Ariel RonFollow

Publication Date



Hay was a linchpin of the early industrial energy regime. It was the primary fodder for working horses, who became more rather than less important over the 1800s. Though largely ignored by historians, hay was of comparable value to cotton and wheat in the nineteenth-century United States. The crop’s historiographical invisibility is partly due to its relatively informal and decidedly subglobal production and exchange patterns. Whereas cotton and wheat exports passed through customhouses and institutionalized exchanges that carefully recorded trade volumes, hay was almost never exported and often underwent no market transaction at all, instead being used as an intermediate good on farms. Only when the US federal government added a detailed agricultural census in 1850 did the magnitude and importance of hay production become publicly legible. At that point, hay was drafted into a wide-ranging debate about economic development between Northern antislavery nationalists and Southern proslavery free traders, with “King Hay” emerging as a foil for “King Cotton.” King Hay thus urges historians to pay more attention to the trade patterns, developmental policies, and economic ideologies that generated distinctly national, as opposed to global, economic spaces within nineteenth-century capitalism.

Document Type



energy history, agricultural history, economic history, history of capitalism, United States, US Civil War


United States History




American Historical Review

Available for download on Friday, March 28, 2025