Which Peanut & Soybean Products Are Rightly Attributed to Carver?

Buzzkillers, it’s time to kill the peanut butter invention myth. This food is most commonly attributed to George Washington Carver. Let’s get out the butter knives, and figure out on which side of the sandwich lies truth and myth about Mr. Carver.

Near the end of Carver’s life, Time magazine called the scientist and inventor “the black Leonardo.” Born in 1860, Carver’s scientific and agricultural work was based on the strong belief that southern and midwestern farmers (many of them African-American sharecroppers after the Civil War) needed to broaden the number of plants they cultivated. Those farmers had relied on cotton as a cash crop. Washington thought this reliance would ultimately cause economic and nutrition problems for poor farmers and their families. While “biodiversity” is an environmental buzzword today, Carver was way ahead of his time.

Carver experimented with the potential uses of peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. Carver was smart enough to realize that growing these crops just for food would be too limiting. Farmers simply wouldn’t make enough money just from food. So he experimented tirelessly to find byproducts and other uses for these plants. His contributions were really very significant. This is just a short list of some the applications he found for the new crops he promoted: adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, cosmetics, dyes, fuel briquettes (a biofuel), ink, instant coffee, dyes, gasoline, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, nitroglycerin, paints, paper, plastics, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder and wood stain.

But, here’s the reveal, peanut butter wasn’t one of his inventions. Types of peanut butter had been cultivated in South America nearly 1000 years before. And modern peanut butter that we know and love today was developed and patented in 1884 by Marcellus Edson (not “Edison”), a Canadian chemist and pharmacist. J.H. Kellogg (yep, the Battle-Creek, Michigan, corn flake guy) improved upon Edson’s work in 1895 and make peanut butter popular.

It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to gauge the impact of Carver’s attempts to diversify crop production, and to what degree it improved farmers’ lives and prospects. But agriculture certainly did diversify and the south never went back to cotton monoculture.

So, while it may not make sense to send up a cheer for George Washington Carver when we break open a peanut butter jar, there’s so much more to thank him for–as if mayonnaise weren’t enough!

George Washington Carver

“GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER – ONE OF AMERICA’S GREAT SCIENTISTS” by Charles Henry Alston, 1907-1977, Artist. Image via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.