For centuries, the resinous products of pine trees— tar, pitch, rosin, and turpentine—were used to preserve and maintain wooden sailing vessels and cordage. As the world’s leading maritime power, Great Britain had a vital strategic interest in naval stores. The Royal Navy and British shipping interests had long recognized the potential of their American colonies—especially the Carolinas—to produce naval stores but preferred Scandinavian products to Carolinian, judging the latter “too green.” The remoteness from English markets discouraged the Carolina industry as well.
The Great Northern War (1700–1721) changed that. With the entire Baltic at war, Scandinavian products were unavailable to British shipping, and wartime demand drove prices of naval stores to record highs. To encourage a dependable supply of these strategic commodities, Parliament voted an impressive subsidy on American naval stores. Responding to government largesse, South Carolinians were soon reaping handsome profits from the humble yellow pine. By 1720 exports of naval stores had risen to more than forty thousand barrels per annum.
Gathering and processing the raw material was hard work. Workers cut gashes on tree trunks and attached wooden boxes to collect the sap. Later they scraped the wounds and dipped the sap into buckets. Ten thousand trees—about one hundred acres—were considered “a crop” for one man to attend. At a nearby turpentine camp, the “dip” and “scrape” were distilled into turpentine spirits. This method eventually killed the tree. In another method, highly resinous pine stumps and deadfall—called lightwood—were gathered from the forest. Several thousand pounds were slowly burned in an earthen kiln. The highly flammable resin flowed out and was barreled as tar. Boiling reduced the tar to pitch.
By the mid-1720s peace had returned to northern Europe and Parliament suspended the subsidy. The naval stores boom was over, but the industry persisted at a lower level. Naval stores were well suited to South Carolina not only because pine trees covered the state’s coastal plain, but also because labor demands were compatible with rice and cotton, and an otherwise idle workforce could be employed in winter. Consumer products such as camphene—a blend of turpentine and alcohol used in lamps—helped to stabilize the industry. Moreover, naval stores were in great demand during the golden age of sail, roughly 1840 to 1880. The federal blockade of southern ports during the Civil War brought the industry to a virtual standstill, but heightened demand during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) helped the industry recover. By 1880 the state was producing about one-third of the South’s naval stores, much of them from coastal counties such as Horry and Georgetown.
By the 1890s, however, the naval stores industry was declining in the Palmetto State. Advancements in naval architecture eroded demand for wood and cordage preservatives as shipbuilding evolved from timber to iron and from sail to steam. At the same time, petroleum products were replacing naval stores in industrial applications. For example, kerosene replaced camphene as a lighting source. Moreover, two centuries of exploitation had denuded the state’s great pine forests, and the industry left for Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. By the early twentieth century the South Carolina naval stores industry had run its course. The naval stores business has been succeeded by lumber and forest industries, which remain a vital part of South Carolina economy.
Clowse, Converse D. Economic Beginnings in Colonial South Carolina, 1670–1730. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971.
Hoover, Calvin B. Economic Resources and Policies of the South. New York: Macmillan, 1951.
Joyner, Charles W. “The Far Side of the Forest: Timber and Naval Stores in the Waccamaw Region.” Independent Republic Quarterly 18 (fall 1984): 13–17.
Perry, Percival. “The Naval-Stores Industry in the Old South, 1790–1860.” Journal of Southern History 34 (November 1968): 509–26.
Williams, Justin. “English Mercantilism and Carolina Naval Stores, 1705–1776.” Journal of Southern History 1 (May 1935): 169–85.