This versatile grain has played an important role in the diet and economy of South Carolina since prehistory. Indians were growing maize (an ancestor of modern corn) in South Carolina before the first Europeans and Africans came. The newcomers quickly learned to cultivate this vital grain, and corn culture rapidly spread up and down the tidewater rivers of the lowcountry. Settlers took corn with them into the interior. By the mid–eighteenth century, corn was the centerpiece of subsistence agriculture in South Carolina and the foundation of the colonial diet.
South Carolinians, like other rural Americans, ate corn in some form at virtually every meal. Corn was consumed fresh as a vegetable; it was also ground into meal and baked or fried into various breads. As flour, it was used to coat meats, vegetables, and fish for frying. Corn was rendered into syrup and distilled into whiskey. Hominy, a corn derivative, gave the South its most beloved signature dish: grits. Virtually the entire plant entered the food chain. The grain was fed to poultry and the stalks and shucks to cattle and swine. Thus, corn was turned into chicken, beef, pork, eggs, and dairy products. Nothing was wasted: corn worms were plucked from harvested ears and fed to poultry. Farmers also fed corn fodder to draft animals (horses, mules, and oxen). Therefore, as a staple of the diets of man and beast, corn was arguably the most important fuel in preindustrial America.
Although South Carolinians consumed most of their corn, they turned some into cash. As early as the 1680s, barrels of corn were being sold to the West Indies, and corn remained a cash crop through the colonial period, albeit in small amounts. More corn could have been sold, but ready markets were not always available. At best, therefore, a farmer might hope to feed himself and his livestock and clear a few extra dollars per year. Some farmers distilled their corn to decrease bulk and increase value. Corn whiskey enjoyed a lively market as a desirable commodity for sale or barter.
In the nineteenth century, corn became the universal secondary crop. The grain was raised on virtually every farm in the state as farmers paired corn with the prevailing staple. On lowcountry rice plantations, corn grew on the high ground. Inland farmers planted corn in rotation with cotton, and tobacco growers included corn in their crop cycle. All learned to plant beans or peas with corn and thus raise two food crops in a single field.
Corn had cultural as well as economic significance in the Palmetto State. In the agrarian world of antebellum South Carolina, people were considered truly independent only if they controlled their own livelihood and supplied their own sustenance. As the basic food crop, corn was central to this ethos of self-sufficiency. In the 1850s strong demand for cotton tempted many farmers to reduce corn acreage in favor of the staple. To others, however, increasing one’s market orientation at the expense of subsistence was a lamentable departure from common sense.
The disruptions of the Civil War and Reconstruction depressed the state’s economic output for many years, and not until 1891 did corn production reach prewar levels. In 1900 South Carolina farmers harvested a record 1,740,000 acres of corn. And South Carolina’s corn production continued to expand during the twentieth century. Genetically engineered seed, commercial fertilizers, and mechanized cultivation multiplied yields dramatically. Greater yields, especially after 1950, enabled growers to raise more grain from fewer acres. And corn became more of a cash crop. As tractors replaced horses and supermarkets replaced smokehouses, less corn was eaten and more was sold. Production basically responded to prices and rainfall, and South Carolina farmers sold a record 52 million bushels in 1976. But declining prices in the fourth quarter of the twentieth century discouraged corn production. In 2001 the state made only 25 million bushels—the same as in 1915—and corn had fallen to eleventh place in cash value to South Carolina farmers.
Clowse, Converse D. Economic Beginnings in Colonial South Carolina, 1670–1730. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971.
Ford, Lacy K., Jr. The Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.