About This Artifact
From the 1840s through the 1870s, the use of guano as a fertilizer for crops was a popular choice for farmers. This is a poster that praises the use of guano for a wide range of crops. Illustrated on the poster, there is an image of a bird with a fish in its beak as it stands on a sack of Soluble Pacific Guano. The notation “high grade standard” on the poster informed the purchaser that the guano was genuine and had not been contaminated. With high demand for the product between 1840 and 1870, prices soared, leading some unscrupulous merchants to pass off sand that had been mixed with feces and urine as guano.
The highest quality guano – that is, guano with high nitrogen content – came from the Chincha Islands off of the coast of Peru. The Spanish had dabbled in the guano trade since the 16th century, but it wasn’t until around 1840 that the potential use of guano as a crop fertilizer, as well as a key ingredient in explosives, came to light. Very quickly, ships from a wide range of United States and European companies sailed to the Chincha Islands to load guano. The guano rush lasted from the 1840s into the 1870s.
Working conditions were so deplorable that Chinese Coolies – who had no idea that they would become laborers on the Chincha Islands – were brought in. Many Pacific islanders were also brought in to work, though they were, in many cases, kidnapped. Some labor was additionally provided by convicts. This work was not only physically difficult, but the offensive odor was so intense that it would frequently affect the laborers health. Crewmen who worked in the holds of the ships were frequently overcome by fumes, and hundreds of Peruvian, Pacific Islander, and Chinese guano diggers committed suicide.
The trade finally saw an end with the introduction of low-cost chemical fertilizers in the 1870s.
Questions for Further Thought
- Why do you suppose the Peruvian government allowed such working conditions on the Chincha Islands?
- How do you think United States mariners and ship owners addressed working conditions on the islands--and their own ships?
- If the guano industry was still active today, how do you think working conditions might be different?