Sometimes, small details trip you up, especially when you’re writing historical fiction. You might find that the story demands a certain esoteric fact. You know all about this, that, and the other thing, but what you really need to know is the color of a particular bottle or the name of a very specific medicine: something super detailed but super important to the story.
You can either go hunting for the detail, or you can write around it.
As I wrote what I affectionately call The Prequel (even though its working title is The Cotton Wars and has been for a while now), I had a blast writing about the feud between the Daniels brothers. At one point, the price of cotton (by the bale, to be sold to factories) becomes important. Suffice it to say that Charles has a particular reason for wanting to sell his cotton harvest at a particular price, so he discusses it with his overseer-and-factor. He asks what the usual price is, then what the highest and lowest prices might be. But I didn’t have the least idea what the price of a cotton bale might have been in 1830. I could have cut out this discussion, or written around the numbers, but the scene was important and wouldn’t have the same impact without the numbers. So, as a place-holder, I plugged in my best guess–around a hundred dollars per bale–and told myself I would fact-check later.
Many moons later, I still had those numbers bolded as a reminder to myself to check them. I kept putting it off because I thought it would be a hard nut to crack. But this past weekend, I was reading a guide to Philadelphia (as some additional research for The Prequel) and found mention of the cost of storing cotton. This got my interest piqued, like a bloodhound on a scent. So I began to poke around Google Books, searching for “cotton” and “Savannah” (which is the port to which my characters, living on the Sea Islands, would have sent their cotton to be sold and shipped to factories in the North or in England).
And lo! I found what I was looking for: cotton prices! I was ecstatic.
What I found was in Niles’ Weekly Register, a newspaper that contained all sorts of shipping news from around the country and the world. There are fascinating details about ships being burned and confiscated, of prices of corn (and other commodities) rising and falling, and shipments of hats etc. coming into port.
The first bit of information I found was about a ship confiscated in 1814, during the War of 1812. It was a very helpful start: The ship Victory was captured, including 464 bales of cotton at 300 pounds each, worth some
$41,760 (according to the article). Doing the math, that meant $90 per bale and $.30 per pound. This, however, was some fifteen years before my story, so I kept looking.
From April 1826, I found two helpful bits: At Charleston, upland cotton bound for Liverpool would “not bear more than eleven cents per lb.” Keeping in mind that the cotton in my story would be the finest Sea Island cotton, the above means about $33 per bale. The second bit of information was that in New Orleans, the price was “from 8 cents ordinary, to 14 ‘fine'”, meaning that even the best cotton was selling for perhaps $42 per bale.
I had to ask myself, how could cotton be worth twice as much in 1814 as in 1826? I think this might have to do with the note in the 1814 article: the price they give is for cotton “clear of duties”. Meaning, this is before taxation. The two numbers I got from 1826 might be after duties. The writer of Niles’ Review reckoned
that the duty on the entire cargo of the ship (including indigo, coffee, and wood) would be about $18,000, so no small sum. I *believe* that is the solution here, though I’m still slightly uncertain. I’m guessing that it could partly be explained by natural fluctuations in prices. There is also the fact that the prices cited in 1826 were clearly not the good Sea Island stuff.
Another issue is the size of a bale of cotton. You’ll notice that I based my calculations on a bale of 300 pounds. Today, a standard bale is 500 pounds, but (no surprise) things weren’t as standard in the early 1800’s. The usual bale, apparently, was closer to 300 or 400 pounds, as evidenced by the statement above in Niles’ Review whereby the bales of cotton are reckoned at 300 pounds.
So, I had what I needed to put (accurate) words (or numbers) into my characters’ mouths. A bale of good cotton would be somewhere around $75 a bale, going with the number that’s closer to my date. For the best stuff, let’s say $100, for the rotten stuff, $50. These are rough numbers, based partly on the numbers above and partly on the fact that Sea Island cotton was better quality and worth much more than other cotton.
I wasn’t far off in my original guesses, especially given the slightly high number I found from 1814: I put the price of a bale of cotton at around $100 per bale.
So, that my friends, is a “day in the life” of a historical fiction writer…