Before the advent of modern boats, wooden ships made up the navies of our world. Naval stores – pitch, tar, turpentine, and rosin – were used to caulk seams, preserve ropes, and maintain the seaworthiness of wooden ships. Naval stores also found many other uses prior to the modern petrochemical era.
USDA Forest Service emeritus scientist James Barnett authored a General Technical Report about this key forest product called Naval stores: A history of an early industry created from the South’s forests. The report tells that even with a global decline in the use of sailing ships, these naval stores remain in demand on the international stage.
As early as 1700, naval stores were a major export from southern forests. As the demand for these products rose, the process of collecting them resulted in tree mortality and southern pine decline – including longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) – throughout the region.
Early research on naval stores took place at the Southern Forest Experiment Station, created in 1921 and headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana. One of the first scientists hired by the station was Lenthall Wyman, who was assigned to work on naval stores extraction techniques in the woods.
Efforts at the station’s Olustee research center focused on improving the efficiency of turpentining operations. By 1949, although forest management in some areas of the South continued to be dominated by naval stores, tree mortality was greatly reduced as Wyman revolutionized the industry.
Despite their historic prominence, naval stores are all but forgotten forest products. Barnett’s report paints the picture of a remarkable industry that helped support the South’s economy for centuries.