Bayer & Company in the United States: German dyes, drugs, and cartels in the Progressive Era

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




William Stinchcombe


American history, German corporations, Bayer

Subject Categories

History | United States History


In 1918-1919, the Wilson administration confiscated all German private property, and then tried to eliminate German coal-tar chemical firms from the American market. Alien Property Custodian A. Mitchell Palmer, the driving force behind these measures, justified them because of the danger to national security caused by the state-supported monopolistic cartels and agents of German imperialism. He cited as prominent example the American branch of the Farbenfabriken vormals Friedrich Bayer, or Bayer Company.

Based on German coal and steel firms, German corporations during the Wilhelmine era have been described as very bureaucratic and anti-competitive; also, in Germany market monopolies were legal and encouraged by the government. Such monopolies were bound to offend Americans, who during the Progressive Era were deeply concerned about their political power. Using the archives of the Bayer Company in Leverkusen, Germany, and holdings at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Suitland, Maryland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New York City, the trade press and other sources, this study looks at Bayer's activities in the United States. Bayer's business-oriented and flexible culture was similar to that of American firms, and differences not due to its German ownership. So was its conduct angering American authorities, such as the use of kickbacks for sales and hiding owning the branch to avoid the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. But Bayer's aggressive profit seeking culture, and idiosyncratic events, prevented the creation of a general German dye and drug cartel in the United States.

The branch clashed with American interest groups such as druggists, who to gain public sympathy portrayed the firm as a German trust. After 1914, the dye firms were also accused of political conspiracy. Yet until March 1918, the American government did not move against them, partly because such charges were clearly false, until Palmer took advantage of wartime Manichaeism and Progressive ideology to convince Wilson that the charges were true. This study shows that differences between German firms and those of other Western countries could be smaller than they seemed at the time, and fear of German economic imperialism often due to misunderstanding. The emphasis on national differences to explain conflict between Imperial Germany and the United States seems unjustified, at least in the economic sphere.


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