The Changing Face of Oil Through America’s History

Return of the WhalerPhoto: Library of Congress

Americans first became aware of the dangers of the oil industry in January 1741, when Ben Franklin’s General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle for all British Plantations in America reported the following item: “From Germany, that the Emperor died on the 13th of October, being poisoned by eating Mushrooms stew’d in Oil.”

The Boston News-Letter recorded William Bennet’s fish story from Rhode Island in one of its May 1723 issues:

“This Day the above said Wm. Bennet brought in here a Pamacity Whale, of the largest size that ever was known in these Parts; they got 18 Barrels of Pamacity out of the Head, and about 40 or 50 Barrels of Oil; and says if it had not been for the thickness of the Weather, and great Rains, they had made a third more out of the Whales Head. This Spring our Vessels have brought eight Whales into this Port.”

Whaling RocketsPhoto: via NASAThe sperm whale was hunted for its oily ‘parmacetti’

But, what is a “Pamacity Whale”? The Lingua Britannica Reformata, a dictionary from 1749, defines it thus:

“PARMACITY, or PARMACETI (i.e. Sperma ceti, L. the seed of the whale) a white flaky substance, made from the oil that comes from the head of a particular sort of whale.”

And, the next two entries: “PARMESAN, excellent cheese made in the dukedom of Parma in Italy” and “PARNEL, a lewd woman.”

The state of the oil industry in the mid-eighteenth century – and its relative crudeness when compared to the cheese business – can be inferred from some other definitions in the same volume:

“OIL, 1 the juice of olives, 2 one of the five chemical principles…
PETROLEUM, an oil, or liquor that flows from a rock, commonly called oil of Petre.”

Marshall Point Lighthouse in the EveningPhoto: Tony the MisfitMarshall Point Lighthouse, Maine: It’s ‘light’ consisted of 7 separate lard oil lamps

The Western Farmer and Gardener of October 1844 reported that Cincinnati’s industrialists had produced 1,007 barrels of lard oil during the previous six months. It also mentioned a new invention with some potential for the petroleum business: “A Yankee has invented a drilling machine which not only drills wood, rocks, and iron, but is also useful in drilling military companies.”

Texas, the eventual home of the nation’s oil industry, was on the verge of statehood in 1844, and the western farmers were fascinated by the new territory and the potential for agricultural expansion it represented.

“Texas contains three hundred and eighteen thousand square miles,” the magazine
noted; “which is full as large as the states of Virginia, South Carolina,
Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana combined. These states have now a
population of about four millions, – which number Texas will reach in less than
ten years.”

This projection was slightly optimistic. The 1850 census recorded 154,034 whites, 397 free Negroes, and 58,161 slaves. The state would not reach the four million mark until the twentieth century.

Texans with their oil of petre, and Yankees with their pamacity, felt a natural competitiveness that spilled over into other industries. The Western Farmer again:

“A “Down-Easter,” it is said, recently told a citizen of the “Lone Star Republic,” that nothing could beat the corn in Connecticut. The Texan said he knew nothing of the crops in that section, but in his country the corn-stalks bore seven or eight large ears, and a gourd on top with seven quarts of shelled corn in it! The Yankee took his hat and marveled.”

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