Barbara Hahn

Barbara Hahn

Associate Professor - U.S. South, Business and Economic, Global History, Technology

Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Dr. Hahn studies and teaches southern history and global history, agriculture, the history of capitalism and the history of technology. Her recent book, Making Tobacco Bright: Creating an American Commodity, 1617-1937 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) examines the relationship between the tobacco industry and tobacco agriculture over three centuries. The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans (with Bruce E. Baker, Newcastle University) is forthcoming (Oxford University Press, 2015).  This book investigates cotton futures trading and the regulation of new financial derivatives in the Progressive Era. She is currently at work on an undergraduate-level history-of-technology treatment of the Industrial Revolution.

Published Works

Making Tobacco Bright: Creating an American Commodity, 1617-1937

Making Tobacco Bright: Creating an American Commodity, 1617-1937 Dr. Barbara Hahn

In her sweeping history of the American tobacco industry, Barbara Hahn traces the emergence of the tobacco plant’s many varietal types, arguing that they are products not of nature but of economic relations and continued and intense market regulation.

Hahn focuses her study on the most popular of these varieties, Bright Flue-Cured Tobacco. First grown in the inland Piedmont along the Virginia–North Carolina border, Bright Tobacco now grows all over the world, primarily because of its unique—and easily replicated—cultivation and curing methods. Hahn traces the evolution of technologies in a variety of regulatory and cultural environments to reconstruct how Bright Tobacco became, and remains to this day, a leading commodity in the global tobacco industry.

This study asks not what effect tobacco had on the world market, but how that market shaped tobacco into types that served specific purposes and became distinguishable from one another more by technologies of production than genetics. In so doing, it explores the intersection of crossbreeding, tobacco-raising technology, changing popular demand, attempts at regulation, and sheer marketing ingenuity during the heyday of the American tobacco industry.

Combining economic theory with the history of technology, Making Tobacco Bright revises several narratives in American history, from colonial staple-crop agriculture to the origins of the tobacco industry to the rise of identity politics in the twentieth century.

Learn more at

The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans. With Bruce E. Baker

Making Tobacco Bright: Creating an American Commodity, 1617-1937 Dr. Barbara Hahn

The Cotton Kings relates a rip-roaring drama of competition in the marketplace and reveals the damage markets can cause when they do not work properly. It also explains how they can be fixed through careful regulation. At the turn of the twentieth century, cotton was still the major agricultural product of the American South and an important commodity for world industry. Key to marketing cotton were futures contracts, traded at exchanges in New York and New Orleans. Futures contracts had the potential to hedge risk and reduce price volatility, but only if the markets in which they were traded worked properly. Increasing corruption on the powerful New York Cotton Exchange pushed prices steadily downwards in the 1890s, impoverishing millions of cotton farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture tried to solve the problem with better crop predictions and market information, shared equally and simultaneously with all participants, but these efforts failed.

To fight the cotton market's corruption, cotton brokers in New Orleans, led by William P. Brown and Frank Hayne, began quietly to assemble resources. They triumphed in the summer of 1903, when they cornered the world market in cotton and raised its price to reflect the reality of increasing demand and struggling supply. The brokers' success pushed up the price of cotton for the next ten years. However, the structural problems of self-regulation by market participants still threatened the cotton trade. More corruption at the New York Cotton Exchange appeared, until eventually political pressure inspired the Cotton Futures Act of 1914, the federal government's first successful regulation of a financial derivative. 

  • The story of the cotton kings speaks directly to conflicts today between Wall Street and Main Street, between free markets and regulation.
  • An economic competition between New York and New Orleans told through the lives of fascinating individuals and dramatic incidents.
  • Offers an alternate explanation to overproduction, the most commonplace reason for why cotton farmers in the 1890s were in a constant cycle of debt.  

Learn more at Oxford University Press.

Contact Information

Office: 133 Holden Hall