January 2, 1853
Before seed oils entered the market as food, the world used whale blubber to light lamps and fry donuts, but as its availability declined, new machines requiring lubrication were demanding more oil, preferably from cheaper plants than animal fats, than ever.
The Origins of Industrial Oils
Before vegetable oils were considered a food, let alone one of the most consumed foods in the world, the whaling industry played a critical role in supplying oils on a global scale. As the New York Times puts it:
“From the 1700s through the mid-1800s, oil extracted from the blubber of whales and boiled in giant pots gave light to America and much of the Western world[...] Whaling was the fifth-largest industry in the United States; in 1853 alone, 8,000 whales were slaughtered for whale oil shipped to light lamps around the world, plus sundry other parts used in hoop skirts, perfume, lubricants and candles.” [*]
Whale oil wasn’t used to feed the world; rather it was used to light it up, along with many other industrial applications. Interestingly, American sailors often indulged in large batches of doughnuts fried in whale oil [*].
By the mid-1800s, whale oil had fallen out of favor due to both declining whale populations and the rise of cheaper, innovative sources of lamp fuel like camphine and kerosene [*].
During this era, a surge of innovation shifted industries towards cheaper sources of energy like coal, electricity, and petroleum that could power factories and steam engines as well as heat and light people’s homes.
Industrial methods of mass production began transforming every aspect of our lives, from the clothes we wore to the foods we ate to the way we traveled. Instead of handmade goods, machines took center stage.
Machines, however, require lubrication, and oils and fats were commonly used as machine lubricants (among many other applications). Whale oil may have been out of the picture, but the demand for cheap sources of oil was only growing.
The mass production of consumer goods was also taking flight during this era, many of which, such as candles and soap, contained fats and oils.
Traditionally, soap and candles were made with lard and other animal fats, but producers were suddenly under pressure to embrace other sources of fat, or to stop making candles entirely, for at least three reasons:
Electricity and other sources of energy were set to largely replace candles.
Animal fats were a relatively expensive input.
The purity and cleanliness of animal fats were under scrutiny from the public and prominent journalist Upton Sinclair, known for exposing the appalling conditions of the meatpacking industry in the early 1900s [*].
As a result, producers sought innovative ways to replace animal fats and reduce the costs of producing various goods.