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date: 08 May 2021

Commodities and Consumption in “Golden Age” Argentinafree

  • Eduardo ElenaEduardo ElenaDepartment of History, University of Miami


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the global trade in commodities forged new economic interconnections and contributed to the emergence of modern ways of life. As one of the leading exporters of temperate goods such as wool, beef, and wheat, Argentina was at the forefront of these trends, and the country underwent remarkable expansion between 1875 and 1913. Although export goods linked Argentina to consumers in Europe and elsewhere, these vital relationships were often obscured by the malleable nature of commodities, the far-flung scope of overseas trade, and the perceived divergence between rural and urban worlds. Within Argentina, similar dynamics were also at work, but commodities became referents in disputes over economic distribution, social inequality, and national development. The tensions between the export sector and an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society geared toward mass consumption raised questions as to how to manage the nation’s wealth—conflicts involving commodities that parallel those of other Latin American societies. By placing the economic history of commodities into conversation with recent research on the social, cultural, and political history of consumption, this article reconsiders Argentina’s “Golden Age” of expansion and its aftermath. The connecting and distancing power of commodities reveals how populations in Argentina and abroad experienced modern capitalism, including its signature transformations of the natural world and everyday life.

Beef, wool, hides, wheat, soybeans—these commodities occupy an unquestionably central place in Argentine history. The image of Argentina as breadbasket and butcher to world, a land of endless farms and ranches where gaucho cowboys once roamed, has long informed clichés about this country. Nevertheless, staple commodities are typically greeted with what U.S. historian William Cronon, in his brilliant study of Chicago and the Midwest, calls a mixture of “mystification and boredom.”1 Such reactions stem partly from the fact that many of us today (including most Argentines) are far removed from the everyday routines of tending livestock and crops; moreover, the temperate climate staples that made Argentina and the U.S. Midwest famous lack the exotic, addictive allure often associated with tropical goods like coffee or sugar. Yet commodities have a more dynamic, even fractious history than the clichés and conventional wisdom suggest. For all their seeming mundaneness, the products of Argentina’s grasslands have exerted a tremendous influence over the nation’s fortunes and molded its links to the outside world. While commonly associated with the countryside and its traditions, these goods have enabled urban, modern ways of life in Argentina and among its foreign trading partners. Despite appearing inert, not only have commodities satisfied the essential needs of these societies, they have also proven a repeated wellspring of contention.

This article offers a starting point for exploring these paradoxes by bringing the economic history of commodities into conversation with recent studies of the social, cultural, and political history of consumption in Argentina. Reconsidering commodities from the vantage of consumption has at least two main benefits. First, it illustrates how Argentina’s famed rural abundance was part of broader late-19th-century capitalist transformations associated with industrialization, steam-age globalization, and the commodification of nature. The trade in staple goods supplied consumers in Argentina and abroad with the very necessities of life, while simultaneously obscuring these vital relationships by virtue of the far-flung scope of trade and a perceived divergence between rural and urban worlds. An awareness of the connecting and distancing power of commodities reveals how different populations experienced the signature changes of modern capitalism, including the rise of mass consumption. Second, Argentine history offers repeated examples of how, under certain conditions, supposedly “mystifying” and “boring” commodities attracted public concern. Despite their seeming invisibility to most consumers (especially those located abroad), temperate staples became referents in political disputes over consumption and related aspects of economic distribution, social inequality, and national development. These controversies were rooted in specific historical conditions but mirror the conflicts associated with commodities elsewhere in Latin America and that persist in Argentina today.

Although agro-pastoral goods have played a crucial role throughout Argentine history, the so-called “Golden Age” (roughly 1875–1913) and its immediate aftermath (1914–1950) offer an ideal time frame to pursue this inquiry. Of course, the very idea of a “Golden Age” needs to be treated with extreme caution: it derives from the glowing rhetoric employed by boosters at the time, and it now informs the pessimistic tendency to stress Argentina’s failure to realize its potential (the “what went wrong” school of thought). The country’s supposed golden years were also a Gilded Age, which brought newfound riches but also novel forms of misery and exclusion. There is no doubt, however, that commodities played a fundamental role, for better and worse, in the country’s remarkable expansion at the turn of the 20th century, during which Argentina became one of the hottest economies in the world. From 1880 to 1914, Argentina’s gross domestic product per capita grew at an annual average of 3.3 percent, levels that surpassed those of dominant and rising global powers (1 percent for Great Britain, 2.1 percent for the United States) and countries with similar export profiles (2.2 percent for Canada and 0.5 percent for Australia).2 As staggering quantities of commodities were shipped overseas, no less impressive infusions of capital and migrant labor flowed back into Argentina, which fueled rural production and built the systems that enabled long-distance exchange. That said, exports have long overshadowed other types of economic activity in Argentina, and recent historical research has uncovered a more diversified domestic economy than previously assumed. Locals consumed large quantities of meat and grains, but most residents earned their livelihood in ways that only indirectly, if at all, related to commodities. The tensions between the export sector and an increasingly industrialized, urbanized society geared toward domestic consumption raised questions of how to manage the wealth derived from the nation’s bountiful livestock and crops. After the mid-1910s, prevailing socio-economic forces widened this divide, without, however, eliminating the nation’s reliance on exports.

Exporting Argentina

To understand the origins of these problems, one can begin by considering Argentine commodities from the perspective of their main intended target: overseas markets. Although each commodity has a history all its own, the more salient characteristic is that together they constituted a varied landscape of rural production in Argentina, in which no single good predominated and in which the overall composition of exports was in flux. Not only were additional staples introduced, but the export sector responded to changes in local conditions, technological innovations, and swings in demand abroad, among a host of factors. At the same time, consumers hardly remained static. As Argentina’s commodity offerings shifted, so, too, did the export destinations and purchasing habits abroad. As the scale of rural production increased in Argentina and the scope of global trade widened, there emerged a contradictory mixture of freedom, dependency, and obliviousness among overseas consumers in places like Europe. Imported commodities liberated populations from the burdens of producing their own basic necessities, even as people became subject to new labor demands and grew strangely disconnected from the sources of their daily sustenance and most intimate personal possessions.

Although Argentina’s contributions to these trends reached new heights during the “Golden Age,” exports formed part of a long history of commodity exchange. The origins stretch back to the silver-oriented economy of the colonial period, when much of present-day Argentina was oriented to supplying raw materials for the Central Andes mines or to channeling the flow of silver bullion across the Atlantic. With independence from Spanish rule, a pastoral export economy came more fully into its own. Based in the Littoral grasslands extending from the dominant port city and province of Buenos Aires (the pampas of popular imagination), the types of pastoral goods produced—cattle hides, grease and tallow, salted meats, and sheep’s wool—may seem crude. But these primitive materials were coveted by the most advanced manufacturing sectors of England, northern Europe, and the United States. Greater mechanization and mass production there created demand for imports such as animal skins, which could now be transformed on an unimagined scale into goods like leather shoes. Similar advances allowed the coarse, unwashed wools of the Argentine Littoral to become factory-made carpets, worsted wool clothing, blankets, and other textiles that kept residents of cold climates warm. More unusual commodities like horsehair provided the stuffing for fine furniture, while animal bones were converted into handles, utensils, buttons, and the like.3 Even the rendered fat of the feral animals that grazed on Argentina’s grasslands found its way into modern life as manufactured soap, which despite its gruesome origins became the very emblem of civilization.

Not all routes of the commodity trade led directly to consumers in the industrializing north. Pastoral commodities like salted meats (tasajo and charque) found a market as naval stores and sustenance for the slave societies of Brazil and the Spanish Caribbean. Demand for cotton, sugar, and coffee in the industrial north allowed Argentina to occupy a secondary role as a supplier to these slave-based economies. By 1859, the salted meats that fed enslaved populations and others represented 13.7 percent of total exports from Buenos Aires (by comparison, wool’s share was at 33.7 percent and growing, while cattle hides came in at 31.5 percent, down from a peak of 56.8 percent in 1837).4 Commodities also circulated outside these Atlantic networks. Indigenous societies in the central and southern pampas, many part of the wider Mapuche world of southern South America, engaged in a lively trade in livestock across the Andes into what is now Chile. Many of these animals were seized during Indian raids in Argentina (perhaps as many as 20,000 to 40,000 per year in the mid-19th century, with larger raids far exceeding these numbers).5 The economics of the borderlands were complicated, and for most indigenous people the encroachments of Argentine landowners represented a far greater form of theft. Nevertheless, the combination of rising demand for commodities abroad and the consolidation of a stronger Argentine state created incentives to extend the frontier. The late 1880s saw campaigns bent on the definitive conquest of Indian societies, which descended into brutally violent struggles of an internal colonial character.

The confluence of these trends set the stage for a dramatic leap in commodity exchange in the late 19th century. Three sets of goods—wool, meats, grains—dominated Argentine exports. Wool led the way from the 1860s onward, eventually reaching tens of thousands of tons of raw material produced annually in Buenos Aires province.6 Exports of hides and more traditional pastoral goods continued, but advances in railroad and steamship transportation, long-distance communication, and refrigeration technology resulted in exports of live animals and, from the late 1870s onward, frozen and chilled carcasses. The meat trade underwent the most innovation, yet arguably the most significant change was the sudden rise of grain exports—principally wheat, corn, and linseed. New infrastructures like railways made it profitable to move and sell bulky, low-cost-per-unit commodities like grain across oceans and continents. The resulting boom in agriculture was remarkable: pastoral goods represented 95 percent of exports in 1880, but by 1910 grain crops comprised nearly 60 percent of the total. Argentina sent the vast majority of its harvest abroad, becoming the third largest exporter of grains in the world. Nevertheless, commodity diversification remained a feature (especially in the context of other Latin American export economies), and no single good achieved more than 25 percent of the total.7

This form of exchange was characterized by its flexibility to respond to changing local conditions and the vagaries of global markets. Argentine exporters competed not only with farmers throughout Europe, but also rivals in exporting countries in the Northern Hemisphere (Canada and the United States) and Southern Hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). Within Argentina, patterns of production shifted within the Littoral and, to a lesser degree, around different geographical zones, including into the 175,000 square miles of territory opened by frontier conquest. The most productive areas in Buenos Aires province went from slaughtering cattle for their hides to sheep raising to experiments with wheat growing and cattle ranching for the export trade. Nature was transformed to keep up with changes in foreign demand: sheep breeds valued primarily for their wool gave way to stock more suited for their meat; rangy criollo cattle were replaced by “improved” pedigree breeds to supply the types of beef coveted by European consumers; and even the grasses of the plains were made over, either into fields of alfalfa for more refined animals or into massive grain farms. Local landowners and workers were joined in the millions by immigrants and foreign investors, and together they all provided the capital, labor, farm machinery, and commercial institutions that boosted overseas exchange.

Consuming Argentina

Where did this cornucopia of goods end up? Markets and consumers changed over time. For instance, Britain and the United States set off the craze for Argentine wool, but port cities on the European continent like Dunkirk in France and Antwerp in Belgium, along with their manufacturing hinterlands, became the dominant poles of the trade by the end of the 19th century. Exports of mutton and beef found their largest market among British consumers, although Argentine meat made inroads elsewhere in Europe during the 20th century, including through byproducts such as meat extracts and Oxo cubes. Grains were the most geographically diffuse, a consequence of the fact that bread and similar carbohydrate foods were mainstays of the European diet. Dominated by a handful of family firms like Bunge & Born (founded in Argentina but with deep roots in Belgium), the grain business was notoriously secretive. Liberal trade policies made Britain more open to imports from places like Argentina (in 1909, it led the way by importing 370,000 tons of Argentine wheat, while Belgium and Italy came in third and fourth place).8 Protectionist measures elsewhere in Europe limited imports that might compete with local farmers, but such policies tended to erode over time as urban populations rose. At the same time, trade expanded with other Latin American countries undergoing population growth and commodity booms of their own: neighboring Brazil was the second largest purchaser of Argentine wheat and the largest of its flour in 1909.9 The outbreak of colonial war in South Africa provided a short-lived opportunity to capitalize on demand for food and war materiel. In the end, however, the societies of Western Europe in the throes of modernizing forces—urbanization, industrialization, rising living standards, mass consumption—exerted the strongest pull on the bounty harvested from the Argentine plains.

Burrowing down to the level of individual consumers, to the women and men who bought these goods, is another challenge altogether. In general, overseas consumers have not garnered attention from Argentine historians (the tendency has been to pass this baton over to scholars working on foreign lands). Yet the interpretive problem is further complicated by the very nature of agro-pastoral goods. The defining trait of commodities is that they are malleable—that is, capable of being transformed into an ever-growing range of manufactured products. Moreover, they can easily shed their places of origin and become interchangeable units suited to myriad applications. The fact that a given ton of wool or wheat came from Argentina may have mattered a great deal to importers and factory owners, who were attuned to differences in quality and price. But customers who purchased finished goods were typically unaware of the origins of the fibers in their clothes or the wheat in the bread purchased at the corner bakery. Lastly, in the European markets where demand was greatest for Argentine commodities, temperate staples were considered so familiar that they were hardly noticed. Imported animals and plants were considered widely “European”—not “Argentine” (or “Canadian” or “Australian,” for that matter). They already constituted a longstanding part of the diet, clothing, and household material culture (despite the enormous variations in local customs within and between these societies). The image of the exporting countries as “white” nations, as “lands of recent settlement” with allegedly similar racial compositions, climates, and landscapes—in short, as “Neo-Europes,” to borrow Alfred W. Crosby’s later phrase—reinforced this tendency.10

Yet there was more going on than simply swapping local production for imports. The sheer volume of commodities arriving from places like Argentina made its impact felt on consumers in ways large and small. Greater supplies of raw materials for industry expanded commercial offerings while often lowering prices; thus more middle-class consumers were able to access items previously off-limits (say, colorful wool carpets to decorate the floors of their homes). Changes in diet were no less significant. Greater segments of Europe’s laboring population became able to eat white bread regularly; at the same time, cheap grain stimulated innovations in the food industry (such as new packaged and convenience foods), while encouraging a comeback of older foods (such as beer) in a more industrial form. Although consumption statistics are fragmentary for this period, the average consumption of meat in the United Kingdom grew by some 25 percent between 1870 and 1900 (these figures tell us little about crucial variations by class, gender, and region).11

The meat trade represents a partial exception to the invisibility of Argentine commodities. Consumers were somewhat more aware of where their mutton and beef came from because of meat’s expense, its privileged place in the food hierarchy, and the very intimacy of eating another animal’s flesh. The novelty of refrigeration contributed to its visibility as well, for early exporters had to overcome the logical reticence of European populations to consume meat shipped from halfway across the globe. This explains why Argentina’s exhibition hall at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris showcased the wonders of refrigerated meat front and center: a special glass vitrine at the entrance captured visitors’ attention, while gastronomic authorities and other dignitaries received free samples. At stake was nothing less than a profound alteration in what was considered “fresh” and healthy food. Earlier Argentine efforts to encourage salted meat consumption in Europe largely failed—sales pitches to Spaniards and Italians claiming that tasajo was just as tasty as their dried salted cod fell on deaf ears. Shipments of refrigerated meat, too, met with initial resistance but eventually surged from the early 1900s onward. For British markets in particular, meat exporters developed an understanding of consumer taste and spending power in different regions as well as control of the wholesaling and retailing systems to move their product widely. By the early 20th century, companies such as the River Plate Fresh Meat Company emphasized country origins in the very names of their enterprises and in advertising campaigns. Members of landowner organizations such as the Sociedad Rural Argentina nervously strategized about how to beat competitors, who began using marketing slogans like “New Zealand Lamb, Best in the World.” Country names had become part of consumer brands—yet more evidence of the power of temperate commodities to enmesh Argentine producers, foreign rivals, and overseas populations in relationships that spanned the globe.

Rural and Urban Worlds

As one might assume, the “average Argentine’s” view of this activity differed tremendously from that of consumers abroad. It was impossible to ignore the importance of commodities in turn-of-the-century Argentina. Not only were large sectors of the population engaged directly in rural production, news of conditions affecting “los commodities” was the stuff of daily conversation as well. Export staples featured prominently in public affairs because they mattered to the rich and powerful in Argentina. Although recent research has challenged myths of an insular, unchanging, and all-controlling landowning “aristocracy,” there is no question that rural elites exerted a tremendous influence over the country’s political systems. Moreover, commodities were inseparable from dominant visions of the Argentine nation as a land of wealth and progress. Despite inter-elite rivalries, there was shared consensus around liberal ideas that celebrated property ownership and participation in international trade. Nineteenth-century intellectuals envisioned commodities as a force of social improvement: a society of barbaric, nomadic country folk would give way to a hard-working nation of white, European settlers dedicated to civilized agriculture.

But if one looks past the pages of the business section and the worldview of elites, the story of commodities in “Golden Age” Argentina is more multilayered. As in Europe and other export destinations, large segments of the Argentine population encountered livestock and crops primarily as objects of consumption, not as the fruits of their own labor. The same types of commodities that were exported abroad played an oversized role in the lives of domestic consumers. To take but one example, Argentina would by mid-20th century lead the world in per capita consumption of beef by a hefty margin.12 For all the attention lavished on rural production, urban Argentina was in the ascendance, thanks in part to demographic trends and factors that made urban life more attractive. Even living on the edge of the pampas, many Argentine consumers were not fully aware of the economic connections that bound them to the countryside, although this ignorance was surely harder to maintain than their overseas counterparts. Moreover, the consumers that took an interest often reacted with forms of protest that did not fit the more placid elite vision of commodities as national progress.

Understanding these conflicts requires transcending stereotypes of Argentina as simply a collection of farms and ranches. Between 1875 and 1913, Argentina’s population tripled in size, largely because of massive immigration from southern Europe and elsewhere (nearly one-third of the population was foreign born by the end of this period). At the same time, average real per capita incomes grew by 40 percent. Accordingly, domestic consumer demand also drove expansion: according to one estimate, the nation’s overall level of consumption increased ninefold in this same period.13 A larger population with greater purchasing power translated into all manner of local commercial and industrial activity. Imports of consumer goods and raw materials skyrocketed. But Argentine manufacturing surged ahead, too, creating new sources of employment (the number of industrial firms and workers more than doubled between 1895 and 1914), while also suppling local markets with everyday products such as clothing, processed foods, cosmetics, and furniture, to name but a few.14 By the 1920s, more than half of all goods consumed by Argentine society were fabricated locally, and by the late 1930s industry matched agricultural and pastoral activity in terms of overall contribution to GDP.15

These trends energized various regions of the national territory, which had previously been integrated only weakly to the agro-pastoral economy of the Littoral grasslands. Railway networks initially designed to speed the flow of exports abroad eventually extended to other parts of the nation and encouraged commodity production aimed at the domestic market, such as sugar from Tucumán in the northwest and wine from Mendoza in the west. New resource frontiers appeared within Argentina, attracting local and foreign investment and repeating the scramble for land, dispossession of native peoples, and settlement witnessed earlier. The northeast was “opened” as a zone for commercial lumbering as well as tobacco and yerba mate growing, while sheep ranching and fruit cultivation shifted to the Patagonian south.

Numerous regions were affected, but the impact of population growth, industrialization, and diversification was felt most acutely in urban areas, which concentrated the widest array of commercial offerings and greatest density of consumers. Between 1869 and 1914, the percentage of the population that lived in urban areas increased from 43.6 to 57.3 percent. Urbanization extended across the nation: the number of towns with 2,000–10,000 inhabitants jumped from 20 to 221; older provincial capitals increased in size but were outmatched by the growth of former villages like Rosario and Bahía Blanca or cities created from scratch like La Plata. The undisputed leader, however, was Buenos Aires city, which ballooned from a small town into a metropolis of over 1.5 million persons, making it the largest predominantly Spanish-speaking city in the world, the largest in Latin America, and second only to New York on the Atlantic seaboard of the Americas. Within Argentina, nearly one out of four residents lived in the capital and its suburbs.16 The producers of temperate staples channeled impressive quantities of meat and grain to feed these urban populations, but the countryside might have appeared a universe away to residents of Buenos Aires, who inhabited a landscape of paved streets and automobiles, cinema houses and cafes, department stores and corner shops. For all the nation’s reputation as a producer of rural commodities, Argentina was at this time one of the most urbanized societies in the world.

The explanations behind this seeming contradiction lie partly in the characteristics of modern commodity production. The sheer scale of ranching and farming, coupled with greater uses of mechanization and steam-age transportation, ensured that fewer and fewer people were required to generate an enormous surplus of tradable goods. Although the population of the rural Littoral grew quickly, human settlement on the grasslands faced obstacles. Farmers and workers did not necessarily intend to remain permanently: immigrants often had other ambitions, such as amassing a nest egg to return to their homeland. Landowners favored short-term tenancy contracts, which from their perspective allowed greater adaptability to changing market conditions while preserving their privileged social status and political influence. For those individuals who took a chance as settlers, opportunities for advancement existed but became tougher as land prices climbed. Even at the height of the golden years, living conditions on the plains were crushingly bleak for native- and foreign-born laborers, especially in comparison to urban factories and popular neighborhoods (hardly paradises of their own).

While many Argentines came to see city and countryside as worlds apart, it is worth appreciating their dependence on one another. Not only was an increasing share of rural goods destined for urban populations, but city residents who labored on the docks, rail yards, and warehouses as well as in finance and import-export businesses kept the export trade going. During harvest time tens of thousands of city dwellers decamped to the farms of Argentina’s grain belt, joining immigrants and migrants from provinces of the interior. Local manufacturing relied on processing temperate commodities into finished products like textiles, leather goods, and, above all, foodstuffs like canned meat, flour, crackers, and beer. Even had they tried, Argentines could not have separated one world from the other, despite the fact that the economic interests, political concerns, and daily preoccupations of residents in each area were moving further apart.

These tangled relationships between export commodities and domestic consumption—and the tensions they generated within rural and urban Argentina—were addressed, if not entirely resolved, in a number of ways. Efforts to define a shared national identity through food were one such manner. Food historians have shown how immigration, trade, and local industrialization altered local tastes. In places like Córdoba province, a transitional zone between the Littoral and other regions, a diet based on traditional fare like meat, corn, and squash gave way to growing consumption of bread, pasta, and dairy. At the same time, immigrants adopted locals’ habits, including their fondness for infusions of yerba mate and their carnivorous ways.17 Cultural efforts to mediate these changes were exemplified by the food ritual known as the asado (a feast of grilled meats, especially beef).18 Although this custom has centuries-old roots in the region, the asado became reworked during the first half of the 20th century in keeping with new ideas of national identity or argentinidad. The act of grilling meat took on gendered and racialized meanings as well, as the masculine figure of the mythic gaucho was reborn in his white male descendant, the asador. Many actors shaped this process: the artists who portrayed the people and natural world of the pampas in literature, music, theater, and film; the “creole” cooks who disseminated old-fashioned dishes to consumers in bustling cities; the intellectuals and state officials who sought to inculcate respect for national values in an immigrant-heavy population; and, of course, “ordinary” people who exchanged knowledge about esteemed foods.

A closer look, however, reveals that the asado, as practiced by an increasing majority of Argentines, was more a reflection of an urban, industrializing society than timeless rural customs. The updated version depended on a distinctly modern-day separation between work and leisure and related habits of sociability. The cut of meat that became the centerpiece of the ritual—the asado de tira (short rib)—was itself an artefact of the industrial age: only electrical saws adopted in the 1900s could easily cut meat in this fashion, which in any event came from more tender “improved” breeds of cattle. Nevertheless, these realities were disregarded: instead, the asado became a way that residents of the modern city and countryside could celebrate their shared ties to a distant, romanticized rural past, one that now defined what it meant to be authentically Argentine.

Commodities and Consumer Politics

The divergences between rural and urban Argentina were not resolved by culinary rituals alone (wonderfully pleasurable as they might be). Commodities took on greater political significance during the “Golden Age” and its aftermath, as sectors of the population grew frustrated with the enormous influence and wealth amassed by commodity producers. Naturally, there were conflicts in the countryside among the range of actors—landowners, small farmers, tenants, seasonal workers, and others—involved in raising livestock and harvesting crops. These contests resembled those of other commodity-exporting nations like the United States, which saw rural “populisms” that pitted smaller growers and laborers against powerful middlemen, big landowners, and transportation monopolies. In Argentina, however, disputes over labor and property played out primarily at the micro-level of rural society and through recourse to the legal system. Occasionally, they led to collective organizing, as in the violent 1893 uprisings of largely immigrant farmers in Santa Fe province, who vented anger at new tax policies. Although resentments in the countryside flared up sporadically, the locus of contention shifted in the early 20th century to urban spaces like Buenos Aires and to city-based actors such as labor unions, political parties, intellectuals, cultural industries, and national officials.

The grievances expressed against those in command of agro-pastoral production were many. A chorus of voices lamented the high cost of living experienced by laboring Argentines. Many critics (union and leftist activists among them) blamed those who controlled the food supply for being excessively greedy. Food prices for beef and other staples were low by world standards, but working families compared themselves to the middle classes and affluent in Argentina, who enjoyed truly abundant meals on a regular basis. At a deeper level, advocates objected to the fundamental inequalities of their society. Despite the bounty of the pampas, critics contended that the benefits of commodity production were concentrated in the hands of too few. Social reformers documented that in the land where hundreds of thousands of tons of wheat and high-quality beef were exported every year, working Argentines scraped to get by and the poor suffered from malnourishment.19

Other commentators directed their anger not only at landowners but at the influence wielded by the political allies of rural interests and foreign capitalists. Monopolistic grain trading and meatpacking companies and the predominantly British-owned railways received the brunt of attacks from those articulating a new economic nationalism. The terms of debate were sometimes taken to cartoonish extremes (a united Argentine people pitted against a cabal of corrupt oligarchs and imperialists), but the concentration of power was real enough, as were the underlying social inequities and unmet aspirations that made this worldview plausible. These critiques informed cultural expression, too, including writings by intellectuals on the nationalist Right and Left (such as Julio and Rodolfo Irazusta and Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz). The discourses of anti-monopolism even worked their way into popular entertainment like books and cinema, such as the 1938 feature film Kilómetro 111, a melodramatic tale of farm town residents exploited by an uncaring railway company.

These reactions were not unique, as they also surfaced in world regions to which Argentine commodities were exported. European consumers and urban workers, too, expressed dismay at high living costs, monopolistic companies, and the excessive riches of the commodity trade. But while these urban voices often clamored for lowering protectionist trade barriers, their counterparts representing the still sizable numbers of farmers and peasants in European society sought to contain the wave of cheap imports. European governments paid close attention to the politics of food supply, especially during the conflagrations of the First World War. The British statesman Lloyd George’s declaration, during a postwar visit to Buenos Aires, that “the war won by the Allies was due, in great part, to Argentine meat and wheat” may have been an ingratiating exaggeration, but there is no doubt that wartime governments kept anxious watch of climatic conditions, harvest forecasts, and shipping schedules.20 After the war, many states continued to regulate the commodity trade in efforts to guarantee social peace in a time of revolutionary unrest. The business of setting import tariffs and subsidies might not have dazzled the mass public, but it remained politically significant.

The problems associated with commodities and consumption in Argentina, however, became particularly charged and “visible” by the 1930s. Despite cost-of-living activism at the grassroots, state authorities were wary of action, including during the Radical Party era of popular republicanism (1912–1930). Liberal conceptions of laissez-faire commerce remained influential, while any effort aimed at benefiting consumers or redistributing wealth meant confronting entrenched rural interests. Argentina faced a special bind: prized commodities like beef could be exported abroad or consumed domestically. When commodity prices abroad were high, increased exports could mean less supply and higher prices for domestic markets; conversely, state interventions to benefit local consumers by limiting exports could cut into the profits of rural producers. More importantly, growth in Argentina’s export sector decelerated from the 1920s onward, which only raised the stakes of contests over distribution. Conservatives allied with this sector reacted to adverse global markets, followed by the calamity of the Great Depression, by flexing their political muscle: first, by backing panicked efforts to depose the elected Radical Party president over fears of potential demagoguery; and second, by making trade agreements with key partners like Britain and creating state trading boards to stabilize prices. These actions may have secured short-term objectives, but they further eroded the legitimacy of the nation’s ruling elites and failed to address underlying problems. If anything, these heavy-handed moves made it easier for critics to paint commodity producers as oligarchic malefactors and obstacles to national development.

These frictions finally ignited during the First Peronism (1943–1955). Driven by state concerns with guiding a transition to a postwar economy and by the demands of a burgeoning labor movement, Peronist officials pursued new directions in state regulation. They sought to protect local industrialization by boosting consumer spending power while improving living conditions for their political base. Although it was once common to view Peronism as a form of “urban populism,” it is more usefully seen as a nationalist attempt to reconfigure the relationship between rural and urban Argentina, including the balance between commodity exports and domestic consumption. In the countryside, the Perón government stopped well short of radical nationalizations or even modest land reform. Instead, the emphasis was on providing labor protections to rural workers and channeling profits from commodity exports through bureaucracies like the Instituto Argentino de Promoción del Intercambio (IAPI) to fund state social welfare programs and other ends. When combined with a postwar economic boom, these interventions widened the horizons of consumption for working-class Argentines. Peronist-era consumption was about far more than just food, but the ability of the poor to eat better meals and to access coveted foods like beef was taken as evidence of a socially just “New Argentina” in the making. Drawing together these various measures, Peronist authorities declaimed against the by-now-familiar enemies of the people, such as oligarchs, imperialists, and landowners. This rhetoric and the economic policies that accompanied them did little to endear Peronists to commodity exporters, but the fact that they resonated so strongly with a majority of Argentines demonstrates the depth of frustration among those who felt excluded from the bounty of the earlier “Golden Age.”


Commodities have remained a critical part of the nation’s economy and persisted as objects of contention throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In the early 1950s, Peronist leaders reacted to adverse economic circumstances (some of their own making, others not) to alter course, implementing policies that favored rural exporters and constrained working-class consumption. Amid the partisan turmoil that characterized subsequent decades, a succession of civilian and military governments veered from measures benefiting rural producers to policies designed to channel commodity wealth to other developmental ends. This pattern of contention has resurfaced repeatedly in Argentine politics, most recently during heated clashes between the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner government and landowner organizations over a proposed windfall tax on commodity exports in the late 2000s, followed by the current Mauricio Macri government’s attempts to tip the balance in favor of rural producers. The social divide between rural and urban (and now suburban) Argentina shows few signs of being bridged, especially as more of the population becomes alienated from the ways of the countryside. At the same time, the process of deindustrialization that began in Argentina during the 1970s has made commodity exports more valuable as a source of foreign exchange and taxable state revenue. New export goods such as Malbec wine and apples destined for markets in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have created additional riches from the 1990s onward. In recent decades, the economic ascendancy of China and other Asian countries has reinvigorated demand for the types of temperate staples that Argentina produces: commodities like soybeans used to make cooking oil and animal feed have surpassed older grain and meat exports. Will a “rising Asia” create the conditions for a new “Golden Age” in Argentina and the rest of Latin America, as some boosters claim? Or will this latest resurgence in commodity exports recreate older dependencies and intensify disputes over who should benefit from the wealth generated by global trade? Whatever the outcome, it is clear that commodities will continue to shape the future of Argentina and its relationship to the wider world.

Discussion of the Literature

The study of Argentine commodities began during the 1875–1913 heyday of expansion, as local residents and visitors assessed the changes taking place. This topic subsequently became of central interest to economic historians. By the 1960s and 1970s, researchers differed sharply in their assessments, reflecting various interpretive traditions (liberal, Marxist, “historical revisionist”) as well as discordant opinions regarding Peronism, among other subjects. Some historians (such as Carlos Díaz Alejandro and Roberto Cortés Conde) stressed the positive gains of the golden years and lamented subsequent stagnation. Inspired by dependency theory approaches, others highlighted the imperialist characteristics of export-led growth and questions of social equity (Aldo Ferrer, Ricardo Ortiz, and Horacio Gilberti, among others). Foreign scholars joined these debates while contributing insights on the social history of rural life (as in James Scobie’s work on wheat farming). The history of domestic consumption received far less attention, although it did feature indirectly in Peter Smith’s study of the politics of beef.

From the 1980s onward, new generations of historians sought to transcend the limitations of the liberal “what went wrong” tradition and left-leaning dependency theory alike. Hilda Sabato’s Capitalismo y ganadería en Buenos Aires (1989) accounted for the decisions taken by landowners, laborers, and others within the possibilities and constraints of the global wool market. Jonathan C. Brown’s study of 19th-century pastoral production explored the deep roots of commodity-led growth. Students of comparative development sought to better understand how factors such as property relations, political institutions, and labor systems in countries with comparable export profiles translated into such dissimilar economic fortunes. Jeremy Adelman’s work on the wheat lands of Argentina and Canada exemplified this approach and advanced lines of inquiry pursued earlier by Carl Solberg, D. C. M. Platt, and Donald Denoon, among others. Rather than highlighting overseas connections, researchers such as Ezequiel Gallo and Ricardo Salvatore delved further into the lives of grain farmers and the impact of turn-of-the-century growth on living standards. Although exports still attracted the lion’s share of academic interest, studies like Donna Guy’s work on sugar in Tucumán helped bring other staple goods and Argentine regions into the conversation.

Over the past two decades, the domestic economy has come into its own as a major focus of historical attention. Fernando Rocchi’s Chimneys in the Desert (2006) shed light on manufacturing’s origins during the golden years of commodity exports and its role in the creation of national markets. The emergence of consumer society from the early 20th century to the First Peronism has been the subject of diverse studies by Eduardo Elena, Natalia Milanesio, Mathew Karush, and others. These works have delved into the social experience of popular sector consumers and the characteristics of mass consumption in Argentina. In a related vein, scholars like Fernando Javier Remedi and Rebekah Pite have explored the history of food, region, and nation. At the same time, researchers circled back to classic topics like rural elites, as in works by Samuel Amaral and Roy Hora portraying landowners not only as profit-maximizing actors but as social and political agents as well. Agrarian capitalism remains a vibrant area of inquiry, as evidenced by the work of Osvaldo Barsky, Jorge Gelman, and others. Scholars are currently exploring new ways of placing commodity exports and the domestic economy within the same frame of analysis, a tendency evidenced in recent synthetic overviews of the 19th and 20th centuries by Hora, Gerchunoff and Llach, and Gerardo Della Paolera and Alan Taylor. Cortés Conde’s essay in An Economic History of Twentieth-Century Latin America (2000) offers a good starting point for those interested in the history of Argentina’s exporting economy during the turn of the century.

Primary Sources

Sources on commodities and consumption are to be found in Argentina and around the world. Valuable quantitative information can be located in official publications, such as the Extracto estadístico de la República Argentina, the reports of bureaucracies like the Departamento (subsequently Ministerio) de Agricultura, and national and provincial censuses. National governments in Europe and the Americas also collected statistical data on the commodity trade. Specialist books on commodities provide a wealth of information: see William Goodwin, Wheat Growing in the Argentine Republic (1895)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; Raúl Lastra, El cultivo del trigo y el maíz (1908)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; and Paul Link, Sheep Breeding and Wool Production in the Argentine Republic (1934)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat. Similar publications on the meat trade often contain more insights on consumption. Works consulted for this essay include: Sociedad Rural Argentina, Exportation of Meat from the Argentine Republic (1889)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; James Critchell and Joseph Raymond, A History of the Frozen Meat Trade (1912)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; Juan E. Richelet, La ganadería argentina y su comercio de carnes (1928)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; and Hugo Iannini, Comercio de carnes importadas en Inglaterra, Mercado de Smithfield (1936)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat. A statistical portrait of the Argentine economy in this era can be found in: Ernesto Tornquist & Co, The Economic Development of the Argentine Republic in the Last Fifty Years (1919)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat.

Travelogues by locals and foreigners offer crucial insights on the business of commodities as well as snapshots of Argentine landowners, merchants, farmers, and, more rarely, urban consumers: see Emilio Daireaux, Vida y costumbres en el Plata (1888)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; Estanislao Zeballos, La rejión del trigo (1883)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and A través de las cabañas (1888); Jules Huret, De Buenos Aires al Gran Chaco (1911)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; and John Foster Fraser, The Amazing Argentine (1914)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat, among many others.

The history of consumption in Argentina requires piecing together information from varied sources. These include statistical and reformist materials, such as Juan Bialet Massé’s two-volume Informe sobre el estado de la clase obrera (1904)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and reports on working-class consumption in Buenos Aires gathered by the Departamento Nacional de Trabajo. Films provide a window onto Argentina’s emerging consumer society as well as a source of commentary on its problems: see Mujeres que trabajan (dir. Manuel Romero, 1938)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and Kilómetro 111 (dir. Mario Soffici, 1938)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat. The propagandistic tome La nación Argentina, justa, libre, soberana (1950) presents a vision of Peronist economic nationalism.

Further Reading

  • Adelman, Jeremy. Frontier Development: Land, Labour, and Capital on the Wheatlands of Argentina and Canada, 1890–1914. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
  • Barsky, Osvaldo, and Jorge Gelman. Historia del agro argentino: desde la Conquista hasta fines del siglo XX. Buenos Aires: Grijalbo, 2001.
  • Brown, Jonathan C. A Socioeconomic History of Argentina, 1776–1860. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  • Cortés Conde, Roberto. El progreso argentino, 1880–1914. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1979.
  • Cortés Conde, Roberto. “The Vicissitudes of an Exporting Economy: Argentina, 1875–1930.” In An Economic History of Twentieth-Century Latin America, Victor Bulmer-Thomas, John H. Coatsworth, and Roberto Cortés Conde, eds., Vol. 1, 265–294. Oxford: Palgrave, 2000.
  • Elena, Eduardo. Dignifying Argentina: Peronism, Citizenship, and Mass Consumption. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
  • Gallo, Ezequiel. La Pampa gringa: la colonización agrícola en Santa Fe (1870–1895). Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1983.
  • Gerchunoff, Pablo, and Lucas Llach. El ciclo de la ilusión y el desencanto: un siglo de políticas económicas argentinas. Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1998.
  • Gilberti, Horacio. Historia económica de la ganadería argentina. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Solar, 1981.
  • Hora, Roy. Los terratenientes de la pampa argentina: una historia social y política, 1860–1945. Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2005.
  • Hora, Roy. Historia económica de la Argentina en el siglo XIX. Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2010.
  • Laborde, Gustavo. El asado: origen, historia, ritual. Montevideo, Uruguay: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental, 2013.
  • Milanesio, Natalia. Workers Go Shopping in Argentina: The Rise of Popular Consumer Culture. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.
  • Perren, Richard. The Meat Trade in Britain 1840–1914. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
  • Pite, Rebekah. Creating a Common Table in Twentieth-Century Argentina: Doña Petrona, Women, and Food. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
  • Remedi, Fernando Javier. Los secretos de la olla: entre el gusto y la necesidad: la alimentación en la Córdoba de principios del siglo XX. Córdoba, Argentina: Centro de Estudios Históricos, 1998.
  • Rocchi, Fernando. Chimneys in the Desert: Industrialization in Argentina During the Export Boom Years, 1870–1930. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.
  • Sabato, Hilda. Agrarian Capitalism and the World Market: Buenos Aires in the Pastoral Age, 1840–1890. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. (Originally published in Spanish by Sudamericana in 1989.)
  • Scobie, James. Revolution on the Pampas: A Social History of Argentine Wheat, 1860–1910. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964.
  • Smith, Peter. The Politics of Beef in Argentina: Patterns of Conflict and Change. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.


  • 1. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), xvii.

  • 2. Roy Hora, Historia económica de la Argentina en el siglo XIX (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2010), 259. These estimates vary considerably: at the high end, estimates are 3.7 percent per capita growth and 6.7 percent per annum over 1875–1913; see Roberto Cortés Conde, “The Vicissitudes of an Exporting Economy: Argentina, 1875–1930,” in An Economic History of Twentieth-Century Latin America, Vol. 1, Victor Bulmer-Thomas, John H. Coatsworth, and Roberto Cortés Conde, eds. (Oxford: Palgrave, 2000), 267.

  • 3. Jonathan C. Brown, A Socioeconomic History of Argentina, 1776–1860 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 50–68.

  • 4. Ibid, 81.

  • 5. Raúl Mandrini and Sara Ortelli, Volver al país de los araucanos (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1992), 53–67.

  • 6. Hilda Sabato, Agrarian Capitalism and the World Market: Buenos Aires in the Pastoral Age, 1840–1890 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990), 32.

  • 7. Hora, Historia económica, 189, 198.

  • 8. Jules Huret, De Buenos Aires al Gran Chaco (Buenos Aires: Hyspamérica, 1986, originally published 1911), 428.

  • 9. Ibid..

  • 10. Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

  • 11. Richard Perren, The Meat Trade in Britain 1840–1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), 3.

  • 12. Eduardo Elena, Dignifying Argentina: Peronism, Citizenship, and Mass Consumption (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), 88.

  • 13. Fernando Rocchi, Chimneys in the Desert: Industrialization in Argentina during the Export Boom Years, 1870–1930 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006). 51.

  • 14. Ibid., 22; Hora, Historia económica, 182.

  • 15. Elena, Dignifying Argentina, 24–26.

  • 16. Hora, Historia económica, 210, 231.

  • 17. Fernando Javier Remedi, Los secretos de la olla. Entre el gusto y la necesidad: la alimentación en la Córdoba de principios del siglo XX (Córdoba, Argentina: Centro de Estudios Históricos, 1998).

  • 18. This discussion of the asado is drawn from a fascinating study of neighboring Uruguay by anthropologist Gustavo Laborde. Similar dynamics were at work in Argentina See Gustavo Laborde, El asado: origen, historia, ritual (Montevideo, Uruguay: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental, 2013).

  • 19. Elena, Dignifying Argentina, 34–51.

  • 20. Juan E. Richelet, La ganadería argentina y su comercio de carnes (Buenos Aires: J. Lajouane y Cia, 1928), 71.