Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
Chapter 39. Manufactures and Miscreants
Where the river, in the Vicksburg region, used to be corkscrewed, it is now comparatively straight--made so by cut-off; a former distance of seventy miles is reduced to thirty-five. It is a change which threw Vicksburg's neighbor, Delta, Louisiana, out into the country and ended its career as a river town. Its whole river-frontage is now occupied by a vast sand-bar, thickly covered with young trees--a growth which will magnify itself into a dense forest by-and-bye, and completely hide the exiled town.
In due time we passed Grand Gulf and Rodney, of war fame, and reached Natchez, the last of the beautiful hill-cities--for Baton Rouge, yet to come, is not on a hill, but only on high ground. Famous Natchez-under-the-hill has not changed notably in twenty years; in outward aspect-- judging by the descriptions of the ancient procession of foreign tourists-- it has not changed in sixty; for it is still small, straggling, and shabby. It had a desperate reputation, morally, in the old keel-boating and early steamboating times--plenty of drinking, carousing, fisticuffing, and killing there, among the riff-raff of the river, in those days. But Natchez-on-top-of-the-hill is attractive; has always been attractive. Even Mrs. Trollope (1827) had to confess its charms:
'At one or two points the wearisome level line is relieved by bluffs, as they call the short intervals of high ground. The town of Natchez is beautifully situated on one of those high spots. The contrast that its bright green hill forms with the dismal line of black forest that stretches on every side, the abundant growth of the pawpaw, palmetto and orange, the copious variety of sweet-scented flowers that flourish there, all make it appear like an oasis in the desert. Natchez is the furthest point to the north at which oranges ripen in the open air, or endure the winter without shelter. With the exception of this sweet spot, I thought all the little towns and villages we passed wretched-looking in the extreme.'
Natchez, like her near and far river neighbors, has railways now, and is adding to them--pushing them hither and thither into all rich outlying regions that are naturally tributary to her. And like Vicksburg and New Orleans, she has her ice-factory: she makes thirty tons of ice a day. In Vicksburg and Natchez, in my time, ice was jewelry; none but the rich could wear it. But anybody and everybody can have it now. I visited one of the ice-factories in New Orleans, to see what the polar regions might look like when lugged into the edge of the tropics. But there was nothing striking in the aspect of the place. It was merely a spacious house, with some innocent steam machinery in one end of it and some big porcelain pipes running here and there. No, not porcelain--they merely seemed to be; they were iron, but the ammonia which was being breathed through them had coated them to the thickness of your hand with solid milk-white ice. It ought to have melted; for one did not require winter clothing in that atmosphere: but it did not melt; the inside of the pipe was too cold.
Sunk into the floor were numberless tin boxes, a foot square and two feet long, and open at the top end. These were full of clear water; and around each box, salt and other proper stuff was packed; also, the ammonia gases were applied to the water in some way which will always remain a secret to me, because I was not able to understand the process. While the water in the boxes gradually froze, men gave it a stir or two with a stick occasionally--to liberate the air-bubbles, I think. Other men were continually lifting out boxes whose contents had become hard frozen. They gave the box a single dip into a vat of boiling water, to melt the block of ice free from its tin coffin, then they shot the block out upon a platform car, and it was ready for market. These big blocks were hard, solid, and crystal-clear. In certain of them, big bouquets of fresh and brilliant tropical flowers had been frozen-in; in others, beautiful silken-clad French dolls, and other pretty objects. These blocks were to be set on end in a platter, in the center of dinner-tables, to cool the tropical air; and also to be ornamental, for the flowers and things imprisoned in them could be seen as through plate glass. I was told that this factory could retail its ice, by wagon, throughout New Orleans, in the humblest dwelling-house quantities, at six or seven dollars a ton, and make a sufficient profit. This being the case, there is business for ice-factories in the North; for we get ice on no such terms there, if one take less than three hundred and fifty pounds at a delivery.
The Rosalie Yarn Mill, of Natchez, has a capacity of 6,000 spindles and 160 looms, and employs 100 hands. The Natchez Cotton Mills Company began operations four years ago in a two-story building of 50 x 190 feet, with 4,000 spindles and 128 looms; capital $105,000, all subscribed in the town. Two years later, the same stockholders increased their capital to $225,000; added a third story to the mill, increased its length to 317 feet; added machinery to increase the capacity to 10,300 spindles and 304 looms. The company now employ 250 operatives, many of whom are citizens of Natchez. 'The mill works 5,000 bales of cotton annually and manufactures the best standard quality of brown shirtings and sheetings and drills, turning out 5,000,000 yards of these goods per year.' [New Orleans Times-Democrat, 26 Aug, 1882.] A close corporation--stock held at $5,000 per share, but none in the market.
The changes in the Mississippi River are great and strange, yet were to be expected; but I was not expecting to live to see Natchez and these other river towns become manufacturing strongholds and railway centers.
Speaking of manufactures reminds me of a talk upon that topic which I heard--which I overheard--on board the Cincinnati boat. I awoke out of a fretted sleep, with a dull confusion of voices in my ears. I listened--two men were talking; subject, apparently, the great inundation. I looked out through the open transom. The two men were eating a late breakfast; sitting opposite each other; nobody else around. They closed up the inundation with a few words--having used it, evidently, as a mere ice-breaker and acquaintanceship-breeder-- then they dropped into business. It soon transpired that they were drummers--one belonging in Cincinnati, the other in New Orleans. Brisk men, energetic of movement and speech; the dollar their god, how to get it their religion.
'Now as to this article,' said Cincinnati, slashing into the ostensible butter and holding forward a slab of it on his knife-blade, 'it's from our house; look at it--smell of it--taste it. Put any test on it you want to. Take your own time--no hurry-- make it thorough. There now--what do you say? butter, ain't it. Not by a thundering sight--it's oleomargarine! Yes, sir, that's what it is--oleomargarine. You can't tell it from butter; by George, an expert can't. It's from our house. We supply most of the boats in the West; there's hardly a pound of butter on one of them. We are crawling right along--jumping right along is the word. We are going to have that entire trade. Yes, and the hotel trade, too. You are going to see the day, pretty soon, when you can't find an ounce of butter to bless yourself with, in any hotel in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, outside of the biggest cities. Why, we are turning out oleomargarine now by the thousands of tons. And we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it--can't get around it you see. Butter don't stand any show--there ain't any chance for competition. Butter's had its day--and from this out, butter goes to the wall. There's more money in oleomargarine than--why, you can't imagine the business we do. I've stopped in every town from Cincinnati to Natchez; and I've sent home big orders from every one of them.'
And so-forth and so-on, for ten minutes longer, in the same fervid strain. Then New Orleans piped up and said--
Yes, it's a first-rate imitation, that's a certainty; but it ain't the only one around that's first-rate. For instance, they make olive-oil out of cotton-seed oil, nowadays, so that you can't tell them apart.'
'Yes, that's so,' responded Cincinnati, 'and it was a tip-top business for a while. They sent it over and brought it back from France and Italy, with the United States custom-house mark on it to indorse it for genuine, and there was no end of cash in it; but France and Italy broke up the game--of course they naturally would. Cracked on such a rattling impost that cotton-seed olive-oil couldn't stand the raise; had to hang up and quit.'
'Oh, it did, did it? You wait here a minute.'
Goes to his state-room, brings back a couple of long bottles, and takes out the corks--says:
'There now, smell them, taste them, examine the bottles, inspect the labels. One of 'm's from Europe, the other's never been out of this country. One's European olive-oil, the other's American cotton-seed olive-oil. Tell 'm apart? 'Course you can't. Nobody can. People that want to, can go to the expense and trouble of shipping their oils to Europe and back-- it's their privilege; but our firm knows a trick worth six of that. We turn out the whole thing--clean from the word go--in our factory in New Orleans: labels, bottles, oil, everything. Well, no, not labels: been buying them abroad--get them dirt-cheap there. You see, there's just one little wee speck, essence, or whatever it is, in a gallon of cotton-seed oil, that give it a smell, or a flavor, or something--get that out, and you're all right--perfectly easy then to turn the oil into any kind of oil you want to, and there ain't anybody that can detect the true from the false. Well, we know how to get that one little particle out--and we're the only firm that does. And we turn out an olive-oil that is just simply perfect--undetectable! We are doing a ripping trade, too--as I could easily show you by my order-book for this trip. Maybe you'll butter everybody's bread pretty soon, but we'll cotton-seed his salad for him from the Gulf to Canada, and that's a dead-certain thing.'
Cincinnati glowed and flashed with admiration. The two scoundrels exchanged business-cards, and rose. As they left the table, Cincinnati said--
'But you have to have custom-house marks, don't you? How do you manage that?'
I did not catch the answer.
We passed Port Hudson, scene of two of the most terrific episodes of the war-- the night-battle there between Farragut's fleet and the Confederate land batteries, April 14th, 1863; and the memorable land battle, two months later, which lasted eight hours--eight hours of exceptionally fierce and stubborn fighting--and ended, finally, in the repulse of the Union forces with great slaughter.