“A new trade winner for grocers and general merchants;” or, How William Hood & Company of Toronto, Ontario, became a pretext to dwell upon the mysteries of... castor oil

A typical advertisement of the Toronto, Ontario, firm William Hood & Company. Anon., “William Hood & Company.” The Canadian Grocer & General Storekeeper, 27 May 1892, 9.

As yours truly gazed across the abyss that is the World Wide Web, an ad caught my eye. I will admit it had never occurred to me refer to castor oil as delicious. Mind you, I must also admit I never had the (dis)pleasure to actually taste that fluid.

As I searched and searched ceaselessly, for a good 90 seconds and a half, for information on William Hood & Company of Toronto, Ontario, a thought gradually formed into my mind. Why not use that firm as pretext to talk (type?) about castor oil? That agricultural product was / is, after all, used in industry and, at one time, in aeroplanes. In one fell swoop, I could link our incomparable blog / bulletin / thingee to the terrific trio of national museums which makes up a certain group of Canadian national museums whose name is, err… What is that name again?

Vivarium, Vibranium, Uranium, Unobtainium, Transformium, Supermanium, Smithsonium, Presidium, Planetarium, Imaginarium, Hotelcalifornium, Gymnasium, Equilibrium, Dilithium, Consortium, Condominium, Aluminium, Adamantium? Err, never mind.

Ingenium, you say (type?), my ever-useful reading friend? Much obliged.

The trio of museums, all of them located in Ottawa, Ontario, say I, consists of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and, of course (Titanic triumphant music and chorus!), the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Before I forget, the magazine from which the above illustration was taken, The Canadian Grocer & General Storekeeper, was founded in 1887. Its founders, brothers, were John Bayne Maclean and Hugh Cameron Maclean. And yes, those Macleans.

Maclean Publishing Company Limited became, under the leadership of John Bayne Maclean, a Canadian communications giant known as Maclean-Hunter Publishing Company Limited, Maclean-Hunter Limited and Maclean Hunter Limited. A giant which published Chatelaine and Maclean’s for many years, but I digress.

Now that we have a pretext, my reading friend, let us sally forth with a question. No, not what is castor oil? Our first query must deal with the pretext of the current text, namely William Hood & Company. As was said (typed?) above, yours truly searched and searched ceaselessly, for a good 90 seconds and a half, for information on that firm. From the looks of it, it was an importer and manufacturer of spices, mustards and coffees.

Oddly enough, in 1892, the year which saw the publication of the advertisement at the beginning of this article, a William Hood of Toronto was secretary-treasurer of a Toronto coffee and spice milling firm, Coffee & Spice Milling Company, a firm owned by a Toronto soap making firm, Dalton Brothers Limited.

Is there more, you ask? Not much, say I. So, what is castor oil and why is it called castor oil anyway?

To make a long story short, castor oil is a vegetable oil obtained by pressing the seeds of the castor oil plant, or castor bean plant. And no, the seed of said plant is not really a bean, but I digress.

The castor oil plant was / is native to the eastern section of the basin of the Mediterranean Sea, the eastern section of Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. Calling that plant the castor oil or castor bean tree might not be a bad idea as it can reach heights of up to 12 metres (40 feet).

Incidentally, the castor oil plant is also known as the palm of Christ, because of the oil’s alleged ability to heal wounds and cure ailments.

Another name, a German one, wunderbaum or miracle tree, may or may not be appropriate as no one seems to be 100 % sure that the plant mentioned in the Book of Jonah was, in fact, a castor oil plant, and… Yes, that Jonah, the biblical one, the stubborn, ill-tempered and cantankerous curmudgeon who, according to the eponymous book, spent 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of an otherwise unidentified great fish – a sperm whale or sea serpent perhaps, according to certain groups.

As of 2022, the castor oil plant could be found throughout the tropical regions of our big blue marble. While most of these plants were in oil plantations, many of them simply grow wild. Indeed, where the climate suits its needs, the castor oil plant can become an invasive plant.

Would you believe that the castor oil plant was, and still is, quite popular as an ornamental plant? I hear (read?) that such plants might have been planted in the early years of the 20th century, in certain parks of Toronto, but back to our story.

Castor oil is an oily, dense and colourless or pale yellow / green liquid with a, err, distinct taste and odor. Fresh castor oil is said to have a slightly sweet taste, for example, while rancid castor oil has an acrid / bitter taste. Castor oil is extremely viscous and will not dry, even when only a thin film is put on a surface.

Castor oil was and is used in the manufacturing of a variety of products: waxes, soaps, polishes, plastics, perfumes, paints, nylon, lubricants, inks, hydraulic fluids, brake fluids, dyes, coatings, etc.

And yes, castor oil’s laxative capabilities have been known for quite sometime. The civilisations which flourished in the valleys of the Indus and Nile rivers, in what are now Pakistan and Egypt, knew all about them, and more, more than 3 500 years ago. Mind you, castor oil was also one of the many ingredients used by mummification teams of ancient Egypt.

Castor seeds were / are harvested 4 to 7 months after sowing. Around the time of the First World War, an average plantation owner could expect to harvest 1 500 to 2 000 kilogrammes of seeds per hectare (close to 1 350 to 1 800 pounds per acre). Pressing these seeds produced 500 to 1 000 kilogrammes of castor oil per hectare (close to 450 to 900 pounds per acre). An average plantation owner in India could count on 2 harvests each year.

Around the time of the First World War, India produced 100 to 110 000 metric tonnes (about 100 to 110 000 Imperial tons; about 110 to 120 000 American tons) of seeds per year. That British-dominated territory presumably produced more castor oil seeds than the rest of world combined.

Shipping the seeds all the way to the United Kingdom, or France, or the German Empire, was not a problem as the skin on the seeds was far from fragile. Better yet, the seeds could be stored for months, if not a few years, if a proper environment was available.

Getting said oil was not / is not necessarily an easy matter, however. You see, my reading friend, the castor oil plant is allergenic.

Mind you, the seeds of the castor oil plant also contain ricin, a highly potent toxin. Chewing and ingesting no more than 4 to 8 of these seeds can send an adult male Homo sapiens to kingdom come. The castor oil plant may well be the most dangerous commonly cultivated plant on planet Earth. And no, commercially available castor oil does not contain enough ricin to be dangerous.

And yes, some not too bright parents in Western Europe and North America got into the habit of force-feeding castor oil to their progeny when it misbehaved. As well, dastardly British and Belgian colonial officials in India and the Congo did use castor oil to punish unruly servants and workers. In Italy, during the interwar years, castor oil was commonly used by the squads human animals of the Partito Nazionale Fascista to intimidate and / or humiliate political opponents. The large quantities of castor oil ingested, combined with the savage beatings meted by those b*st*rds, proved fatal on more than one occasion.

Homo sapiens is a real piece of work, is he not?

A brief digression if I may. Castor oil is sometimes used by certain North American people obsessed by their lawn as it is said to repel voles and moles.

The process used to extract the ricin for the seeds of the castor oil plant is no easy matter, something for which we can all be grateful given the availability of the plant and the presence of total nutters in our midst. All in all, said process is somewhat similar to the one used to extract hydrogen cyanide from… bitter almonds, but back to ricin.

Would you believe that, in 1917-18, the United States Chemical Warfare Service seriously looked into the possibility of coating with ricin the bullets fired from rifles and machine guns, as well as the small metal spheres contained within anti-personnel artillery shells commonly known as shrapnel shells? That branch of the United States Army also seriously looked into the possibility of using clouds of ricin dust against German troops. The signing of the Armistice, in November 1918, seemingly brought those projects to a close.

During the Second World War, ricin was yet again looked into, this time as a filler for the bomblets carried within large bombs carried by aircraft. Scientists of the United States Chemical Warfare Service worked on these projects with scientists at Experimental Station Suffield, near Suffield, Alberta, a Canadian-British research facility operated by the Canadian Army. The field trials conducted at the time demonstrated that ricin was no more economical than phosgene, a chemical weapon widely used during the First World War, which may well have been readily available at the time.

In the end, only the Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun, in other words the army of the greater Japanese empire, used chemical weapons in combat, but not ricin mind you, somewhat discretely and only against Chinese soldiers and resistance fighters. And no, the Japanese government had no intention of using chemical weapons against British or American troops. It feared that any action in that regard would cause an immediate reaction on the part of the British and American governments – a well founded fear as it turned out.

Indeed, every major power had a strong feeling that every other major power was fully prepared to use chemical weapons in case of attack – another well founded fear as it turned out. As a result, no major power used chemical weapons against another major power during the Second World War. That non use was a pre-nuclear example of deterrence.

Would you believe that Canadian scientists based at Suffield Experimental Station / Defence Research Establishment Suffield, as the place was officially (re)named in 1950 and 1967, tested American chemical and biological weapons throughout the 1960s? Canada abjured the offensive uses of biological and chemical agents in the 1970s but research on how to defend against such weapons of mass destruction is still taking place. Do you feel safe, my reading friend?

Canada may not be the peaceable kingdom many people imagine it to be. One only needs to have a chat with folks who are not adult white male heterosexual Christian Homo sapiens with the “right” opinions to find all too often confirmation of that fact.

Did I mention that the dreaded Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, in the other words the committee for state security of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, developed assassination-type weapons whose killing agent was ricin? A Bulgarian writer and playwright who had left his country in 1969, Georgi Ivanov Markov, may have fallen victim to such a weapon in September 1978, in London, England, as a result of radio broadcasts in which he strongly denounced the negative impact of communism on his homeland.

Homo sapiens is a real piece of work, is he not?

Before I forget, it has been suggested that the use of the name castor oil came as a result of its use as a replacement for castoreum, an oily secretion exuded from a pair of small sacs near the tail of beavers that these large rodents use it to mark their territory. Castoreum was and may still be used, a bit, in perfumery. And no, beavers are not annoyed in any way, shape or form by today’s perfume makers. The castoreum they use is a more or less exact synthetic equivalent. In past centuries, however, perfume makers’ appetite for castoreum contribution to the extermination of the European / Eurasian beaver over much of its habitat.

And if you think that the beaver is one big rodent, yours truly has news for you. While some beavers can tip the scale at close to 30 kilogrammes (about 65 pounds), their extinct relative, the appropriately named giant beaver, could weigh up to 100 kilogrammes (about 220 pounds). Changes in the environment, in other words climate change, coupled with human predation, led to the extinction to that black bear-size critter 10 to 12 000 years ago. Pity. It would have been so cool to see in the flesh North American original like giant beavers, sabre tooth cats, mammoths, mastodons and ground sloths, not to mention camels, cheetahs and lions. Pity squared.

Incidentally, castoreum does not smell yucky. It smells like vanilla, which explains why perfume makers wanted the stuff in the first place. Even so, the aroma of castoreum has been described as intense, musky, pungent and strong, but back to possible origins of the word castoreum.

Indeed, another school of thought believed / believes that the name castor owed / owes its origin to a plant, a small tree actually, known as the vitex, monk’s pepper, chastetree, chasteberry, Abraham’s balm or, in Latin, Vitex agnus-castus, with which the castor oil plant was confused.

Speaking (typing?) of confusion, how are you doing, my reading friend?

And no, the castor oil plant had nothing to do with Kástôr, the twin half-brother of Poludeúkês. These characters from ancient Greek mythology had the same mother, queen Lếda and… No, not Leia, Lếda. This is not yet another boring Star Wars story, my reading friend. Focus. Anyway, Leia Organa was a princess, by adoption, not a queen.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Kástôr and Poludeúkês did not have the same father, however. Kástôr was the mortal son of Tundáreôs, a king of Lakedaímōn, in other words Sparta, while Poludeúkês was one of the many illegitimate / half mortal sons of Zeús, the sky and thunder god, and king of the gods.

Incidentally, Kástôr and Poludeúkês had 2 sisters, also a pair of twins. And yes, Klutaimếstra was the mortal daughter of Lếda and Tundáreôs while the other twin was one of the many illegitimate / half mortal daughters of Zeús. You may have heard of that demigoddess, actually. Does the name Helénē, in other words Helen of Troy, ring a bell?

And now for something completely different, part 1.

Did you know that a domesticated species of silkworm which fed / feeds mainly on castor oil plants has been producing silk, more precisely eri silk, in India, for centuries? The thread thus produced is strong, elastic and durable. It blends well with wools and cotton. The resulting clothing are warm in winter and cool in summer. Who knew? Now, you do.

And now for something completely different, part 2.

Did you know that castor oil was one of one of the first lubricants to be used in aeroplane engines? Well, it was. You see, it had certain advantages over mineral oils. The viscosity of castor oil did not change much as things got very hot indeed in the cylinders of said engines, for example. In other words, it did not thin out. As well, castor oil readily and happily adhered to the inner surfaces of said cylinders.

On the other hand, castor oil had some rather significant disadvantages. It was not exactly cheap and tended to deteriorate / decompose / acidify if stored for extended periods of time in less than perfect conditions. As well, mineral oils offered a very broad range of viscosities, a problem that selective breeding of new cultivars might perhaps alleviate in part. On top of that, castor oil formed gummy residues which clogged up the valves and other engine parts when it was subjected to heat for extended periods of time. Mind you, early 20th century mineral oils were also deemed by some / many to be problematic in that regard.

Still, both before and during the First World War, the general consensus seemed to be that castor oil was one of the best, if not, some might have said (typed?), the best lubricant for hardworking aeroplane engines. This was especially true in the case of a certain type of aeroplane engine. That type of engine was, you guessed it, the rotary engine.

You will of course, remember that, in a run-of-the-mill rotary engine, and the expression run-of-the-mill should probably be in quotation marks, there being little that is run-of-the-mill in a rotary engine, but I digress. Sorry. Let us start anew.

You will of course, remember that, in a run-of-the-mill rotary engine, the crankcase, cylinders, propeller and rods connecting the crankshaft to the pistons rotated one way while the crankshaft remained stationary.

The low solubility of castor oil in gasoline proved crucial in keeping rotary engines rotating. You see, given the way such engines were built, a lubrication system which circulated its oil was not really feasible. When gasoline and air got all mixed up inside the crankcase of a rotary engine, the castor oil got all mixed up with them. The rotation of said crankcase forced the mixture of gasoline, air and castor oil into the cylinders where it got compressed before being ignited and forced outside. And yes, you are quite right, my reading friend. The hot exhaust gases which came out of rotary engines contained hot and sticky castor oil.

And now you know why a number of First World War pilots carried a scarf. They did not do so in order to look dashing. They did so in order to clean their goggles – and protect their throat against the cold.

And you have a question, my reading friend. How nice. Shoot.

Did the castor oil ejected by rotary engines, err, affect the entrails of pilots of the aeroplanes powered by such engines, you ask?

A poop question? Seriously? Well, err, from the looks of it, and contrary to what I long thought, err, the laxative properties of castor oil may well have paled in comparison, err, with the voiding properties of the sheer terror experienced by pilots. Stories regarding the use of blackberry brandy to counteract the effects of castor oil should also be treated with caution.

What appears to be true, however, is that areas of aeroplanes over which the exhaust of a rotary engine flowed, the undersurface of the fuselage especially, soon became covered with droplets of castor oil. In turn, said droplets soon attracted plenty of dust and grime.

Having answered your question, with more or less success I will admit, yours truly has a question of his own. Do you know what Castrol was / is? A motor oil, you say (type?)? Very good. Actually, a well-known British oil firm by the name of C.C. Wakefield & Company Limited launched Castrol in 1910. As you may have guessed, that brand of motor oil consisted of a special grade of mineral oil to which a certain amount of very pure castor oil was added. And no, castor oil was seemingly not use in products sold by Castrol Limited, as this subsidiary of British oil and gas giant BP Public Limited Company was known in 2022.

By the way, C.C. Wakefield & Company was mentioned in February 2018 and January 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

As you may well imagine, the humble castor oil seed became a hot commodity during the First World War. The United Kingdom’s domination of India and the cooperation of the local populations meant that, barring natural disasters and the depredations of German submarines, its supply was safe. Indeed, the Indian plantations also sent sizeable quantities of castor seeds to France.

The French government, however, launched various initiatives aimed at increasing production where such production existed in its empire and initiating production where it did not. The weight of the castor oil crop produced by French colonies in Africa and Asia was thus multiplied by 4, if not more, between 1914 and 1917-18. Even so, that production paled in comparison to the weight of the seeds the French government had to buy abroad annually toward the end of the First World War:

- French empire: 4 000 to 4 500 metric tonnes (about 4 000 to 4 500 Imperial tons; about 4 400 to 4 950 American tons);

- Brazil: 8 000 to 10 000 metric tonnes (about 8 000 to 10 000 Imperial tons; about 8 800 to 11 000 American tons); and

- India: 20 000 to 25 000 metric tonnes (about 20 000 to 25 000 Imperial tons; about 22 000 to 27 500 American tons).

Worse still, the French government had to pay a lot more for each seed, 65 to 100 percent more in fact during the conflict than before it. And yes, France and the United Kingdom were indeed allies during the First World War.

The German government would have been thrilled to be so fortunate. You see, when the First World War began, in 1914, acquiring castor oil seeds from India became impossible. One did not sell stuff to an enemy back then, and one did not buy stuff from an enemy either. Things were not quite so clear cut in 2022, in regard to oil and natural gas for example, but I digress.

The German government could not buy castor oil seeds from Brazil either because, in August 1914, the Royal Navy had instituted a blockade which prevented merchant ships from delivering supplies useful to the German empire’s war effort. The list of said supplies included food items. The British blockade was in clear breach of international law, incidentally, but the United Kingdom’s presence among the victor nations at the end of the First World War meant that no action was taken against it.

As a result of that blockade, 425 000 or so German civilians, a lot of them children, died from hunger and malnutrition between the onset of the First World War and the signing of the November 1918 Armistice.

An unknown number of German civilians, a great many thousands perhaps, again a lot of them children, died from hunger and malnutrition between the signing of said Armistice and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, in late June 1919, a piece of paper which officially ended the First World War. And yes, for all intent and purposes, the United Kingdom and its allies maintained the blockade to force the German government to sign said treaty. Indeed, they seemingly maintained it until mid-July 1919.

Should one be surprised that, for years after the end of the First World War, a great many Germans, both female and male, did not like one bit the British and their allies, or the Treaty of Versailles for that matter? That dislike was put to good use by the leadership of the monstrous Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, but back to our story.

When its supplies of castor oil seeds ran out, quite possibly as early as 1915, the German war industry had to make do with substitute mineral oils, which proved problematic for the many combat aeroplanes of the air service of the Deutsches Heer, the Luftstreitkräfte, which were powered by rotary engines.

It is worth noting that castor oil was still used as an aeronautical lubricant, in Europe, until the mid-1930s, if not the start of the Second World War.

Now, if I may be permitted to paraphrase Shelbyville Abe, a character of a May 1995 episode of the famous American animated situation comedy The Simpsons, now, let us all celebrate with a cool glass of… castor oil milk. Yep, castor oil milk. You see, at some point before or after the First World War, some brilliant soul came up with the idea of producing a plant-based / synthetic milk consisting of water, castor oil and casein, a protein found in non synthetic / mammalian milk. The project seemingly fell through because castor oil milk proved too expensive. Yeah, right… Turnip juice anyone?


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Rénald Fortier