Bayou-Diversity (26 April 2020) Until the middle of the 20th century few people in the South escaped an occasional medicinal dosing of a chemical derived by intentionally injuring native pine trees. The chemical was turpentine and its uses were legion. Turpentine was derived from the resinous gums of pines, most often longleaf pine, also known as pitch pine, wherever it occurred. This resin contains the volatile hydrocarbon terpene. Turpentining involved chopping v-shaped notches into living trees and collecting resin that flowed from the wounds in boxes below. The cuts are called “catfaces” for their resemblance to a cat’s whiskers and the scars can still be seen today on some old trees in Kisatchie National Forest. Using copper stills not unlike those used in moonshine production, the resin was distilled through evaporation to yield turpentine and rosin.
Even though some turpentine was manufactured by individuals for home use, most involved large commercial enterprises. One of the largest operations in Louisiana was located near DeRidder and was comprised of three distilleries that averaged a weekly production of 150 barrels of turpentine, employing more than 250 workers. In this effort collection boxes were placed on 505,000 trees.
The uses of turpentine were almost limitless in number and creativity. Medicinally, it was used as a stimulant, diuretic, antiseptic, and laxative, often mixed with coal oil or kerosene. At various times turpentine was used in the treatment of worm infestations, epilepsy, tetanus, diabetes, yellow fever, typhus, tuberculosis, rheumatism, toothache, dysentery, and puncture wounds. Civil War surgeons during the heat of naval battles injected hot turpentine directly into wounds and coated stumps resulting from amputations with it. The treatment of many horse and mule ailments also involved turpentine. If COVID-19 had been around then, turpentine no doubt would have been considered a treatment option.
Aside from medicine, turpentine was used in making soap, candles, lighting oil, furniture polish, and rodent repellents. Today turpentine is still used as a solvent to thin oil-based paints but has largely been replaced by cheaper substitutes derived from crude oil. ©KO