Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Antebellum New Orleans - Technology, Economy, and Development

It's really steam power that causes New Orleans to grow its urban footprint along the river as wharves, docks, and warehouses served the growing river to oceanic trade.

New Orleans benefited from all manner of economic developments in the first half of the nineteenth century. We already touched on how technology influenced the growth of sugar and cotton cultivation in Louisiana. Moreover, the development of steam travel - and in particular - steam boats, ushered in an era of rapid expansion in upriver commercial activity right at a time when the War of 1812 forever swept Native Americans from lands laying east of the Mississippi River.

Yet consider for a minute the cultivation of coffee, an agricultural product that you cannot grow in Louisiana (or in the Continental United States, for that matter.) We think of sugar when it comes to San Domingue (which becomes Haiti in 1801) but by the start of the Haitian revolution, the French half of the island of Hispaniola produced half of the world's coffee. The revolution destroyed much of this production, but places like Martinique, Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, and later Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador, etc also began to cultivate the crop. This took place mostly after their revolutions of the 1820s. (Again, we see global political events influencing broader economic developments.) Situated as it is at the gateway between the Gulf of Mexico and the vast American heartland, New Orleans became a natural port for the importation of coffee right at a time when the power of steam propulsion made it practical to navigate upstream.

Steamboats would not rule commercial transit forever, but between the first regular service in New Orleans in 1816 through much of the nineteenth century, it was an important aspect of the city's financial lifeblood. This was particularly true before the Civil War. By 1834, an average of 100 steamboats arrived at New Orleans every month. We'll consider some of the technological advancements and limitations of the day that allowed New Orleans to benefit from steam in the antebellum period.
What characteristics of this vessel do you think helped it serve its market so well?
This is the cast iron cistern at the Hermann Grima house in the French Quarter. A good example of a variety of things having to do with technology and development in antebellum New Orleans.
What is left of the New Orleans wharves today.

And what they look like on Google Maps.

Lastly, we need to consider the vast importance of the internal slave trade upon New Orleans. The city benefited greatly from the expansion of the "slave west."

A fairly famous image of a slave auction in the rotunda of New Orleans's St. Louis Hotel
The St. Louis Hotel as it appeared at the turn of the 20th Century. The building on the far right is the location of today's Napoleon House. The Royal Omni Orleans is on the site of the hotel today. You can see some of its original facade from Napoleon House. (Image New Orleans Public Library - Mugnier Collection)

The bar at the Old St. Louis Hotel (circa 1904). 

The rotunda where the slave and other auctions took place (compare with the 1850s illustration!)

The rotunda during demolition from outside. 

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