A brief overview of George Washington Carver’s life is insufficient to truly do justice to his contributions to society. Carver’s green thumb and fondness for plants led him to achieve greatness in the realms of agriculture, agronomy, botany, and chemistry alike. In honor of Black History Month, let’s look at some of his achievements in these areas.
Beginning in 1896, Carver spent a significant portion of his life at the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama where he showcased his talents as a teacher, crop aficionado, and fertilizer experimenter. Carver viewed the widespread popularity of cotton among Southern farmers as a problem, noting that the practice of repeatedly growing cotton and tobacco in the same soil depleted the nutrients in the soil. This erosion ultimately had grievous consequences for the finances of Black farmers. Recognizing this vicious cycle, Carver spent much of his time acquainting himself with natural fertilizers and techniques aimed at restoring nutrients to the soil, such as crop rotation. He promoted the cultivation of viable alternatives such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. Carver also equally favored other soil-enhancing crops such as soybeans. Biochemical engineering, or “chemurgy” as it was called in the past, is thought to have received wider acceptance following Carver’s rise to fame in the United States and abroad, a reputation based in part on his support for the production of non-cotton crops.
At Tuskegee, Carver worked on his goals for peanuts and compiled a list of over 300 ways in which they could be consumed — including peanut milk. Among his many ideas, peanut massage oil also gained prominence and was used by the likes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Not all of the ideas he had for using peanuts were original, but his efforts were helped along by the fact that the peanut was a well-established legume in the South by the time he championed its virtues and uses.
Sweet potatoes also appealed to Carver, since in his view they were one of the few crops that could be depended upon throughout the year. As a result, he came up with an array of sweet potato-based products ranging from vinegar and postage stamp glue to molasses and ink.
Carver created new uses for alternative crops, adapting formulas for products such as soaps, and cosmetics, including hairdressing pomade, lotions, and rubbing oils to include alternative crops. Additionally, Carver also created products such as greases from alternative crops and paints in which he used Alabama clay and earth for the variety of colors found within them. While Carver went on to invent several uses for these alternative crops, only a limited few acquired commercial success. He patented only three of his inventions under his company, Carver Products Company, once his academic workload reduced in the 1920s. U.S. Patent no. 1522176, for instance, was granted for cosmetics on January 6, 1925. In this patent, the product was described as a “pomade or vanishing cream made from peanuts,” which could be made to be any desired color, texture, thickness, or creaminess. Prior to the introduction of his patent in 1925, most pomades had been derived from animal fats and byproducts which could be hard on the environment. Carver’s use of peanuts was innovative and further supported his efforts to create farming practices that would yield better crops and benefit soil conservation. Unfortunately, while working on this patent, Carver worked alone in the lab and therefore few formulas and notes on his discoveries were left behind for future reference on his thought process.
Carver’s capabilities with soybeans and peanuts impressed the likes of Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, with whom he developed a close friendship. Ford respected Carver’s understanding of the limitations of petroleum and therefore also favored a shift to renewable resources.
The wheat shortage of 1918 prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture, located in Washington, D.C., to invite Carver over for a discussion pertaining to flour derived from dried sweet potatoes. The hope was to discuss the potential for mass-producing the wheat flour alternative. However, when the war came to a close, so did the wheat shortage. This, in turn, led to a decline in interest in its alternatives. Today though, in honor of his work and the innovative advances he made, the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service headquarters building located in Maryland is named after Carver.
Yet Carver’s green thumb and perspicacious nature allowed him to gain prominence beyond just peanuts and sweet potatoes. He was well versed with a variety of clays and extracted pigments from them in order to develop a number of house paints. U.S. patent no. 1,632,365 was awarded to Carver on June 14, 1927, and pertained to the “process of producing paints and stains.” Although his patents were limited, his endeavors to maximize the use of alternative crops, promote crop rotation, and focus on agricultural discoveries tremendously helped agricultural pursuits in the United States.
Soon after his death in 1943, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his childhood home a national museum. This was the first national monument that paid homage to an African American. In order to give him the honor he truly deserved, on January 5, 1946 – three years following Carver’s death – President Truman declared George Washington Carver Day to be in effect.
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