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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,174

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This is the grave of Claus Spreckels.

Born in Hanover, Germany in 1828, Adolph Claus Spreckels grew up in the German working classes. He was pretty much dirt poor. When he left for the U.S., he had almost no money at all. As you can see from the size of his grave, he made it big. So before we even get started on the biographical part of the post, we need to deal with an important point. The idea that the poor can improve their circumstances can become super wealthy through hard work or whatever isn’t completely false. It’s just that it is so rare as to be the exception that proves the rule. The political work this does in this country to undermine class based analysis is very powerful and also very effective. It even gets applied to rich kids like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of college to pursue their business ideas, which is extra ridiculous. But even in the Gilded Age, with people such as Spreckels and Andrew Carnegie, the larger point is that these men were going to pull the ladder up behind them to do whatever was possible to protect their own profits and make sure no one rose up to compete with them. So you might find one or two super rich capitalists who started poor at any time in American history, but you are never going to find them in the same field. This means that at best, there’s enough room for one or two of these people in any era. And yet the power of this trope remains incredible. Sigh.

Anyway, Spreckels came to the U.S. in 1846, in part for a better chance and in part because his girlfriend and immigrated to New York with her family in 1843 and they wanted to get married, which they soon did. They soon left New York, first to South Carolina, then back to New York where he ran a store. He was an ambitious young man, buying the grocery store he got a job in not long after starting to work there. Then, in 1856, they moved to San Francisco after he sold the business to his brother-in-law. Spreckels opened a brewery there. It was reasonably successful, but then there were lots of brewers. He wanted the big chance and he found it in the mid 1860s. At that point, he opened a sugar refinery and he would soon become perhaps America’s biggest sugar capitalist. One of the reasons he went into sugar is that while he had to convince Americans to drink beer, he certainly didn’t have to convince them to eat sugar, which they ate at much higher quantities than in Europe. Nineteenth century American desserts were frequently commented on by European travelers as being disgustingly sweet. He also worked hard to provide granulated white sugar instead of the large sugar loaves common at the time.

Spreckels quickly gained a near monopoly on refining the sugar pouring in from American owned plantations in Hawaii. Initially most of the sugar came from the Philippines to the west coast, but that wasn’t through American ownership and that could get in the way of Spreckels’ monopolist fantasies. By the 1870s, his enormous concerns required he move out of San Francisco and he built an enormous facility in Potero Point. This all took awhile, as Spreckels originally opposed the big sugar imports because it would hurt his interests. But then he started investing in Hawaii himself and visited the island to expand his holdings. At that point, he naturally supported the imports of Hawaiian sugar and became on the imperialists taking over the Hawaiian islands. By 1892, his plantation, Spreckelsville, on the north shore of Maui, was for a time the largest sugar plantation in the world. He opened the first major newspaper on the islands to support his interests and that of the sugar planters–this became the Honolulu Advertiser, which remained publishing until 2010. He also worked closely with a shipping magnate to get coal to his operations in Hawaii.

Now, like any good monopolist, Spreckels didn’t leave anything to chance. He certainly wasn’t going to let any other poor immigrant challenge him. So he made sure he had his own sugar supply, buying up large patches of land and switching most of his sugar from cane to beets, which he could grow nearby without having to deal with anyone else. He built his own railroads to ship the sugar. This was Spreckels attempt to get out from under the control of The Octopus itself, the Southern Pacific Railroad. He was rich enough to compete with it and offer commercial shippers another opportunity, at a good profit to himself. This was the era of vertical integration and monopoly and Spreckels is an excellent example of how this worked. He was the west coast sugar king. There were other sugar kings–particularly in the Caribbean and Louisiana trade. So in the 1890s, they got together to create a sugar trust to fix the market and ensure that they would retain solid profits. Probably, all these guys hated each other fairly openly; that was quite common among these trusts, as Richard White demonstrated so brilliantly in Railroaded. But at some point it makes more sense to come to a deal than to try and force the other millionaires out of business.

However, Spreckels and the rest of the sugar trust didn’t quite count on the resurgence of independent operations from the planters operating out of Hawaii. They worked hard to escape Spreckels’ control and managed to do so by the 1910s, leading to a slow decline in the dominance of his company. This became C&H Sugar. I don’t know if this brand is around today but it certainly was when I was a kid. This was all after his death though.

In 1893, someone pinned a death threat onto his house. Furious, he left the islands for an extended trip to Australia and then to San Francisco. How dare someone threaten him! He vowed never to return, though he did once, in 1905. Incredibly wealthy, he spent his riches on horses, the ultimately rich man’s hobby. He spent lots of time in Europe, etc. As for his workers, I don’t see anything specific, but the history of the sugar industry is horrifying. The workers on the sugar plantations were treated like absolute garbage, as I’ve explored on repeated occasions in the labor history series. There is zero reason to believe that Spreckels was any less horrifying than the rest of the sugar industry.

Spreckels died in 1908, at the age of 80, one of the richest men on the west coast.

Claus Spreckels is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the American sugar elite, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Henry Osborne Havemeyer is in The Bronx and Étienne de Boré is in New Orleans. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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