Center of Commerce- Factor’s Row during Reconstruction

Robinson Atlas Factor's Row
Location of Factor’s Row within New Orleans, at the corner of Perdido and Carondalet. Image from Robinson’s Historical Atlas, dated 1883.

Over the past year, a redevelopment project has started intended to update the historic building known as Factor’s Row. The local media reports on its reconstruction have brought back memories of what was once an elite organization. Even after operations in the Civil War left behind a mostly ravaged South, the economy of the United States was still mainly driven by the cotton crop. In New Orleans, a factorage site referred to as “Factor’s Row” played a central role in the Reconstruction economy of the city. The factors themselves represented a professional class who developed their own political interests. Their influence over affairs in New Orleans would remain until the cotton industry shifted to a reliance on the cotton exchange system.

Architecture

Factor’s Row was appreciated by many for its unique outlay and composition. First, the four story size of the different buildings contributed to a sense of vastness and importance among its viewers. At the outside of the buildings along Carondet Street, sidewalks consisted of “slabs of slate” (Christovich & Toledano 57). Its condition was considered of high quality and attracted visitors within the area. Likewise, the upper portion of the buildings utilized cast iron whose treatment varied from window to window. This boosted the reliability and efficiency of hood moulds used to keep rainfall away from private areas. Among all surviving buildings from the era, there are few that even used cast iron in their construction. Closer to the ground on the first floor, pillars constructed with Corinthian orders helped to support the upper courses.

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Upper view of Factor’s Row. Note the use of Italianate ornamentation and cast iron above the windows in the middle and bottom row.

The construction of Factor’s Row required skilled management and innovative techniques. Luckily, the project to build Factor’s Row was designed by Lewis Reynolds, a renowned architect. Alongside Reynolds were Samuel Jamison and James McIntosh.

The Cotton Factorage System

For most of the early Reconstruction period, the cotton trading system was governed by cotton factorages. Factors operated as middlemen in the production, transportation, and distribution of cotton. Working as independent dealers, one leading scholars aptly summarizes that “[h]e was engaged to buy, sell, receive, or forward goods and received a commission- called factorage- for his service” (Woodman 6). One other notable feature of the factorage system was its speculative nature. The valuation and prices of cotton would fluctuate over time, leading to variations in consumer behavior. Data from New Orleans’s 1867 crop season aptly illustrates this point. According to the table, in September the low price of cotton was $18.50 and reached a peak of $27.00. In other months the fluctuation was less obvious but still present. For example, in May the trough was $27.00 but the price was set as high as $32.00.

 

Factor's Row Prices
Cotton prices in New Orleans during the 1867 crop season. Taken from Boyle 51.

Immediately after the Civil War, a more commercial relationship was established between the North and the South. Many farmers found that they were in dire need of capital needed to restore their farms to their pre-war condition. They needed the appropriate agricultural implements, a sufficient amount of money, and proper clothing without which warehouses like Factor’s Row would be unable to stockpile on cotton. Especially in New Orleans, the blockade during the war forced many businesses to close down and left themselves with outstanding debts. Luckily enough, merchants were willing to put aside sectional differences and provide farmers with their requirements, allowing the Cotton Factorage system to survive. Their investments proved lucrative as the South was still suffering from inflation, resulting in high prices for cotton.

Changes would arise that ultimately undermined the efficiency of the factorage industry. The different responsibilities assumed by factors were highly affected by a combination of technological innovation, new communications networks, and the real-time trading revolution. Overland East-to-West routes had been established via railroads which proved cheaper than using older paths such as the Mississippi River. Their use of bills of lading and cotton compresses proved attractive to potential buyers. By 1880, about a fifth of the five and a half million bales of cotton were imported into the North through the overland route (Woodman 271). As a result, trade operations shifted from water ports to inland markets. Cities such as New Orleans played a less significant role in cotton trade than before. The transatlantic cable also brought valuable information to customers at a much faster pace. Prices of products could be know in a mere couple of minutes, meaning that there was no need to rely on factors to predict any shifts in costs.

 

Notable People

Admittedly, there are few primary sources available that detail the lives of the men who played a prominent role in Factor’s Row’s operations during Reconstruction. However, one man who stands out from surviving accounts is Arthur Toledano. Toledano was of Creole descent as his grandparents had immigrated to the United States. He developed a close relationship with his uncle Louis Drouet which eventually led to him inheriting his merchant business. Toledano would play a prominent role at Factor’s Row starting before the Civil War. When the war severely damaged trade in New Orleans, he joined an artillery unit known as Watson’s Battery. In battle, the squadron performed poorly but Toledano earned a promotion to second lieutenant. After the war, he continued to work at Factor’s Row (Nystrom 18). Toledano’s story is significant to Factor’s Row because he was representative of the demographic within New Orleans. Creole people were common in the Big Easy, and Factor’s Row consisted of men like Toledano who represented a prominent social class.

Works Used

-Boyle, James E. Cotton and the New Orleans Cotton Exchange; a Century of Commercial Evolution. Garden City, NY: Printed at the Country Life, 1934. Print.

-Christovich, Mary Louise., and Roulhac Toledano. New Orleans Architecture, Volume II: The American Sector (Faubourg St. Mary) ; Howard Avenue to Iberville Street, Mississippi River to Claiborne Avenue. Gretna, LA: Pelican Pub., 1972. Print.

-Nelson, John. “Factor’s Row in New Orleans Undergoes Redevelopment.”REBusinessOnline. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

-Nystrom, Justin A. New Orleans after the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.

-Woodman, Harold D. King Cotton & His Retainers; Financing & Marketing the Cotton Crop of the South, 1800-1925. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 1968. Print

Featured image taken from officespace.com