This is an excerpt from American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation by Eric Rutkow describing how important the timber industry was to the United States during the late nineteenth century.
One of the largest consumers of forest resources was the leather industry. Though this material had long been integral to American life, it gained new importance in the late nineteenth century. Factories relied on leather belts to turn their equipment; farmers and ranchers depended on leather harnesses and saddles; furniture featured leather as upscale upholstery; it was the main material of countless fashion articles. By 1910, the Central Leather Company was one of the ten largest businesses in the nation.
The key to making leather was a compound known as tannin (hence the term “leather tanner”). Heavy hides were soaked in tannin for twelve to fifteen months, yielding a finished product that was tough, flexible, and decay resistant. In the nineteenth century, the best source of tannin was tree bark, especially from black oaks and hemlocks, which grew abundantly in New York and Pennsylvania. The lumber industry had already opened up these forests to commerce by the 1840s but they had taken only the white pines. Leather producers, who required two and a half cords of bark to produce sufficient tannin for one hundred hides, soon began to strip these forests of the hemlocks that remained. At the industry’s peak around the turn of the century, hemlock was being cut on over a million acres annually.
The iron industry also owed a debt to the nation’s forests. While the majority of the metal came from coal-powered forges, a significant percentage depended on charcoal, a type of fuel formed by burning trees in an oxygen- deprived environment. Charcoal-forged iron, though not the most popular, had unique physical attributes that made it particularly well-suited for several industrial uses, most notably railroad wheels. Thus, the countless millions of wooden railroad cars produced in the nineteenth century were sitting above countless millions of wheels equally dependent on American trees.
The process of manufacturing charcoal also generated volatile chemicals. Initially, these were considered worthless, but they gained value as the nineteenth century progressed and scientists made advances in industrial chemistry. Most large charcoal furnaces started to include retort facilities that separated the chemicals into useful by-products including tar, methanol, acetone, and acetate of lime. For a number of years trees were producing more industrial chemicals than any other source.
Perhaps the most valuable tree-derived compound was the solvent turpentine. Its uses in the nineteenth century were countless: varnish; cleaning materials; naval stores; a thinner for oil-based paints; a cheap alternative to whale oil, the most popular source of lamp fuel. The turpentine industry flourished in the long-leaf pine forests that ranged across the South and had been providing the nation with naval stores since colonial times. Scraping trees for turpentine was dangerous work-the vapors harmed many major systems in the body, including the central nervous system; they were also flammable. Few free laborers wanted to risk the work, and in the years after the Civil War, the industry gained a reputation for using convict labor, a practice permitted in every southern state after 1876.