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Viscous Visions: Non-petroleum Oils and the Making of 19th-Century North America

Thu, March 30, 3:30 to 5:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Michigan

Session Submission Type: Panel


Modern North America would not have emerged or developed without ample supplies of oil. While environmental historians have scrutinized the extraction and consumption of petroleum, privileging this one type of oil snubs the remarkable array of plant and animal oils that have saturated modern life. This panel challenges us to think more broadly about the role and meaning of oil in North American environmental history. Each of the papers advances our understanding of non-petroleum oils by situating their production and consumption within wider agricultural, industrial, and ecological networks. Doing this not only narrates the material transformation of different biota into oil commodities, it also unveils connections―-between Pacific whaling and Atlantic industry; between agricultural diversification and human health; and between environmental knowledge and global capitalism-―across space and time.

First, Jeremy Zallen explores the harvest and transport of whale oil during the early 1800s. Using a journal from a lengthy voyage, Zallen reveals how the demand for light and lubrication in Atlantic cities shaped the nature of life and labor in the Pacific fishery. Framing work in these distant worlds as contests over energy opens new insights into the history of American whaling and industry.

Next, Brandon Luedtke investigates the emergence of the American castor oil industry in the mid-1800s. The growing of castorbean and the pressing of its seeds into oil excited farming and industrial communities across the present-day Midwest. Luedtke studies this enthusiasm, attempting to unravel whether the appetite for castor oil motivated agricultural diversification, or vice versa.

Finally, Joshua MacFadyen studies the production of linseed oil in the late 1800s. MacFadyen focuses on the role enterprise and state science played in the emergence of a global commodity network that efficiently and profitably extracted flax from the Northern Great Plains that became the linseed oil required to produce paint.

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