Gin and Fat.

Well this started out as a comment on Sipu’s recent post, then as usual it got so long and convoluted I decided it better belonged here.

A number of unforeseen consequences of Whitney’s cotton gin followed rapidly after its wider application.  The rapid growth in cotton fibre production in the southern states was accompanied by a huge supply of cottonseed, for every bale of cotton (480 lbs) an astonishing 700 pounds of cottonseed were produced, most of it was dumped in the nearest river (gins were often water powered) or simply left on the ground to rot.

Another enterprising inventor saw an opportunity and developed a hulling machine that could separate the hard skin from the oily cottonseed, the cottonseed oil was easy to press and the raw material was abundant.  Cottonseed oil was cheap to produce and rapidly became a replacement for whale oil in lighting applications and a major export for the south (hard to believe that less than 200 years ago the world was dependant on whale oil for its lighting needs).  Unfortunately this business came under threat when the first oil wells were drilled in Petrolia, Pennsylvania, (that’s why we call it gasoline).  The wells produced a nasty black liquid whose only known use was lubricating cart axles, until yet another inventor built a still to refine the oil and produce a paraffin (that’s why we call it kerosene).  In competition with whale oil and cottonseed oil this product was fetching as much as $50 per barrel in the mid 1800’s.  Other wells followed driving the price down to less than $5 per barrel in ten years and replaced cottonseed and whale oil completely.  As more wells were drilled and more refinery capacity installed the paraffin business itself could produce only modest profits, in the cities alternate lighting sources, gas and shortly electricity reduced the demand for the product.  Most oil companies went bankrupt or sold out to a few larger players, it seemed this business was doomed to shrink away with marginal profits.  Then along came Gottfried Daimler and the rest is another story entirely.

Anyway, the cottonseed oil business was quickly back in the dumps and stayed there until a couple of other enterprising inventors (brothers-in-law Proctor and Gamble) developed a way to solidify cottonseed oil by hydrogenating it.  This process resulted in lard like substance that could be used as a substitute for, well, lard in many food applications.  P and G called it Crisco and it is still widely produced and sold.  It was not such a big breakthrough as it would appear, several years prior to the development of hydrogenation the Armour company (a major pork and lard producer) had tried to corner the country’s lard supply to increase profits which were strangely under pressure from oversupply.  They bought up all the lard they could acquire and discovered to their surprise that they had more lard than could be produced from the number of hogs being slaughtered.  Several other companies had separately discovered that raw cottonseed oil could be surreptitiously added to lard in order to extend it by up to 30%.

So by this long route cottonseed had made the journey from waste, to fuel, to food.  Due to their low price and wide availability almost all commercially produced food used one or other of the cheap hydrogenated vegetable oils (soy, corn, rapeseed, cottonseed).

Incidentally cottonseed oil is a pretty good insecticide and will control many pests when sprayed on food crops, makes one wonder what other side effects it may have now it is so firmly in the food chain

Author: Low Wattage

Expat Welshman, educated (somewhat) in UK, left before it became fashionable to do so. Now a U.S. Citizen, and recent widower, playing with retirement and house remodeling, living in Delaware and rural Maryland (weekends).

9 thoughts on “Gin and Fat.”

  1. How absolutely fascinating.
    Really rather worrying about the natural properties of cottonseed oil as an insecticide!!!!
    I have always had a deep suspicion of hydrogenated fats in any way shape of form, filthy bloody rubbish.
    Ever since I was a teenager they have given me indigestion and I learnt to avoid them like the plague.
    It was a terrible revelation when I went off to Uni and saw the quality of the food we were supposed to eat!
    Nearly starved to death, only rescued by the Indian restaurant that did a three egg curry for under 3/-! Half the hall of residence seemed to eat there. The place put me off ice cream for life, hideous little utilitarian blocks of smelly lard like substance, super yukk! I only ever eat ice cream I make myself. start off with half a gallon of double cream and 6 organic eggs! Then at least one has earned one’s heart attack in a degree of style!

    Devils freeze,- vanilla ice base with brandy, flaked cocoanut and chopped candied angelica (home grown) to die for! Real deep south old fashioned recipe. amazing how they ate in the 18th century, does for me!

    When you look at processed food, the whole lot of it is processed waste out of the back of a New Jersey chemical works! Amazing really that some people seem to be able to eat it without dire short term repercussions. But I am sure it is responsible for a lot of long term diseases and heavens know what it does to the foetal stage of development. I just found over the years that more and more foods made me feel ill, every time I made it myself from scratch with real food ingredients I never got ill. In the end you just can’t face the rubbish anymore and make everything yourself out of self defence!

  2. Hi LW. Thanks for this. I love learning about how and why things happen. Related to much of what you talk about is an 8 episode series on the History channel called ‘The Men Who Built America’. It is absolutely fascinating. The program covers the rise to power of a number of entrepreneurs, starting with Vanderbilt and going on to Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, Ford, Edison and one or two others. What is remarkable is the way these individuals seized on the opportunity, with complete ruthlessness, to create monopolies. Equally remarkable is how all of their careers interlinked with one or two other members of the group. Sometimes as allies, sometimes as enemies and sometimes from one to the other.

    Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. (Vandrbilt sought out Rockerfeller, a struggling young oil man, to transport oil/kerosene to New York.) Vanderbilt and Carnegie. Rockerfeller and Carnegie. Carnegie and Morgan. Morgan and Edison.

    Were it not for the assassination of William McKinley, the monopolies of these men would have survived much longer than they did. Thankfully, Teddy Roosevelt was able to dissolve them.

    These people did some pretty horrible things, either directly or indirectly.
    The Johnstown flood resulted in the deaths of 2200 people.
    Then Homestead Steel Strike resulted in the deaths of 9 people, (more than were killed at the Boston Massacre of 1770 (5 deaths) 😉 )
    Edison electrocuted an elephant with AC to prove, unsuccessfully, that Direct Current was safer and therefore better than Alternating Current. Poor old Tesla lost out financially despite having the right technology. George Westinghouse seems to have been a decent man. Edison was responsible for the invention of the electric chair. He does not seem to have been a nice man.

    Anyway, look here for news about the series and watch it if you can.

  3. Sipu, I’m afraid niceness was rarely a characteristic of the ‘great’ entrepreneurs – and not only in the New World. Exploitation was the hallmark of the industrial revolution on both sides of the pond -from miners to navigators to cotton barons.

  4. I’m still reeling from the statistic I read yesterday that the 82 (or was it 3) richest men in the world own more than half of the whole population of this planet owns – and are still hell-bent on acquiring even more…

    While I’m a great believer in the principle of not taxing hard-work, genius or luck – I’m also convinced that huge fortunes are not made by ethical means – or ‘niceness’.

    But, anyway thanks for this LW 🙂

  5. Hello Mrs.O. I feel much the same way about hydrogenated oils, something alien about them. Artificial sweeteners are in the same category. How can a sickly sweet beverage have zero calories? It must by definition be totally indigestible.

  6. Hello Sipu: I will watch out for the series, I enjoyed a program I watched many years ago from the UK, “Connections” I seem to remember it was called, outlining the unusual links between otherwise separate events.

    Regarding your entrepreneurs (and mine) notable is the absence of original inventors among the money makers. Whitney, Tesla, Hall (Aluminum), Swann ( the light bulb man) etc. died in obscurity and/or poverty. Whitney was a little greedy, if he had charged a 10% fee for ginning cotton likely no one would have bothered to compete. Edison, more a business man than an inventor, and as you say, an unpleasant character altogether knew this, I think he once said of exploiting inventions “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered”.

  7. Hello Boadicea: It was 85 persons, an Oxfam study. interesting reading. The list is interesting too.

    Who are they? Here’s the billionaire list from Forbes.

    The US has 28 out of 85, probably under represented in raw numbers, but may be close if total wealth is figured (also a bit deceptive as there are couple of family groups that would only count once if the founder was still alive, eg the Waltons).

    Over represented ?

    Russia 10 (out of 85 and an economy about the size of Spain)
    Hong Kong 4 (China effect?)
    Mexico 3 ?
    Colombia 2 ??
    Thailand 2 ???
    Malaysia 2 ????
    Nigeria 1 (oil?)

    Notable variations?

    Saudi Arabia 2 (low, but wealth is concentrated in ruling family)
    Japan 1 (low)
    UK 1 (way too low, I could probably name three more who should be on the list)

  8. LW Artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated fats, mobile phones, x boxes and the like are all inventions of the devil.
    I feel a new church coming on!! Can’t see that the morons should have cornered the market on golden tablets. I reckon a couple of foil covered slabs off of Sumas mountain behind us should do the trick!

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