- Historic Sites
George Washington Carver And The Peanut
New Light on a Much-Loved Myth
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
In these appearances Carver was publicizing peanut values and product possibilities already known if not universally appreciated. An 1896 bulletin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Peanuts: Culture and Uses , had discussed the legume’s worth in restoring nitrogen to the soil, its nutritional excellence, and the uses of peanuts and peanut oil in candies, soapmaking, flour, soups, salad dressing, muffins, cattle feed, griddlecakes, and other products and processes. The Agriculture Department had issued another comprehensive bulletin on peanuts in 1909, and its 1917 Yearbook had promoted the crop as a wartime substitute.
Carver did not explicitly claim that he had personally discovered all the peanut attributes and uses he cited, but he said nothing to prevent his audiences from drawing the inference. “I have just begun with the peanut,” he told the House committee. Thereafter he displayed an ever-growing quantity of peanut products at exhibits and personal appearances throughout much of the country and wrote about such intriguing new discoveries as “peanut nitroglycerine” in the Peanut Journal , issued by the Southwestern and Southeastern Peanut Associations.
When pressed for an accounting of his peanut products in 1937, Carver balked. “There are more than 300 of them,” he wrote. “I do not attempt to keep a list, as a list today would not be the same tomorrow, if I am allowed to work on that particular product. To keep a list would also give the Institute a great deal of trouble, as people would write wanting to know why one list differs from another. For this reason we have stopped sending out lists.”
After his death the Carver Museum, which he had helped create at Tuskegee, credited him with developing 287 peanut commodities. One hundred twenty-three were foods and beverages, 68 were paints or dyes, and the rest were livestock foods, cosmetics, medicinal preparations, and miscellaneous uncategorized items. The catalog was inflated by much near duplication: among the individual entries were bar candy, chocolate-coated peanuts, and peanut chocolate fudge; all-purpose cream, face cream, face lotion, and hand cream; thirty cloth dyes, nineteen leather dyes, and seventeen wood stains. Many items were clearly not original with Carver—even “salted peanuts” was on the list (though peanut butter was not). Nor could the efficacy of every preparation, such as a “face bleach and tan remover,” be taken for granted. Since Carver left no formulas for these products other than a single patented peanut cosmetic, later investigators were unable to evaluate or confirm his production of many of them.
Along with the peanut Carver championed the sweet potato, a nutritional complement also well suited to Southern soils. Man could live by the peanut and sweet potato alone, he asserted, for together they constituted a balanced ration. Again he publicized the crop’s potential in quantitative terms. “The sweet potato products number 107 up to date,” he told the congressional committee during his peanut presentation. “I have not finished working with them yet.”
Working almost entirely alone, Carver was uncommunicative about his laboratory procedures. A visiting chemist from nearby Auburn University found that he evaded all questions about how his products were made. G. Lake Imes recalled as “enigmatic” his replies to inquisitive visitors to his laboratory. Robert L. Vann, a black journalist, asked him if he had recorded the formulas for his many discoveries. “To my amazement,” Vann reported, “Dr. Carver looked at me and smiled and said, ‘I have all of these formulas, but I have not written them down yet.’”
What explanation of his scientific achievements Carver did offer was not calculated to satisfy other scientists. Speaking in 1924 at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York, he declared that he never used books in his work and depended on divine revelation for his product ideas and methods. In later addresses he often repeated his laboratory conversations with “Mr. Creator,” who told him what to do.
Although he was often acclaimed for the widespread practical application and influence of his work in agriculture and industry, Carver avoided discussing specifics here as well. In reality, neither peanuts nor sweet potatoes were employed significantly in any new application Carver discovered or suggested. Peanuts continued to go almost entirely into confections and baked goods, peanut butter, and oils. Because most of the nonstandard products created by Carver could be made more easily from other substances, they were essentially curiosities.
Nor did Carver play a significant role in converting Southern farmlands from cotton to peanuts. Despite his widely publicized efforts to promote peanut production and consumption, the greatest increase in the crop preceded his identification with it.