From Sugar to Coca-Cola

The History of America (and the World) through Commodities

History 100
Lauren Ayers


Since the end of the Cold War, scholars have increasingly focused on a new global era defined by global economic interconnections, global spaces of communication, and global threats. Some scholars have referred to these economic changes, a tsunami wave of deregulation, privatization, and free market capitalism, as a flattening—the removal of social, cultural, and political differences—or McDonaldization. This McDonaldization, arguably a diffusion of “American” consumer capitalism, demonstrates the outsized role stuff currently plays in our contemporary society. But none of this is new.

From the systematic violence of cotton production in the American South to the clearcutting of forests for rubber in the Amazon, commodities have left indelible marks on social and physical landscapes. Part economic, part cultural, and part environmental history, this course relies on histories of commodities to illuminate the global. We will move from a familiar discourse for many of you to something entirely new, as we link American history with comparative, transnational, and global histories. We will move thematically and mostly chronologically from the late fifteenth century to the present, demystifying commodities that we have often taken for granted and rooting our contemporary connectedness in the past. Each week will present one perspective of history—“a slice”—often repeating similar chronologies to illuminate trends around the world.


By the end of this class students will be able to:

  • Describe the utility of commodity chain as an analytical tool
  • Describe how historical processes of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and modernization have shaped uneven relationships between people and their environments around the world
  • Apply historical methods to a material object of their choice, highlighting the relationship between producers, intermediaries, and consumers
  • Present a commodity chain based on primary and secondary sources


Participation (lecture and discussion activities)


Commodity Chain Analysis (2-pages)


Mid-term Exam (In-class objective section and essay)


Commodity Chain Map + Presentation


Final Exam (In-class objective section and two essays)


EXAMINATIONS: Midterm 20%, Final Exam 25%

There will be two exams over the semester: a midterm and a final. Each exam will feature an objective section based on pairings of objectives with the most relatable identifiers. I will provide twelve potential pairings, students will choose ten for a total of 20 points. The essay portion (1 for the midterm and 2 for the final) is meant to allow students to synthesize central themes and arguments on commodities throughout history. The essay sections for each exam are worth a total of 80 points.


  • Commodity Chain Analysis, 10%

(2 double-spaced pages): Students will write a short paper on a commodity from the colonial era. They will select and write about one commodity that we have discussed or read about for class. They will focus on one aspect of the commodity chain: selecting between sites of production, human labor and processing, or geographies of consumption. This brief writing assignment is designed to prepare students, in part, for their final project (a map of a commodity chain worth 25% of their total course grade) and to introduce students to course expectations. Therefore, my extensive comments on this first assignment are to highlight what areas might need improving before the final assignment. Students will abide by the Chicago Manual of Style: standard 1” margins, 12-pt Times New Roman font, and Chicago style citations.

  • Commodity Chain Map, 25%

(36” x 48” poster): Students will both illustrate and present a poster on a commodity of their choosing (it might be a primary product such as a raw material, or a secondary product consisting of multiple primary products). Students will research the history of their commodity, looking into sites of production, aspects of processing, and geographies of consumption. They must gather information from at least two to three primary sources (photographs, maps, advertisements, etc.) and two secondary sources (ideally content from class), demonstrating how their commodity spans the globe. During the final two weeks of class, students will present their commodity chain poster to the class.


A substantial portion of your grade is based on attendance and participation. You are allowed a total of two excused absences. Contact me before class, if you will be absent. After your second excused absence, your participation grade will drop one half grade for each missed section (A’s will become A-‘s). Talk to me about missing section, especially if you have any special circumstances that affect your ability to attend class regularly.


You are expected to have completed the assigned readings before class and to bring them with you to class. There are several weeks with a lot of assigned reading, so plan accordingly. Some of the readings are extensive, but they are generally not difficult. I have also chosen a variety of material—op-eds, podcasts, short chapters, and monographs—to demonstrate the breadth and depth of scholarship on commodities.

There are three required texts. They are as follows:

Bartow J. Elmore, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking Penguin Books, 1985).

Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank, eds., From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).



Week 1

During week 1, in class, we will go through the syllabus, highlighting course expectations, as well as assigned reading and essays.

Before delving into individual weeks, I will explain the four units of the course. The first unit of class introduces theory, historical scholarship, and a model case study of commodities as well as themes that will reemerge throughout the course: commodification, capitalism, social and environmental consequences of production, the social biographies of things, as well as the idea of cores and peripheries. After unit 1, the content is organized roughly chronologically around when each commodity or product was most prominent. The next unit focuses on prominent products and aspects of the global economy during the colonial era. The third unit looks to new aspects of the global economy, including new technologies, the emergence of economies of scale, and industrial production, through oil, rubber, bananas, and henequen. The final unit rounds out the semester with everyday products such as Coca-Cola and t-shirts.

Week 2

James Surowiecki, “Penny-Wise,” The New Yorker (September 24, 2004)

Juliana Mansvelt, Geographies of Consumption (London: SAGE Publications, 2005). Chapter 1, Geographies of Consumption, and Chapter 2, Histories, 1-55.

To prepare for the second week, students are expected to read James Surowiecki’s “Penny-Wise” from The New Yorker and Juliana Mansvelt’s Geographies of Consumption. Together, the readings are intended to familiarize students with characteristics of our contemporary global economy including aspects of consumer capitalism and “McDonaldization.” In class, we will think about the social and environmental consequences of this kind of intellectual and material diffusion and link this analysis with the scope of the course. By starting in the present, I hope to model how we’ll approach commodities, cultural values, and political economies of the past.

Week 3

Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: Penguin, 1992). Chapter 1 (The Commodity) and Chapter 2 (Exchange) in Part One, Commodities and Money.

Arjun Appadurai, ed. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Introduction.

Week 3 will introduce students to foundational theories on commodities. Students will not need to spend too much time on Marx and Appadurai, as lecture and discussion section will expand on their central theme. We will discuss aspects of capitalism, commodity fetishism, environmental degradation, social exploitation, as well as Appadurai’s definition of “the social life of things.” Lecture will also include material on Gary Gereffi and Miguel Korzeniewicz’s Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism as well as the utility of commodity chains as an analytical tool. We will continue to revisit the themes introduced by Appadurai, Marx, and Gereffi/Korzeniewicz throughout the semester.

Week 4

Steven C. Topik and Allen Wells, “Commodity Chains in a Global Economy,” Emily Rosenberg, ed. A World Connecting, 1870–1945 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012). Pp. 685-814.

Robert Appelbaum, “The Comestible Commodity,” Clio 39, 2 (Spring 2010), pp. 213 – 230.

Week 4 will introduce students to historical scholarship on commodities, successfully tying together the introductory material from unit 1 of the course. Topik and Wells’ chapter from A World Connecting provides background for interpreting subsequent week’s commodity chains. Likewise, Applebaum’s review of several histories of food also provides an overview of historical scholarship on commodities. His analytical division that some histories of commodities provide a “story of civilization” through the exploitations and appropriations of the commodity, while others tell a “story of modernity” demonstrating the “stratifications, displacements, and reifications” of the commodity. We will return to this kind of analysis throughout the semester.


Week 5

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking Penguin Books, 1985). The entire book.

Week 5 introduces students to a foundational text in historical scholarship on commodities. Students will read Sweetness and Power in its entirety, in order to understand how Mintz, in focusing on sugar, gives us “a story of modernity.” Mintz shows how sugar initially a luxury product becomes an aspect of every modern life as he traces the history of sugarcane, from its domestication and production in the Americas to its commercialization in Western Europe.

Week 6

Eric Jay Dolin, Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (Chicago: W.W. Norton, 2010). Part I “Furs Settle the New World” pp. 3 – 59.

Podcast: “#70: Developments in the Design and Manufacture of American Menswear 1840-1860, a Fable,” The Memory Palace, July 2015, 8 mins 55 secs.

Week 6 works to highlight how the historical case study of fur exemplifies the commodification of nature. In particular, Dolin’s accessible text allows for students to understand inter-ethnic and international cooperation as beaver pelts acquired new meanings across the Atlantic Ocean. The podcast from the Memory Palace illustrates many components of the commodity chain—the setting and historical actors involved in hunting, and consumer demand in eastern markets—before capturing the environmental consequences of overhunting on North American ecosystems. For week 6, lecture in class will incorporate Harold Innis’ The Fur Trade in Canada and the body of work that flowed off of it, examining the centrality of the fur trade to the beginnings of Canada and the United States.

In preparation for the first assignment, students will browse From Silver to Cocaine as they choose a commodity for their two-page paper.


Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). Chapter 4, Capturing Labor, Conquering Land, and Chapter 5, Slavery Takes Command. pp. 83-135.

Mark Fiege, “King Cotton: The Cotton Plant and Southern Slavery.” In The Republic of Nature. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. pp. 100 – 155.

In Week 7, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton and Mark Fiege’s “King Cotton” focus on the social consequences of the cotton trade. Beckert’s history of cotton demonstrates that a new kind of cotton production, no longer produced and manufactured locally, was intimately tied to violence. This process was not unique to the United States, as Beckert explores parallel studies around the world. Supplemented with Fiege’s masterful description of slave bodies with cotton cultivation, the readings further highlight how production often came with destruction.



Marcelo Bucheli and Ian Read, “Chapter 8: Banana Boats and Baby Food: The Banana in U.S. History,” Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank, eds., From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). pp. 204-227.

John Soluri, “Chapter 3” in Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005). pp.75-103.

After the mid-term exam, week 8 explores new shifts in global trade through production, transportation, and consumption of bananas. Bucheli and Read’s chapter on “the banana in U.S. history” looks at mass consumer demand, whereas Soluri’s work explores the ecological consequences of expanding banana production as well as shifting cultivation in four locations across the North Coast in Central America. Altogether, the reading illuminates two components of the banana commodity chain. In class, lecture will focus on the role of plant disease in banana production and will also detail the controversial history of United Fruit in Central American politics.

Week 9

Zephyr Frank and Aldo Musacchio, “Brazil in the International Rubber Trade, 1870-1930,” Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank, eds., From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). pp. 271-299.

Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (New York: Free Press, 1991). Chapter 6 The Oil Wars: The Rise of Royal Dutch, the Fall of Imperial Russia, Chapter 7 “Beer and Skittles” in Persia, Chapter 8 The Fateful Plunge, pp 98-148.

Week 9 fully ushers the course into modernity as it focuses on the marriage of oil and rubber for the production of automobiles among other products. Yergin’s The Prize and Frank and Musacchio’s “Brazil in the International Rubber Trade” focus on international competition in the rubber and oil trades. Each reading examines how technological innovation often increased production and supply, leading to price volatility and in the case of the Brazil, the decline of the rubber trade. Together, these readings treat the various historical actors along two different commodity chains/industries as interconnected parts to the whole global economy.

Week 10

Allen Wells, “Reports of its Demise Are Not Exaggerated: The Life and Times of Yucatecan Henequen,” 300-320, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank, eds., From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

Sterling Evans, “Chapter 1: On the History of Binders and Twine: Agricultural and Industrial Transformations in North America” & Chapter 2 “Yucatan Henequen Industry: Social and Environmental Transformation & Chapter 4 Twine Diplomacy: Yucatan, the United States and Canada during the Sisal Situation in 1915,” Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and the American and Canadian Plains, 1880 – 1950 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2013), 1-66 & 68-90.

Week 10 will focus on the role of technologies and dependency in commodity chains. In class, students will learn more about dependency theory through a student-centered activity on cores and peripheries. The activity uses the “henequen-wheat complex” as a historical case study. In addition, the activity will further prepare students for their final project: an illustrated commodity chain of their choosing. Lecture for this week will focus not only on the henequen-wheat complex, but its demise as technological innovation enabled North American farmers to relinquish their need for binder twine. The immediate demise of twine production provides a historical example of another theme from this period, the Great Divergence: the growing divide between the haves and have nots. 


Week 11

Bartow J. Elmore, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015). Part II: the Costs of Empire, 1950 to Today, pp. 151-296.

Week 11 focuses on how specific government interventions enabled the dominance of Coke. We will explore the environmental history of Coke’s expansion, paying particular attention to the commodification of nature, resource extraction, and ingredient production. To prepare for this week’s lecture, students will read about the making of modern Coca-Cola from 1950 to the present, in which the international corporation relies on water and coffee beans from abroad, as well as the coordination of glass, aluminum, and plastic for packaging.

Week 12

Pietra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2009). Prologue, Preface to the Second Edition, Part II Made in China, and Part IV, My T-Shirt Finally Encounters a Free Market pp. 75-140, 213-252.

In Week 12, Rivoli’s engaging and accessible The Travels of a T-Shirt picks up the commodity chain of cotton from unit 2 and brings it to the present. The reading will focus on cheap labor in the textile industry in China and the aftermarket of donated t-shirts in Tanzania fully demonstrating the lifecycle of a cotton t-shirt in today’s economy. Paired with the reading, lecture will explain the complexity of globalization from trade agreements and international organizations to protectionism and so-called “free trade.” For the final project, students may elect to illustrate the commodity chain of a t-shirt. 



Week 15

Steven C. Topik and Allen Wells, “Commodity Chains in a Global Economy,” Emily Rosenberg, ed. A World Connecting, 1870–1945 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012). Pp. 685-814.

In the final week of the course, students will reread Topik and Wells’ chapter on the utility of commodity chains in global history. Paired with a lecture summarizing the main themes of the course, the final week acts as a review of theory, case studies, and major themes in preparation for the final exam. Potential final exam essay questions might include “A t-shirt or a Coca-Cola can be used to explain our entire semester. How might you narrate the big themes of the course through one of these commodity chains?” At the end of the semester, students will walk away with a better understanding of the products that make our world, the shifting cultural and social values of goods, how they are concealed by the market, and conceal the conditions in which they’re produced.



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