- Historic Sites
George Washington Carver And The Peanut
New Light on a Much-Loved Myth
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Professional historians and other academics, often scornful of popular writers, were not immune to the myth. In A History of the South , published in 1936, historian William B. Hesseltine assigned to Carver “leading rank as an industrial scientist” for his many discoveries. A 1949 book from the University of North Carolina Press, Edward J. Dies’ Titans of the Soil , credited Carver with the establishment of major business enterprises. Historian Edgar A. Toppin’s 1971 Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528 held that “George Washington Carver freed the South from dependence on cotton by developing hundreds of uses’for peanuts and sweet potatoes.” The current Encyclopedia Americana and to a lesser extent the Britannica reflect the myth in their Carver entries.
Despite their assertions of his scientific wizardry and profound influence on agriculture and industry, most popular accounts have treated Carver’s professional accomplishments superficially. The man himself—careless of money, devout, humble—was the main attraction.
“He combines all the picturesque quaintness of the antebellum type of darkey, the mind of an amazing scientific genius, and the soul of a dreamer,” a 1923 article in the Atlanta Journal related. “And his career…is no less picturesque.” For those who found a black genius difficult to accept, the Journal offered an explanation: “Professor Carver’s nose, distinctly Arabic in type, hints of far-off ancestors who were possibly Egyptian, rather than African.…”
Much was made of Carver’s unconcern for wealth. Actually, he became involved in at least four commercial ventures, obtained two patents for pigments in addition to that for his peanut cosmetic, and granted over $60,000 to a foundation in his name at the close of his life. But his simple attire and habits and the limited nature and productivity of his ventures led most writers to ignore or deny his commercial activities. “He would permit no patents to be taken out on his discoveries, allow no commercialization of his name,” declared Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce on the fourth anniversary of his death.
Carver’s religious nature was another among his appealing qualities. A devout Christian, he led Bible classes at Tuskegee and spent much time in prayer. His attribution of his success to God made him a popular subject for inspirational books and tracts.
“His most notable characteristic, aside from the great mental capacity which marks him as a genius, is his deep humility,” the Montgomery Advertiser reported in a 1929 front-page feature titled “Negro Genius Shows ‘Way Out’ for Southern Farmers.” Carver’s physical appearance was nothing if not humble, an image he enhanced by his devotion to old, worn clothing. Biographers eagerly seized upon his stereotypical “uncle” aspect as a foil to his brilliance, as in Hermann Hagedorn’s depiction of “a stooped old colored man in a saggy alpaca coat shuffling through the dust of an Alabama road.”
The journalists and other popular writers who embroidered on the man and his deeds for a receptive public must receive primary credit for the Carver myth. They were abetted by manufacturers of peanut products, whom Carver served as a living “Mr. Peanut,” and by Tuskegee Institute, in need of another prominent human symbol after Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915. But the man himself played no small part in the outcome.
Carver’s role was less one of active deception than passive complicity. In his presentations he blurred the distinction between creative discovery of new chemical syntheses and the production of items already known or requiring no scientific originality. Nor did he attempt to correct erroneous claims by others about him and his work. At best, he issued seemingly modest protestations. “How I wish I could measure up to half of the fine things this article would have me be,” he wrote to one author.
While laymen lacked the knowledge to see through the legend, most of those better qualified to appraise Carver’s contributions lacked the desire. Responding to an inquiry about Carver’s work in 1937, an Agriculture Department official hedged: “Dr. Carver has without doubt done some very interesting things—things that were new to some of the people with whom he was associated, but a great many of them, if I am correctly informed, were not new to other people.…I am unable to determine just what profitable application has been made of any of his so-called discoveries. I am writing this to you confidentially and without an opportunity to make further investigation and would not wish to be quoted on the subject.”