Petroleum paraffin soon found its way from refinery to candles, crayons, chewing gum…and an unusual candy.
When Ralphie Parker and his 4th-grade classmates dejectedly hand over their Wax Fangs to Mrs. Shields in “A Christmas Story,” a generation may be reminded of what a penny used to buy at the local Woolworth’s store.
But there is far more to these paraffin playthings than a penny’s worth of fun. Paraffin, a byproduct of petroleum distillation, quickly found its way from refinery to marketplace in the form of candles, sealing waxes – and peculiar American candies.
It’s hard to recall a time when there were no Wax Lips, Wax Moustaches, or Wax Fangs for kids to smuggle into classrooms. Many grownups may remember the peculiar disintegrating flavor of Wax Lips from bygone Halloweens and birthday parties, but few know where these enduring icons of American culture actually started. The answer is in America’s oilfields.
The August 1859 birth of the U.S. oil industry brought kerosene to illuminate America, an early and popular petroleum products “This flood of American petroleum poured in upon us by millions of gallons, and giving light at a fifth of the cost of the cheapest candle,” wrote British chandler James Wilson in 1879. Kerosene lanterns soon replaced candles for illumination and the much-reduced candle business turned from tallow to a versatile byproduct of petroleum distillation – paraffin.After collecting samples from Pennsylvania oilfields, Robert Chesebrough invented a method for turning paraffin into a balm he called “petroleum jelly,” later “Vaseline.” Chesebrough himself consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day and lived to be 96 years old. His product also led to a modern cosmetic giant (learn more in A Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes)
Meanwhile, paraffin quickly found its way from refinery to marketplace in candles, sealing waxes – and even chewing gums. Ninety percent of all candles by 1900 used paraffin as the new century brought a host of novel uses. Thomas Edison’s popular new phonographs also needed paraffin for their wax cylinders.
Crayons were introduced by the Binney & Smith Company in 1903 and were instantly successful. Alice Binney came up with the name by combining the French word for chalk, craie, with an English adjective meaning oily, oleaginous: Crayola (see Carbon Black and Oilfield Crayons).
An inspired Buffalo, New York, confectioner soon used fully refined, food-grade paraffin and a sense of humor to find a niche in America’s imagination.
When John W. Glenn introduced children to paraffin “penny chewing gum novelties,” his business boomed. By 1923, his J.W. Glenn Company employed 100 people, including 18 traveling sales representatives.
Later, Glenn Confections became the wax candy division of Franklin Gurley’s nearby W.&F. Manufacturing Company. There, the ancestors of Wax Lips chattered profitably down the production line. Among the most popular of these novelties at the time were Wax Horse Teeth (said to taste like wintergreen). By 1939, Gurley was producing a popular series of holiday candles for the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company using paraffin from a nearby refinery at Olean, New York – once home to the world’s largest crude oil storage site. A field of metal tanks, some holding 20,000 gallons of paraffin, stood next to Gurley’s W.&F. Manufacturing Company in Buffalo.
Decorative and scented paraffin candles soon became the company’s principal products, accounting for 98 percent of W.&F. Manufacturing sales. Gurley’s “Tavern Candle” Santas, reindeer, elves and other colorful Christmas favorites today are prized by collectors on eBay, as are his elaborately molded Halloween candles. As W.&F.’s wax candy division, Glenn Confections, has continued to manufacture Fun Gum Sugar Lips, Wax Fangs, and Nik-L-Nips.
In Emlenton, Pennsylvania, a few miles south of Oil City, the Emlenton Refining Company (and later the Quaker State Oil Refining Company) provided the fully refined, food-grade paraffin for these bizarre but beloved treats.
Retired Quaker State employee Barney Lewis remembers selling Emlenton paraffin to W.&F. Manufacturing. During a 2005 interview he noted, “It was always fun going to the plant…they were very secret about how they did stuff, but you always got a sample to bring home,” adding, “Wax Lips, Nik-L-Nips…the little Coke bottle-shaped wax, filled with colored syrup.”
Today, Concord Confections, a small part of Tootsie-Roll Industries, continues to produce Wax Lips and other paraffin candies for new generations of schoolchildren. The petroleum industry produces an astonishing range of products for modern consumers, but few are as unique, peculiar, or revered as Wax Lips.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Oleaginous History of Wax Lips.” Author: AOGHS.ORG Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/an-oleaginous-history-of-wax-lips. Last Updated: December 22,2019. Original Published Date: December 1, 2006.
American mobility would soon depend on a petroleum product from the bottom of the distillation process.
Pennsylvania Avenue was first paved bitumen imported from Trinidad bitumen in 1876. Thirty-one years later, a better asphalt derived from petroleum distillation was used to repave the famed pathway to the Capitol, above.
President Ulysses S. Grant directed that Pennsylvania Avenue be paved with Trinidad asphalt. By 1876, the president’s paving project covered about 54,000 square yards, according to A Century of Progress: The History of Hot Mix Asphalt, published in 1992 by National Asphalt Pavement Association.
“Brooms, lutes, squeegees and tampers were used in what was a highly labor intensive process. Only after the asphalt was dumped, spread, and smoothed by hand did the relatively sophisticated horse-drawn roller, and later the steam roller, move in to complete the job.” (more…)
General Motors scientists discovered amazing anti-knock properties of tetraethyl lead gasoline in 1921.
By early 1923, many American motorists would be driving into service stations nationwide and say, “Fill ‘er up with Ethyl.”
General Motors chemists Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles F. Kettering.
In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” resulted from the out-of-sequence detonation of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder. The constant shock added to exhaust valve wear and frequently damaged engines.
After five years of lab work to find an additive to eliminate pre-ignition “knock” problems of gasoline, General Motors researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discovered the anti-knock properties of tetraethyl lead.
Their early experiments had examined the properties of knock suppressors such as bromine, iodine and tin – and compare these to new additives such as arsenic, sulfur, silicon and lead.
Halth concerns resulted in the phase-out of tetraethyl lead beginning in 1976.
On December 9, 1921, when the two chemists synthesized tetraethyl lead and tried it in their one-cylinder laboratory engine, the knocking abruptly disappeared and fuel economy improved. “Ethyl” vastly improved gasoline performance.
Although being diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand, the lead additive yielded gasoline without the loud, power-robbing knock. With GM scientists watching, the first car tank filled with leaded gas took place on February 2, 1923, at the Refiners Oil Company service station in Dayton, Ohio.
In the beginning, GM provided Refiners Oil Company and other service stations special equipment, simple bolt on adapters called “Ethylizers” to meter the proper proportion of the new additive.
“By the middle of this summer you will be able to purchase at approximately 30,000 filling stations in various parts of the country, a fluid that will double the efficiency of your automobile, eliminate the troublesome motor knock, and give you 100 percent greater mileage,” Popular Science Monthly reported in 1924.
“Ethyl” gasoline goes for the first time at this Dayton, Ohio, gas station. In foreground pump, GM’s bolt-on “Ethylizer” is visible, running vertically alongside the visible reservoir. Photo courtesy Kettering/GMI Alumni Foundation.
Anti-knock gasoline containing a tetraethyl lead compound also proved vital for aviation engines during World War II, even as danger from the lead content increasingly became apparent.
Powering Allied Victory in World War II
Aviation fuel technology was still in its infancy in the 1930s. The properties of tetraethyl lead proved vital to the Allies during World War II.
Phillips Petroleum produced tetraethyl leaded aviation fuels from high-quality oil found in Osage County, Oklahoma, oilfields.
Advances in aviation fuel increased power and efficiency, resulting in the production of 100-octane aviation gasoline shortly before the war.
Phillips Petroleum – today’s ConocoPhillips – was involved early in aviation fuel research and had already provided high gravity gasoline for some of the first mail-carrying airplanes after World War I.
Phillips Petroleum produced aviation fuels before it produced automotive fuels. The company’s gasoline came from the high-quality oil produced during the Osage County oil boom, which began in 1917.
Although today still an ingredient of 100 octane “avgas” for piston-engine aircraft, tetraethyl’s danger to public health was underestimated for decades.
Tetraethyl lead’s Deadly Side
Leaded gasoline was extremely dangerous from the beginning, according Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer.
“G.M. and Standard Oil had formed a joint company to manufacture leaded gasoline, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation,” she noted in a January 2013 article. Research focused solely on improving the formula, not on the danger of the lead additive.
A 1932 magazine ad promoted wildly improved high-compression engine performance.
“The companies disliked and frankly avoided the lead issue,” Blum wrote in “Looney Gas and Lead Poisoning: A Short, Sad History” at Wire.com. “They’d deliberately left the word out of their new company name to avoid its negative image.”
In 1924, dozens were sickened and five employees of the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, died after they handled the new gasoline additive. By May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, Blum reported, and an investigative task force was formed. Researchers concluded there was ”no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers were well protected during the manufacturing process.
So great was the additive’s potential to improve engine performance, the author notes, by 1926 the federal government approved continued production and sale of leaded gasoline. “It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive,” Blum added.
By the early 1950s, American geochemist Clair Patterson discovered the toxicity of tetraethyl lead; phase-out of its use in gasoline began in 1976 and was completed by 1986. In 1996, EPA Administrator Carol Browner declared, “The elimination of lead from gasoline is one of the great environmental achievements of all time.”
Citation Information – Article Title: “Ethyl Anti-Knock Gas.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/tetraethyl-lead-gasoline. Last Updated: December 7, 2019. Original Published Date: December 7, 2014.
John D. Rockefeller scientists would patent a process they invented called thermal cracking.
Beginning in the 1890s, the Whiting refinery of Standard Oil Company of Indiana first produced kerosene for lamps and later gasoline for autos to meet growing consumer demand.
In 2013, BP completed a multi-year, multi-billion dollar modernization project at the Whiting refinery. Photo courtesy Hydrocarbon Processing magazine.
Seventeen miles east of Chicago, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey began construction on a massive refinery complex in May 1889.
Using advanced refining processes introduced by John D. Rockefeller, it will become the largest in the United States. Today, the 1,400-acre complex is owned by BP.
About one month after construction of the then 235-acre refinery began, Rockefeller established a locally based subsidiary by incorporating Standard Oil Company of Indiana on June 18, 1889. The new company began processing oil at its Whiting refinery within a year. The Indiana refinery processed a sulfurous “sour crude” from the Lima, Ohio, oilfields – transported on Rockefeller controlled railroads.
More Americans put out their tallow candles as lamps fueled with whale oil, lard, or camphene gave way to a new fuel, kerosene; the “rock oil” soon brought skyrocketing public demand (learn more in First American Oil Well). Rockefeller had earlier purchased considerable amounts of production from the Lima oilfield at bargain prices. Most experts in the new petroleum industry believed the thick oil virtually worthless. It could not be refined for a profit.
The Whiting refinery, using a newly patented method, efficiently processed Ohio sour oil into high-quality kerosene. Although gasoline was a minor by-product, two brothers in Massachusetts were building a gasoline-powered horseless carriage at about the time the refinery produced its first 125 railroad tank cars filled with kerosene. The automobile would soon arrive. See Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.
The Standard Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, became the company’s most productive. Now owned by BP, it remains the largest U.S. refinery. Whiting has been home to the Northwest Indiana Oilmen since 2012.
“By the mid-1890s, the Whiting plant had become the largest refinery in the United States, handling 36,000 barrels of oil per day and accounting for nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. refining capacity” notes historian Mark R. Wilson in the Encyclopedia of Chicago. Initially it consisted of just a single facility, adds a company history on the Amoco website. Crude oil was processed into products that people and business needed: axle grease for industrial machinery, paraffin wax for candles, kerosene for home lighting.
“The company grew. By the early 1900s it was the leading provider of kerosene and gasoline in the Midwest” notes the website. “Kerosene sales would eventually falter. But with car ownership booming across the United States, demand for gasoline would only go up and up.”
By 1910, the refinery is connected by pipeline to oilfields in Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as Ohio and Indiana. The Whiting facility employs 2,400 workers. In 1911, when Rockefeller is forced to break up his oil holdings, Standard of Indiana, with its main offices in downtown Chicago, emerges as an independent company.
Meanwhile, Rockefeller’s Whiting scientists have patented a process they invented called thermal cracking, notes the Amoco website. It doubled the amount of gasoline that could be made from a barrel of oil and also boosted the gasoline’s octane rating. The process, which became standard practice in the refining industry, helped avert a gasoline shortage during World War I. To find its own oil supplies, Standard Oil of Indiana soon began its own exploration and production business, Stanolind.
In 1922, Standard Oil absorbed the American Oil Company, founded in Baltimore in 1910, and began branding products as Amoco, which later would become its company name. By 1952, Amoco was ranked as the largest domestic oil company.
Building Midwest Refineries
During the second half of the twentieth century, the U.S. refining industry became more concentrated in Texas, Louisiana, and California. “The Chicago region became somewhat less important as an oil-processing center than it had been during the previous 60 years,” he concludes. “Still, the area remained home to some large refineries. The largest of these plants was the one at Whiting – the same facility that had brought refining to Chicago in 1890.”
Across the border from Indiana, three major Illinois refineries today also process oil in the Chicago area: the Citgo refinery in Lemont processes 167,000 barrels of oil a day; the Joliet refinery owned by ExxonMobil process 238,000 barrels a day; and the Robinson refinery of Marathon Petroleum Company processes 206,000 barrels a day.
A fourth refinery is in southern Illinois – and is almost as historic as Rockefeller’s Whiting plant. Constructed in 1918 – during WW I – the Wood River Refinery remains north of St. Louis on the bank of the Mississippi River. The refinery, owned in 2013 by ConocoPhillips, was the company’s largest. It processed 300,000 barrels of oil daily into more than nine million gallons of gasoline/fuel and 42,000 barrels of asphalt during peak season. It also boasted its own museum.
“The Wood River Refinery History Museumis located in front of the Conoco-Phillips Refinery on Highway 111 in Wood River, Illinois,” the museum notes on its website. “There are four buildings in our complex, so to see most of our collection, plan on spending some time.”
Whiting fielded a baseball team in 2012. The Northwest Indiana Oilmen is one of eight teams in the Midwest Collegiate League, a pre-minor league. To learn more about other petroleum history related baseball teams, see Oilfields of Dreams.
By 1982, Standard of Indiana refineries produce 1.2 million barrels of gasoline daily and serve 18,000 domestic gasoline retail outlets. Standard’s two largest refineries are located in Whiting and Texas City, Texas. Standard Oil of Indiana officially became Amoco Corporation in 1985 and merged with British Petroleum (now BP) in 1998. It was the world’s largest industrial merger at the time.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Standard Oil Whiting Refinery.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/standard-oil-whiting-refinery/. Last Updated: October 28, 2019. Original Published Date: June 15, 2013.
A popular but dangerous mixture was replaced by a less volatile future rocket fuel.
In the early 19th century, lamp designs burned many different fuels, including rapeseed oil, lard, and whale oil rendered from whale blubber (and the more expensive spermaceti from the head of sperm whales), but most Americans could only afford light emitted by animal-fat, tallow candles.
By 1850, the U.S. Patent Office recorded almost 250 different patents for all manner of lamps, wicks, burners, and fuels to meet growing consumer demand for illumination. At the time, most Americans still lived in almost complete darkness when the sun went down.
Before kerosene, two-wicked “burning fluid” lamps were popular but dangerous sources of light.
In the years leading to the Civil War, the most popular lamp fuel by far was the “burning fluid” called camphene, a dangerous mixture of turpentine, alcohol, and camphor oil extracted from the wood of camphor trees. It was inexpensive but volatile; camphene lamps could explode.
In 1835, Henry Porter of Bangor, Maine, patented his camphene mixture and opened a business to sell it in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. The concoction combined one part turpentine with four parts alcohol, and a small amount of camphor for aroma.
“Porter’s Burning Fluid” became a popular lamp fuel. It burned bright and smelled good, but was dangerous, according to the Boston Mattapan Register, which reported that house fires and injuries were common. The newspaper noted on September 10, 1859:
There are different kinds of lamps and of lamp oil, adapted to different tastes and circumstances; and there is one at least, most abominable invention under the name of Camphene Oil, or Burning Fluid, which were better denominated a Swift and Ready Means of Destruction for Private Families; for this designation would convey a true idea of its nature and effects.
Despite the risks, consumer demand for camphene grew. By 1856, Rufus H. Spalding had taken over Henry Porter’s Boston business as the “Sole Manufacturer of Porter’s Patent Composition.”
Circa 1855 advertisements for camphene manufacturer Rufus H. Spalding also promoted “Portable and Steady Lamps of every description.”
Spalding offered many ornamental lighting devices, including girandoles and candelabra, along with lanterns and lamps for all kinds of fuels. Spalding’s downtown Tremont Row offices and “manufactory” on Adams Street supplied camphene to Boston’s expanding population.
The cost of whale oil ranged from $1.30 a gallon to $2.50 a gallon (about $35.70 a gallon to $68.70 a gallon in 2017 dollars). Lard oil was about 90 cents a gallon. More popular was the manufactured “coal oil,” a fuel refined from coal that cost about 50 cents a gallon, but it was sooty and yielded a low quality light.
Rock oil had been patented in 1854 by a Canadian physician and geologist, Abraham Gesner, who named his lamp fuel kerosene. Most people called it coal oil. A factory in Long Island, New York, soon began producing and selling Gesner’s new product.
In larger cities, public street gaslights had already been burning a “manufactured gas” made by distilling tar and wood. Baltimore, Maryland, had lit the first U.S. public gas street lamp in 1817 during a ceremony a block from city hall. In 1836, the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works operated a “gasification” plant that manufactured illuminating gaslight from refined coal that was piped to 46 street lamps.
But for cheap, bright household lighting, many Americans still bought a two-wick lamp fueled with camphene. The unusual lamps had burners with long wick tubes set at angles to burn separately, a design many believed helped lower the risk of an explosion. Metal caps were placed over the tubes to extinguish the flames (considered safer than blowing them out).
Alcohol used in camphene was an important mainstay for distilleries, with many selling 30 percent to 80 percent of their output to the lamp fuel market. Taverns aside, by 1860 distilleries were delivering at least 90 million gallons of alcohol per year to the lighting industry.
Camphene’s production and distribution systems were well established and, with whale oil becoming increasingly expensive, the future of camphene looked bright, despite explosions. Then on August 27, 1859, Edwin L. Drake drilled America’s first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Investors in “Drake’s Folly,” including George Bissell of the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, had learned from a Yale professor that oil could be refined into kerosene.
Simple distillation of crude oil yielded kerosene that sold for about 50 cents a gallon, about the same price as camphene. Pennsylvania refineries sprang up to produce kerosene made from oil, many using basic “tea kettle” stills with 40 gallons to 4,000 gallons per day capacity. As inexpensive oil-based kerosene began overwhelming makers of camphene (and coal oil) at the start of the Civil, a tax on alcohol extinguished the camphene lighting business.
To help fund the Union Army, the Internal Revenue Act imposed a $2.08 per gallon tax on alcohol between 1862 and 1864. Intended as an excise tax on beverage alcohol only, the law did not specifically exempt industrial uses, including camphene, which was about 75 percent high-proof alcohol. Camphene, once favored, was soon forgotten in American households (Congress repealed the alcohol tax in 1906).
Today the home of an oil museum and park, the Drake well yielded hundreds of gallons of high-quality crude oil. Each gallon could be distilled into about three quarts of lamp fuel. The new product became interchangeably known as rock oil, coal oil, carbon oil, or kerosene (the 19th century product is still used as rocket fuel).
An ad seeking agents to sell Aladdin brand of kerosene lamps, circa 1900.
Following Drake’s 1859 historic discovery, Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh was his first customer – and the first person in the United States to refine oil for a lamp fuel. He sold his higher quality “Carbon Oil” at $1.50 per gallon.
After a drilling slowdown during the Civil War, the first oil boom towns appeared in northwestern Pennsylvania. Barges began moving 42-gallon oil barrels down Oil Creek to the Allegheny River and on to newly build refineries in Pittsburgh. Thousands of wooden derricks appeared, many with two-wicked oilfield lanterns called yellow dogs fueled with crude oil.
Within a few years, kerosene lamps illuminated almost every American home. Many new exploration, production, and transportation industries prospered thanks to kerosene. Then, beginning in the 1880s, kerosene suddenly became obsolete as a new technology entered the marketplace.
Thomas Edison’s electric lights steadily began to replace kerosene lamps. Almost as quickly as kerosene had extinguished camphene 20 years before, electric lighting dimmed kerosene’s future as consumers switched on electric lights. The loss of its principal product could have doomed America’s young petroleum industry.
Then, another radical invention became incredibly popular with consumers, not for lighting, but for transportation. “Horseless carriages” with internal combustion engines fuel by a petroleum product provided a new opportunity for the oil business (see Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show). With diminishing demand for kerosene, demand for gasoline transformed America’s oil exploration, production, and transportation companies.
The need for a formerly discarded by-product of kerosene distillation came at an especially good time for Texas wildcatters. In 1901, the giant Spindletop Hill oilfield was discovered near Beaumont. The modern petroleum age had arrived.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Camphene to Kerosene Lamps.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/camphene-to-kerosene-lamps. Last Updated: January 6, 2020. Original Published Date: April 29, 2017.
Prior to the Civil War, the most popular lamp fuel in the country was a “burning fluid” called camphene, a volatile combination of turpentine and alcohol with camphor oil added for aroma. Until replaced by kerosene and its much safer lamps, two-wicked camphene lamps provided a cheap, bright light. The fuel’s explosive nature required a double burner, according to Ron Miller, a self-taught tinsmith and “hands-on historian.” He became so fascinated by America’s early illuminating lamps that recreated them.
Jim Miller’s 19th century lamp tin recreations, left to right: a whale oil burner; an 1842 patented lard oil burner; a “Betty Lamp” fueled by fat; and a typical camphene two-wicked lamp.
“This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in early America,” explained Miller in his 2012 For the love of History blog. “Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.”
The key to learning about early to mid-19th century oil lamps was to study their burners, Miller noted, adding that “each type of fuel needed a specific style of burner to give the best light.”
Although most of the fuels have become obsolete, Miller “wanted to faithfully replicate the burners, in order to understand how they evolved,” he said, adding, “For the time being, substitute fuels would have to do.”
Miller fashioned tin into period lamp designs, including one fueled by fat – a “Betty Lamp” that “has an ancestry extending clear back to the Romans but had been improved on over time.” He also recreated a whale oil lamp, circa 1850, and a patented lard oil burner of 1842 (the lard needed to be warmed, to improve its fluidity).
After completing his first three tin lamp reproductions, the amateur tinsmith tackled the two-wicked camphene lamp. According to Miller, lamps fueled by camphene needed the two tapered, tubed burners angled out from each other to dissipate heat of the flames.
“These tubes never extend down past the mounting plate and never have slots for wick adjustment. Apparently, any heat added to the fuel caused an accumulation of gases and the possibility of an explosion,” he noted. Most surviving original burners have little covers to snuff out the flame and keep the fuel from evaporating.
“The style of lamp I chose to replicate is sometimes called a petticoat lamp by collectors for the flared shape of the base. Camphene lamps are often mislabeled as Whale Oil lamps but the difference is obvious once you know your burners,” Miller concluded about his replica. “In case you wondered, my lamp burns modern lamp oil as I don’t need to kill myself in the pursuit of history,” the tinsmith added.