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Anthropology in Practice

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The Illegal Trade of Twine

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This is an installment in the On My Shelf series—reviews about books demonstrating anthropology in practice. Book details follow the post.

Would you believe there was once an illegal trade in twine? | Photo by Rosa Money, CC. Click on image for license and information.

I learned something recently: Twine was once a contraband item.

Picture this: It’s almost harvest time, and it promises to be a good one—in fact, you’ve taken out a bank loan to cover your harvest costs. You’ll cut the grain and you’ll bind it and you’ll sell it. And with your new binding machine, the job will be done in no time—the grain will be bound as soon as you cut it, reducing your harvest costs. You know the drill; it’ll be routine. And then you learn the price of twine has skyrocketed due to a shortage. What do you do? How do you protect your bottom line?

If you were a Canadian farmer in the late 19th-century, you might seriously start thinking about buying twine from across the border. It would likely be cheaper, though if it were prison-made the quality might be questionable. And there’s one other thing: It’ll also be highly illegal.

Yes, you read that right.

Twine played an important role in the mechanization of agriculture. Grain farmers used to cut and bind their harvest by hand using everything from bark to twine to wire. The introduction of the mechanical reaper in the early 19th-century helped speed this process, but it was the knotting device that would truly reduce the resources needed to bring the harvest in. The knotting device mechanically bound grain stalks as they were cut and deposited them in neat bundles that could easily be rounded up for sale.

The binder twine industry grew in response to the widespread adoption of the mechanical binder, linking international entities to the U.S. and Canadian harvests. Manila fiber from the Philippines, and Sisal and henequen from the Yucatan yielded twine that tied the tightest and were naturally insect repellent. Managing these materials and tools became an exercise in political identity: U.S. manufacturers produced a bevy of binder machines, but the Canadians levied heavy taxes on the imports to protect Canada’ agricultural implement industry. Additionally, because the U.S. harvest occurred occurred earlier than the Canadian harvest, manufacturers sold surplus twine to Canadians but lawmakers, fearing that this arrangement placed Canada at the mercy of U.S. market, worked hard to suppress this trade with tariffs, which were meant to support Canadian production efforts instead.

Canadian farmers weren’t all pleased. Some insisted that U.S. twine was superior: stronger, and more consistent in lengths. They resented the tariffs and were willing to purchase U.S. twine under the table—and at a discount to boot. It created a black market for U.S. twine.

Canadian officials responded with stricter regulations for labelling, and they turned to prison labor to produce an inexpensive binder twine. This, however, created competition for Canadian cordage companies, who further faced difficulty exporting their products by the same tariffs that limited the flow of U.S. twine into Canada. Discrepancies and disappointments would ultimately lead to firm legislation on labelling, length, and tensile strength but until that time the landscape of binder twine was one back door deals and haggling and uncertainty.

The trade of contraband is more than just work. It’s a commitment to a lifestyle of creative strategizing, thinking on your feet, and a certain resignation (or acceptance) of your fate if caught. The stories that capture our attention—from the sordid tales of human trade to the Robin Hood-style legends of prohibition—exoticize illegal trade, making it at once vile while promising just a hint of glory. It’s a narrative that lends itself well to pop culture. Boardwalk Empire, for example, explore the conflicted morals of Prohibition-era mobsters. As to a certain degree does Locked Up Abroad, which tells the true stories of regular, every day people who are caught with contraband. It broadens the definition of Criminal to include people from all walks of life: the Bored, the Desperate, the Curious, the Trusting, the Careless, the Entrepreneur—and well, anyone, really.

And just as anyone can become caught up with illegal trade, anything can become contraband. It is more than the movement of alcohol or drugs or immigrants or prostitutes—it’s a process. And through the lens of this process we can view how social rules are created and flouted. Contraband is born out of the definition of boundaries marking access to rights, authority, and personhood. Smugglers, Brothels, and Twine invites readers to consider these negotiations with a collection of examples that delve beyond popular stories. In this context, twine as contraband explains political boundaries and national identities. These are themes that play out again and again. For example, when the Cree were dispossessed in the 1880s in an effort to control and restrict their movement and access to natural resources, their illegal status meant that everything down to their behavior was contraband. And in the 1950s, pleasure became contraband when Windsor, Ontario sought to curb the influx of sex tourists from Detroit —”transient Americans,” perpetrators of vice and sin. Underneath the sensational headline of prostitution, the process of “Othering” becomes clear, revealing the interesting effect borders can have on how neighbors view each other.

What is and isn’t contraband reflects the needs of the larger social order. And sometimes, the less sensational stories are the more interesting ones.

Smugglers, Brothels, and Twine: Historical Perspectives on Contraband and Vice in North America’s Borderlands | Elaine Carey and Andrae Marak eds. | University of Arizona Press | 264 pages | $55.00 (Hardcover)

This book was provided by the publisher free of charge. Bloggers sometimes receive and request review books with the understanding that a review of the material is not guaranteed.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Hasufin 6:23 pm 04/23/2012

    I wonder which is the greater motivator: the desire to make money (clearly a huge factor), the thrill of doing something illegal coupled with the ability to tell yourself (inaccurately or not) that you’re not hurting anyone, or just the desire to disobey seemingly-unjust laws?

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  2. 2. hanmeng 12:46 am 04/24/2012

    What is defined as contraband is not necessarily reflective of the “needs of the larger social order”. Sometimes it’s only what the elite thinks is “needs of the larger social order”, like restrictions on naughty books, recreational substances, or unpasteurized milk, to name a few. The elite doesn’t always get those needs right. In the case of twine, economic interests of Canadian twine producers no doubt led them to lobby the government to impose tariffs on the imports to protect their own interests. Missing from this account is the cost to Canadian consumers, who had to pay resulting higher prices.

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