Although George Washington Carver was responsible for the creation of more than 300 items derived from the peanut plant, he is most commonly known for one of these products that he did not originate: peanut butter. It is common practice to give the agricultural scientist credit for “discovering” something that has previously existed.
However, given that his life story coincides perfectly with the growth of peanut butter as a culinary favorite in the first decades of the 20th century, it is fitting that he serves as a symbol for this uniquely American delicacy.
Carver helped farmers find alternate uses for popular crops
Carver was born into slavery in Missouri near the close of the Civil War. Even at a young age, he shown a natural desire for learning and a delicate touch for plant life. Carver was eventually accepted to Iowa’s Simpson College and then the school that would later become Iowa State University. At Iowa State University, he earned his master’s degree in agriculture in 1896. Carver had been rejected from one college, which had accepted him before realizing he was Black.
When he wasn’t burdened down with more prosaic chores like actually teaching, Carver labored to create sustainable farming practices while he was the director of the agricultural department at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Carver encouraged Southern farmers to develop other crops that revitalized the soil, such as cowpeas, beans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, at a time when cotton planting had been going on for generations and the boll weevil had invaded the region. This had led to the devastation of Southern farms by the early 1900s.
One of his earliest acknowledged accomplishments was the creation of the Jesup Wagon, which was a school on wheels that began making trips to underprivileged farmers in outlying areas in the year 1906. Carver also aimed to provide growers with additional motivation by conceiving alternate uses for the crops he advocated for, manufacturing a variety of things that included medications, lotions, and soap. This was part of Carver’s effort to come up with alternative uses for the commodities.
John Harvey Kellogg filed a patent for peanut butter in 1895
In the meantime, by the middle of the 1890s, the product that was said to have been invented by Carver had already made its way onto dining room tables. As physician John Harvey Kellogg, who filed its first patent, or snack food entrepreneur George A. Bayle, whose creation bears a stronger resemblance to today’s ubiquitous spread, can be given credit for the invention of peanut butter, as detailed in Jon Krampner’s Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food. According to Krampner’s book, the credit for the invention of peanut butter can either be given to either of these individuals
After making a splash at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, peanut butter soon began to be sold in grocery stores under the names of national companies such as Beech-Nut and Heinz. According to Creamy & Crunchy, peanut butter production reached 158 million pounds in 1919, which was about five times the amount produced in 1907. This statistic was nearly five times higher than in 1907.
Carver didn’t get the nickname ‘Peanut Man’ until after World War I
Carver’s publication in 1916 of “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption” marked the beginning of his relationship with the legume, but it wasn’t until after the war that he became known as the “Peanut Man.”
In 1920, the United Peanut Association of America, which was attempting to obtain a protective tariff against international competition, requested George Washington Carver to share his discoveries with the organization. After that, he represented the UPAA in front of the House Ways and Means Committee in the beginning of 1921. He was able to win over a hostile audience with his unmistakable passion for the peanut dyes, milk, powders, and other items that were laid out on the table.
Carver became a well-known figure and the UPAA were successful in obtaining their tariff as a direct result of his presentation.
Despite not inventing peanut butter, Carver still created hundreds of peanut products, many of which he did not patent
After some time, he became increasingly well-known for advocating the use of massages performed with peanut oil as a treatment for polio. Reportedly, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was among those who lauded the efficacy of this treatment. Before he passed away in 1943, the agricultural scientist developed hundreds of different peanut goods, the majority of which were novelty things that might have been manufactured with other ingredients more readily.
It was helpful that while he was still living, his life story was already being recounted in mythological terms. Carver was referred to as the “Columbus of the Soil” in an article published in 1921 in Success Magazine, which is cited in Creamy & Crunchy. And despite all of Carver’s fame, it is difficult to identify the specific inventions that he made because he applied for very few patents and refused to publish the majority of his research.
Even though he didn’t come up with the idea for peanut butter, George Washington Carver deserves praise for the attention and assistance he brought to the peanut industry while it was still expanding. This is especially noteworthy given that it occurred during a time when the contributions of African Americans were frequently ignored.
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