Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Secret Shame of the Turpentine Industry

By Michelle Shocklee

I love research! Not only do I learn many fascinating and cool facts about my subject, I usually take numerous rabbit trails and learn all sorts of things I hadn't anticipated. Such is the case with the new historical novel I'm working on. While researching life in America after the stock market crash of 1929, I discovered the existence of Turpentine Camps in the south during the 1930s. I'd never heard of these camps nor did I know manufacturing turpentine was a booming industry that used slave labor prior to the Civil War and forced labor afterward.

To understand the importance of turpentine products and why these camps existed, we have to go back in history.

In 1720, when America was still under British rule, the English Parliament enacted a bounty to encourage colonists to engage in the industry of "naval stores" -- products made from the sap of trees, including turpentine. These products were used in building and maintaining wooden sailing ships: Tar kept ropes and sail rigging from decaying, and rosin, or pitch, was used to caulk the seams between timbers in the ships' hulls. For this reason, turpentine products were called "naval stores." Naval stores would have been used on nearly everything we see in this picture of a British Man-of-War. In order to meet the high demand for naval stores, Parliament looked to the colonies rather than rely on Russia, the only other country producing large quantities of naval stores. By the 1770s, the production of naval stores was widespread in Eastern North Carolina where forests of longleaf pine existed. 

Turpentine also had medicinal uses that date back to the Romans who used it to treat depression. Naval surgeons during the Age of Discovery injected hot turpentine into wounds, medics used it to try and stop heavy bleeding, and Colonists used it as a laxative. Snake Oil peddlers claimed concoctions that contained turpentine could cure many ailments, including rheumatism, whooping cough, and croup. Today, turpentine, or the spirits of turpentine, is still listed as an ingredient in good ol' Vick's VapoRub. During the 19th century,  a blend of ethanol and turpentine called camphine served as the dominant lamp fuel until the arrival of kerosene.

As you can see, turpentine products were in high demand for many reasons. In order to create these highly-sought naval stores, resin from trees--specifically longleaf pine--is collected and distilled. The work was dangerous and difficult. First, Chevron-shaped gashes were carved into pine trees. Next, metal sleeves were inserted, and pots and barrels were put into place to catch the sap when it ran from early spring through October. Slave labor--men, women, and children--was used to harvest the sap until slavery was abolished after the Civil War.

Starting in the 1870s, turpentine stills dotted the piney woods of northwest Florida. Camps of employees grew up around the turpentine processing sites. The still and population became known as “Turpentine camps.” These camps, located in the forests, were isolated, away from town or city life. Many of these camps developed a culture of their own. Sadly, the camps became known for their terrible working conditions and abuses. The owner and the commissary store was the power base in the camp. It was not uncommon for workers to become virtual slaves – unable to pay their debt at the commissary and required to work until their debt was paid. The worst abuses in these camps occurred during the 1930s. The Great Depression left few alternatives for the poor. They quickly became absorbed into the endless cycle of work and debt. Workers were rarely paid in cash. Sometimes bosses used alcohol as a reward for extra work, contributing to occasional lawlessness and violence in the camps. Some Southern turpentine camps included stockades. Others, especially in Florida throughout the 1800s, were known to lease convicts for turpentining as part of their penal system.

The Convict Leasing System lasted in Florida from 1875 to 1923.
Although convict leasing was eventually outlawed, another legislative act, in 1919, authorized turpentine operators to hold non-convict workers for debt. Under this law an operator recruited black workers, and the company provided them transportation to the work site, placing them in debt for that service. The workers' annual bill for grits, pork, calico, and shoes always added up to more than his wages. The system, ensuring as it did that the blacks would never be out of debt, made quitting almost impossible. By the mid-1900s the industry started its decline due, in part, to the advent of steel ships and the development of synthetic chemicals.

I don't think I'll ever look at a can of turpentine the same after learning all this history, much of it sad and unsavory. Not only were many people taken advantage of during the height of the turpentine industry, but vast forests of trees were forever mutilated and destroyed.

Your turn. Have you heard of turpentine camps? Do you use turpentine and for what purpose? I'm curious now that I know so much about it!

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of thirty-two years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. Never knew anything about the origins of turpentine. I know it as a paint thinner or solvent. Thanks for sharing your rabbit trail!

  2. Thanks, Connie! I do love those rabbit trails!! =D

  3. Wow, how interesting! Thank you so much for sharing all this info. , and I also know that turpentine can be used as a paint thinner. Your book "The Widow of Rose Hill" sounds intriguing and like a real page turner! I Love the cover also. God Bless you. I really enjoyed this interview, I learned so much.

  4. Alicia, I'm glad you found the post interesting! And thank you so much for the kind words about my book. If you decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it! It can be read as a stand-alone book, but if you're interested, the first book in the series is The Planter's Daughter. Both are set on the same Texas cotton plantation but in different years (1859 & 1865) with different heroines. Blessings to you!!