Oil Field Engine News

Rock Oil, Petroleum Butter and the First Oil Well

| November/December 2003

  • # Picture 01

  • Edwin Drake (right) in front of his well
    Edwin Drake (right) in front of his well in 1861.
  • Label from a bottle of 'Kier's Rock Oil
    Label from a bottle of 'Kier's Rock Oil.' The '400' was a reference to the claimed depth of Kier's well.

  • # Picture 01
  • Edwin Drake (right) in front of his well
  • Label from a bottle of 'Kier's Rock Oil

The 1850s witnessed a great deal of development in the fledgling petroleum industry. During the first 50 years of the 1800s, many new discoveries and methods for using petroleum products were introduced to a sometimes-skeptical public. One of the more creative secondary petroleum marketers had to be Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh.

Kier's Rock Oil

A canal boat operator, salt merchant and pharmacist, Kier was drilling for salt water in 1849 when he hit oil. But instead of water, which would evaporate and leave a profitable residue of agricultural salt, Kier was stuck with some black gooey stuff. Not to be thwarted, he set up a distillery and refined the crude into a lamp oil he sold as 'carbon' oil. The secondary use Kier found for the Pennsylvania oil was marketing it as a patent medicine, and his techniques put the serpent in 'snake oil.'

He called it 'Kier's Rock Oil' and advertised it with a pamphlet that promoted the product as a miracle cure for almost every malady known to man. The bottle sported a label similar to a bank note, a common form of currency at the time. It was no coincidence the label bore a striking resemblance to a $400 bill drawn on the First National Bank of Chicago, since Kier wanted it to be eye catching. On the label there was actually more fact than fiction about the discovery of the 'rock oil,' but the pamphlet was pure fabrication.

Kier also introduced another fantastic cure-all he called 'petroleum butter,' which had the consistency and properties of axle grease.

The oil and grease, on top of the sales of 'carbon oil,' made Kier a wealthy man, and his good fortune did not go unnoticed. While he was making his fortune, however, other events continued independent of Kier's activities.

Oil Creek

In 1853 Francis Beattie Brewer took a bottle of crude oil collected from an oil seep on the land of the Brewer, Watson and Co. lumber mill near Titusville, Pa., to Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., to have it analyzed. George Bissell, a Dartmouth graduate, saw the bottle at the office of a Dr. Crosby at Dartmouth and was immediately interested in the product's commercial potential. Bissell, a junior partner in the law office of Jonathan Eveleth, confered with Eveleth and in 1854 Bissell and Eveleth bought the oil spring along with 100 acres of the Brewer, Watson and Co. farm in the area known as Oil Creek.


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