Peanuts have been cultivated and consumed in South Carolina since colonial times. Native to South America, peanut culture was carried to Africa by European explorers. Later, slave ships often carried quantities of peanuts to feed enslaved Africans, and surplus nuts were sold on the docks. Thus, peanuts likely entered South Carolina as a by-product of slavery. Many South Carolinians raised peanuts for home consumption, but some were being exported for sale soon after the Revolution.
Peanuts were an important subsistence crop throughout the nineteenth century. The nuts were roasted or boiled for humans, while the shells and vines were sometimes fed to livestock. A growing market for peanut products encouraged peanut culture in the early twentieth century. In the 1910s, as the boll weevil crept ever closer, many South Carolina farmers planted peanuts as an alternative to cotton. Peanut culture was labor-intensive, however, and acreage expanded slowly. In the 1930s the federal government established a production control program for peanuts. Growers accepted land-bound acreage allotments in exchange for price supports and tariff protection. Later, poundage quotas were imposed as well.
Peanut culture underwent substantial changes after World War II. With profits virtually assured by the government commodity program, growers invested in tractors, cultivators, and harvesting machines. In the 1950s self-propelled peanut combines appeared. Moreover, improved seed stocks and chemical fertilizers multiplied yields dramatically. South Carolina production per acre passed one thousand pounds in 1956, two thousand pounds in 1971, and three thousand pounds in 1996. Predictably, given Georgia’s leadership in peanut production, peanut culture in the Palmetto State prospered along the Savannah River. Allendale, Hampton, and Barnwell Counties have been big producers, as have Sumter and Lee Counties in the Midlands. In 2001 South Carolina growers received $8 million for about ten thousand acres of peanuts.
Like other government commodity plans, the peanut program came under careful scrutiny in the 1990s. Candy companies and other large-scale processors argued that the artificially high price of peanuts hobbled American industry and penalized consumers. In 2002 Congress approved a five-year buyout plan to end production controls. Since 1982 the town of Pelion has hosted the annual South Carolina Peanut Party, a celebration of the state’s peanut culture.
Kirby, Jack Temple. Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920–1960. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.