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The Leading Edge: Erica Hannickel

January 20, 2014, 6:00 am

Welcome to the Leading Edge, a series on new works in history. We start things off with Dr. Erica Hannickel, Assistant Professor of Environmental History at Northland College, whose work on the history of American wine reveals all sorts of fascinating connections to immigration, race, and the Industrial Revolution. And, notably, the “Croesus of Cincinnati.”

15162How is it that historians don’t include Cincinnati land speculator and winemaker Nicholas Longworth in our panoply of most powerful 19th century moguls? For a time, Longworth was considered the second-richest man in America, behind John Jacob Astor.[1] Antebellum America knew Longworth as the “Western Bacchus” and “Croesus of Cincinnati”; today, a few historians crown him the “father of American wine” (in truth, he was the father of American sparkling hock). [2] Indeed, Longworth transformed Cincinnati into the center of American winegrowing for two decades before the Civil War, but also excelled at frontier speculation and established a mythos of American wine tourism. Longworth’s vineyards, a model for later American winegrowers, were simultaneously lush and controlled, bearing fruit at once culturally refined and naturally robust, laying claim to both earthy authenticity and social pedigree. On the whole, the convenient forgetting of Longworth’s land fortune signals larger patterns in American winegrowers’ self-crafted identities, and the accepted historiography of horticulture. Behind Longworth’s erasure and the larger myth of egalitarian horticulture is a story of wealth made through land speculation and decades of tenant labor.

Longworth’s vineyards in Cincinnati. “Longworth’s Wine House,” promotional pamphlet, 1866. Image courtesy Jed Dannenbaum, Drink and Disorder.

Image2 Longworth1866

Beginning in 1803, Longworth bought up hundreds of acres of Cincinnati’s hilly cut-over land—land which was “not worth shucks”—and beautified it through highest-order vineyard cultivation. By mid-century, he sold his Sparkling Catawba nationally and internationally, and had helped transform Cincinnati into a celebrated tourist destination in the “Great West.” He quickly created tourist sites of his country vineyards positioned 300 feet above the city, and built a tasting Wine Garden and Wine House in the middle of downtown Cincinnati. Pictures of Longworth’s vineyards, published in Harper’s Weekly and other national magazines, include images of old-world vinetenders and their skilled handiwork juxtaposed to, yet in civilized comfort with, the modern technologies of the steamboat and railroad. Also appearing on the labels of Longworth’s Sparkling Catawba bottles, Longworth’s vineyards lay in an inviting “semi-circular arc that enclosed [Cincinnati’s] natural amphitheater for twelve miles in circumference.” [3] His vineyards purposefully enswathed the unseemly—built into otherwise “worthless” hillsides, his grapes helped to mitigate sights like early Cincinnati’s rivers regularly flowing red from hog processing. Here we see 19th century viticulturists cultivating themselves and America out of the difficult, ugly transitions of continental expansion and the Industrial Revolution. Vineyards were a happy mark of progress for the West, yet winemaking technologies highlighted in Longworth’s tourist literature were centuries old. On Longworth’s properties, visitors could experience the gentle art of winemaking, yet revel in Cincinnati’s progress too.

A number of factors contributed to Longworth’s extraordinary abilities at selling wine and expanding continentally. First, the United States was caught up in a decades-long Classical revival, in which they had reconceived architecture, dress, and other cultural forms in an attempt to revive ancient Greek and Roman lifeways. [4] Within this, farming and viticulture were understood as a continuous font of Classical republican virtue. Wine culture thus deliberately and materially linked enthusiasts to historical wonder and myth. Within the decades of a superheated rush for continental expansion, wine’s connections with imperial rule throughout history served as an easy palimpsest for American vintners. At the same time, growing grapes provided the local physical means for cultivating and controlling the continent—the United States could again prove it was “nature’s nation,” but laced in vineyards, this concept was enacted in its most refined vision. And, like horticultural practice in general, the basic thrift and beauty of cultivating grapes was also a salve for Americans’ woes about the ever-chugging Industrial Revolution. Americans were able to mitigate their growing guilt over a mechanized, consumer capitalist existence by finding a resolved gentility and delicate mastery over nature through viticulture.

Although Longworth advocated a do-it-yourself ethic in his national publications on viticulture, nearly all labor on his winegrowing properties was performed by German immigrant tenant families. He misleadingly wrote in a popular treatise, “The cultivation of the grape for wine will be profitable where persons do their own work. It is seldom that any farming pays well where there is much hiring of hands.” [5] He went so far as to advertise in Germany for laborers, and when they came, immediately put them to work in a profitable family tenancy scheme.

As the most difficult transitions in American history have continuously entailed, the U.S. wine story is also one centrally about race. Longworth himself is found in the short stories of Charles Chesnutt, one of the most popular African-American fiction authors of the 19th century. He appears as an Ohio carpetbagger, seeking land and profit from communal vineyards that ex-slaves in postbellum North Carolina have put to new use. Many 20th century wine texts and much contemporary tourist literature still equate wine growing to white exploration and settlement. In selling and buying wine, Americans are invited to relive the past in genteel fashion, forgetting the destruction inherent in continental expansion, indigenous depopulation, and environmental degradation. Here, as in the 19th century, the past is made beautifully attractive, rooted in “local” history and place—as packaged, as aged, and as palatable as fine wine.

Claiming a kind of passive, utilitarian, and benevolent role in “frontier” landscapes and society, viticulture and fruit growing more generally functioned to deny the realities of land speculation, agricultural imperialism, and labor that were key ingredients in not only Cincinnati, but New York state, California, and other fruit-growing regions in the 19th century. Grape growers’ myths naturalized claims to land for wine cultivation and legitimated national expansion then and today.

Buy the book at Amazon.

Dr. Erica Hannickel is an assistant professor of Environmental History at Northland College (WI). She is the author of Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America (University of Pennsylvania, 2013). Contact her at ehannickel@northland.edu.
[1] Longworth also paid more real estate tax than anyone, save Astor. Charles Boewe, “Nicholas Longworth,” in John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, Vol. 13 (New York: Oxford, 1999), 898-899. See also Gustavus Myers, History of Great American Fortunes (New York: Modern Library, 1936 [1910]), Chapter 8.
[2] For this history and related historiography on Longworth, see Erica Hannickel, Empire of Vines Wine Culture in America, “Ch. 3: Landscapes of Fruit and Profit” (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
[3] Cincinnati Enquirer, December 1, 1853.
[4] On neoclassicism in America, see Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), and Carl J. Richard, The Golden Age of Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
[5] Robert Buchanan and Nicholas Longworth, A Treatise on the Cultivation of the Grape, in Vineyards (Cincinnati: Wright, Ferris & Company Printers, 1850), 32.
[6] Charles W. Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales, ed. Richard H. Brodhead (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993 [1899]). For my argument as to why Chesnutt’s white viticulturist character John is a thinly-veiled Longworth, see Empire of Vines, “Ch. 4: Fear of Hybrid Grapes and Men.”

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