Park, Md. (hereafter NARAII).
7.
Committee on Agriculture and Forestry
,
Muscle Shoals: Hearings before the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Part 2
, 67th Cong., 2nd sess.,
Apr.
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May
3
,
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,
408
. There were fertilizer regulations in most states by 1900, but Whitney sought a national law to help streamline the patchwork of variable state regulatory regimes.
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in
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:
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,
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),
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.
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(
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:
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,
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),
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(
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:
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,
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). Ammonia was also a byproduct in coke production, but it was not a large enough source of fixed nitrogen to meet all of the nation's needs.
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39
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15
.
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20
; John T. Morgan,
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12. Oscar Underwood,
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Mar.
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,
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,
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53
;
Engineering Association of the South
,
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(
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,
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,
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,
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14. Newton D. Baker to David Houston, Jan. 18, 1917;
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Mar.
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15.
“Nitrate of Soda for Fertilizers,”
Oct.
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,
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,
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1
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War Industries Board Memo.
,
“Report on Nitrate of Soda,”
Dec.
27
,
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(
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:
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,
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142
.
16.
“Nitrate Project Attacked,”
New York Times
,
Apr.
5
,
1918
,
5
;
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,
2668
.
17. For example, see, M. C. Allgood to Edwin T. Meredith, Mar. 31, 1920, entry 17, box 765, “Nitrates,” General Correspondence of the Secretary of Agriculture, RG 16;
“Fertilizer,”
Raleigh (NC) Honest Observer
,
Feb.
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,
1921
, newspaper clipping, entry 190, box 1, RG 54, NARAII.
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19.
“Henry Ford and Muscle Shoals,”
Atlantian
,
Apr.
1922
,
5
;
“Ford Plans a City 75 Miles in Length,”
New York Times
,
Jan.
12
,
1922
,
1
.
20. For the political history of the Muscle Shoals debate, see, Hubbard,
Origins of the TVA
. On the origins of regional planning, see, Sarah T. Phillips,
This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal
(
New York
:
Cambridge University Press
,
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);
United States Daily (Washington, DC)
,
May
4
,
1928
,
5
.
21. On the Chemical Warfare Service, see, Russell,
War and Nature
; H. O. Bishop,
“Greatest Chemical Research Laboratory on Western Hemisphere Is Located in the District of Columbia,”
Washington (DC) Sunday Star
,
Apr.
3
,
1921
;
War Department
,
Report on the Fixation and Utilization of Nitrogen
(
Washington, DC
:
GPO
,
1922
),
201
;
Committee on Agriculture and Forestry
,
Muscle Shoals: Hearings before the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry
67th Cong., 2nd sess., (
May
6
,
1922
),
409
.
22. For the FNRL, see, Margaret Jackson Clarke,
“The Federal Government and the Fixed Nitrogen Industry, 1915–1926”
(
PhD diss.
,
Oregon State University
,
1976
). The funding figure comes from 1925 when the budget of the USDA was forty-four million dollars, see,
Report of the Secretary of Agriculture: 1925
(
Washington, DC
:
GPO
,
1925
),
98
, the historical price calculations are based on the Consumer Price Index. For World War I and the American chemical industry, see, Kathryn Steen,
The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry: War and Politics, 1910–1930
(
Chapel Hill
:
University of North Carolina Press
,
2014
). On fertilizers for reparations, see,
“Confidential Memo. from Sec. of State to Sec. Of Agriculture,”
May
15
,
1923
, entry 17, box 984, RG 16, NARAII.
23.
“What Muscle Shoals Means,”
Popular Mechanics
42
(
Aug.
1924
):
293
96
; Victor Murdock et al.,
Report of the Federal Trade Commission on the Fertilizer Industry
(
Washington, DC
:
GPO
,
1923
),
7
.
24. Richard Tolman to J. H. Burns, Feb. 9, 1921, entry 206, box 1; Tolman to Arthur Linz, June 21, 1922, entry 206; Tolman to Press Service of the USDA, Apr. 24, 1922, box 2, RG 54; Frederick Gardner Cottrell to A. H. White, Aug. 7, 1922, box 3, RG 54, NARAII.
25. Tolman to Donald W. Kent, Jan. 25, 1922, entry 206, box 2, RG 54, NARAII; Clarke,
“Fixed Nitrogen Industry,”
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(
Oxford
:
Clarendon
,
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226
.
26. Williams Haynes,
American Chemical Industry: The Merger Era
,
6
vols. (
New York
:
D. Van Nostrand
,
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4
:
85
; Ellis W. Hawley,
“Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretariat, and the Vision of an ‘Associative State,’ 1921–1928,”
Journal of American History
61
(
June
1974
):
116
40
;
Report of the Secretary of Agriculture: 1925
,
70
; Tolman to D. A. Macinnes, Feb. 25, 1921, entry 206, box 1, RG 54, NARAII.
27. On the connection between patent law and chemical engineering, see, David F. Noble,
America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism
(
New York
:
Alfred A. Knopf
,
1977
); Tolman to Joseph C. Fritchie, Mar. 25, 1922, entry 206, box 2, RG 54, NARAII.
28.
Report of the Secretary of Agriculture: 1928
(
Washington, DC
:
GPO
,
1928
),
81
.
29.
“Wickard Sees Need for More Fertilizer Use,”
Christian Science Monitor
,
Feb.
23
,
1945
,
15
; Charles F. Brannan to Lister Hill, Mar. 21, 1951, entry 17, box 1981, RG 16, NARAII.