Dr. Otto’s Amazing Oil
By Barbara Jennings, Fall 2010

Bottles of Cottonseed Oil
National Cottonseed Products Association
Cottonseed oil has become a widely-used product for many functions.

Click on most pictures in this story to see a larger version.

Who thought up the first hot dog? How is high fructose corn syrup made from corn? What is Crisco® made from? When it comes to their food, many people are satisfied just to know that delicious food products end at the kitchen table with little to no effort. Few stop to wonder how some food products came into existence. However, most foods have an interesting and surprising history. Take Crisco® for instance. We know it as that white stuff grandma uses to make her flaky pie crusts from, but what is it really? Crisco®, as the name implies to some, is actually crystallized cottonseed oil. Like many other products, Crisco® is just one outcome of the cottonseed oil’s rich history.

Cotton crops dominated the South during the late 18th and 19th centuries; therefore, it is natural to think that cottonseed oil got its start in a Southern state such as Mississippi, South Carolina, or Georgia. However, the birth of cottonseed oil began in the humble town of Bethlehem, Northampton County. Even with a climate too harsh to grow the tender cotton crops, a Pennsylvania man envisioned such a revolutionary product. Dr. William Otto, a Moravian of Bethlehem, is given credit for producing the first cottonseed oil ever made in the United States in 1768.

Dr. Otto, an influential citizen in Bethlehem, was a man of many talents. According to A History of the Rise, Progress, and Present Condition of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies at Bethlehem, Pa, a traveling Dr. John Schopf attests to Dr. Otto’s many responsibilities: “In latter I found an agreeable and amiable gentle man. He is an ardent lover of botany, but his pastoral duties leave him little leisure for the prosecution of science. Dr. Otto attends the community in a three-fold capacity of physician, surgeon, and apothecary.” Dr. Otto was the town’s medical expert and owned one of the oldest establishments: the pharmacy. In a remote town with fewer than a 1,000 citizens, Dr. Otto had the responsibility of providing medicine using local resources.

Diagram of a cotton seed
D.A. Tompkins, Cotton and Cotton Oil, 1901
This diagram shows the bits of oil in the cottonseed as little black dots. The seeds must be crushed to extract the oil.

Dr. Otto experimented with cottonseed oil for medicinal, in addition to botanical, purposes. In a letter to his friend Dr. Thomas Bond, vice president of the American Philosophical Society in 1768, Dr. Otto commented on the medicinal uses of cottonseed oil, “This is the oil of cotton seed, made in the same manner as [linseed oil], one bushel and a half of which yield nine pints of oil, and I have been informed it is successfully used in the West-Indies, for the colic.” Dr. Otto’s motive to make cottonseed oil was to treat his own patients of colic, a common condition that causes newborns cry for excessive periods of time. Little did Dr. Otto know at that time that unrefined cottonseed oil contained a toxic substance known as gossypol, which can only be digested by cows and other specific livestock. Gossypol is the compound in cottonseed oil that gives crude cottonseed oil its distinct gold color.

Although never specifically stated, Dr. Otto must have carried out his experiments in the community Bethlehem oil mill since his pharmacy was located only 350 feet from the mill. Also in his letter to Dr. Bond, Dr. Otto remarks that his oil samples were made in the similar fashion to linseed oil. Linseed oil, made from flaxseeds, was the main output of the oil mill. Since it was too far north for cotton, it is hypothesized that Dr. Otto obtained his cottonseeds from fellow Moravians who had settled at Salem, North Carolina.

To make Dr. Otto’s samples of cottonseed oil, the oil mill operator first cleaned the cottonseeds of any fine cotton lint. Then the seeds were placed in a large mortar bowl where the stamping mortar crushed and cracked open the outer husk of the seed. This process helped to slightly remove the outer husks and expose the seed to release oil during pressing.

The operator then roasted the oily meal on a large round iron pan to further aid in the release of oil. It was thought that heating would cause the oil-containing cells in the seed to rupture increase the oil yield. The roasted seeds were placed in woolen bags and wrapped in leather-blackened horsehair mats.

Cotton Boll
Alan Jalowitz
Inside the cotton boll lie the seeds.

Finally, the mats were placed between two vertical heated iron plates in a press that consisted of wooden wedges. Wedges were placed between the iron plates to exert horizontal pressure on the mats. The stamper struck the pressing wedge pointing downwards 40-60 times while the cottonseed oil trickled down into collector pans underneath. The first cottonseed oil ever produced was a viscous oily liquid with a dark gold color.

An innovator of his time, Dr. Otto experimented with cottonseed oil nearly 23 years prior to the invention of the cotton gin. On September 20, 1768, Dr. Bond presented Dr. Otto’s cottonseed oil samples and letter to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. The following is an excerpt of the minutes recorded at that meeting in Philadelphia:

Specimens of Sunflower seed oil; and Cotton seed oil, with an account of them in a letter from Dr. Otto, were presented by Dr. Bond. Thanks were ordered to the gentlemen ‘for their friendly communications,’ [Letters] were referred to the Medical Committee to be published under their Direction, without loss of time . . . that people may be induced before the Season is too far advanced to collect the seeds and make some quantities of the Oil.

This marked the start of a revolution for the American oil industry. The American Philosophical Society recognized that cottonseed oil was an important discovery for the nation’s medical community. The Society, however, could never have predicted that those small samples of cottonseed oil would spark a multi-million dollar industry.

Although cottonseed oil was first produced in Bethlehem, PA, the history of cottonseed oil extends to the rest of the nation. Throughout the late 1700s, the interest in cottonseed oil was reserved merely for research, rather than marketable, purposes. In 1799, Charles Whiting of Massachusetts obtained the first patent for the process of extracting oil from cottonseeds. Additional experiments were conducted unsuccessfully in the south, and hoped seemed lost for most plantation owners to earn a profit from cottonseeds. Sir William Dunbar, a plantation owner from Natchez, Mississippi, wanted to make practical use of his profitless cottonseeds by purchasing a cotton screw press from Philadelphia in 1801. “I shall endeavor to indemnify myself for the cost [of the cotton screw press] by making cotton-seed oil. It will probably be of a grade between drying and fat oil, resembling linseed in color and tenacity, but less drying. Where,” he asked, “can a market be found for such an oil?” It was obvious that Dunbar had little faith that cottonseed oil could ever be of practical use to anyone.

Cotton seeds
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Before cottonseed oil can be made, the lint must be removed and the seeds themselves crushed.

It wasn’t until 1829 that the first practical step to manufacture cottonseed oil was made by Francis Follet of Petersburg, Virginia. Follet had obtained a patent and constructed the first specific cottonseed oil mill in the United States. According to The Rise of the American Cottonseed Oil Industry, “The machinery for working the cottonseed would probably rank in the cotton industry second only to Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin.” Plantation owners couldn’t agree more and were thrilled to learn that the cottonseeds, which were previously rotting in gin houses or illegally dumped into rivers, could possibly provide an additional source of revenue. The first cottonseed oil commercially produced was used primarily as fuel in lamps to replace whale-oil and as a lubricant for machinery.

By the mid-1800s, cottonseed oil production was increasing. After the Civil War, cotton acreage had expanded significantly, resulting in an increase in cottonseed oil production. The U.S. recognized the progress of the cottonseed industry and began to include cottonseed oil mills in the annual U.S. census in 1860. By 1870, the cottonseed oil cake was finding its way into the fertilizer industry. In addition, refined cottonseed oil was being exported to European countries by the tons. The early refined cottonseed oil was light in flavor and slightly yellow, which was perfect for the dilution of expensive olive oil. The adulteration was undetectable, but eventually led to tariffs on the outgoing U.S. cottonseed oil and all exports to Italy were discontinued. The development of food grade cottonseed oil was slow at the start of cottonseed oil production, but picked up in speed and vigor.

By the late 1880s, the domestic demand for cottonseed oil increased when the price of lard became high. Initially, meat packers secretly were adding cottonseed oil to lard. This process was discovered when a slaughter and meatpacking company, Armour and Co., realized that they had been receiving deliveries of more lard than the existing hog population could have produced. The adulterations of lard lead to a Congressional investigation, which resulted in the mandatory use of the term “lard compound.”

Worker Unloading Cottonseed
Russell Lee, Library of Congress
Workers unloading cotton was a scene familiar throughout the South.

According to Richard O’Brian, author of Fats and Oils: Formulating and Processing for Applications, “Major improvements in oil processing had to take place before substantial quantities of cottonseed oil could replace lard as the preferred fat for backing and frying.” The tan colored liquid oil had to be bleached white, hydrogenated for a lard-like feel, and deodorized to remove any flavor. The cottonseed producers introduced this new product as shortening rather than a lard-substitute, which was a crucial move for the oil industry. Consumers welcomed the idea of using cottonseed oil shortening for their biscuits, to fry their chicken, or season their iron skillets. By 1911, Procter and Gamble commercially produced the first all-vegetable cottonseed oil shortening known as Crisco®, still the leading household shortening in the United States to this day.

Cottonseed oil was the principal oil in the United States until the mid-twentieth century. After World War II, cotton crop shortages and increased demand for edible oils resulted in soybean oil dominating the vegetable oil market. Recently, however, the demand for cottonseed oil has improved. “Cottonseed oil has been a good substitute to go into formulas that allows products to be labeled trans-fat free. We will be taking advantage of the continuing trend of food manufacturers to produce trans-fat free foods.” said the 2008 National Cottonseed Products Association executive vice president Ben Morgan. With the recent push to provide trans-fat free foods, cottonseed oil is considered to be a premium ingredient since it is trans-fatty-acid free. Today, over 940 million pounds of cottonseed oil production is produced annually.

Although the development of cottonseed oil was slow, the process of producing a clear, odorless, blandly flavored cottonseed oil set the standard for edible fats and oils globally. Starting with Dr. Otto in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the process of producing cottonseed oil has become the cornerstone of the edible fats and oil industry. Cottonseed oil is known as America’s first vegetable oil and will continue to be in demand by food processors and consumers worldwide.

The Center would like to thank the National Cottonseed Products Association for its assistance illustrating this article.

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