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Made in Appalachia: Beyond Cabins, Crafts, and Coal

A virtual exhibit featuring Artifacts and their stories that explore Appalachian material culture beyond its stereotypical inclusions.

Appalachia is ground zero for American synthetic materials

Appalachia is well known as a source of natural products like wood, coal, and oil, but these resources are also the raw materials for many synthetics. The occurrence of all these resources in one place, along with water, workers, and cheap energy, helped put Appalachia at the heart of the development and manufacture of many chemicals, plastics, polymers, and other synthetic products. Below is a sampler of the stories.

It Started With Salt

Salt was one of the first chemical products of Appalachia and is a basic ingredients of many chemical products now produced. It is primarily extracted by drilling saline wells and extracting salt water from below the ground.  The water is boiled away in saline furnaces to leave crystalline salt behind.

Native peoples and early European settlers made use of natural salt along the Kanawha River. In 1797 Elisha Brooks built the first salt furnace, boiling brine from springs to make 150 bushels of salt a day. In 1808 David Ruffner drilled the first well to obtain brine. It worked so well that others followed and by 1815, fifty-two salt furnaces made up the “Kanawha Salines.” The industry peaked in 1846 at 3.2 million bushels of salt, primarily produced using slave labor. An 1861 flood, the Civil War, and the discovery of large salt deposits in the West caused the industry to decline, and by the late 1800s only one company remained.


Left: Salt furnace  Right: Slave dipping salt
Saltville, Virginia, ca. 1860s
Prior to the Civil War such furnaces typically operated using slave labor.
Image from Harper's Weekly, January 14, 1865

Anti-Freeze and the West Virginia Chemical Industry


[Accession 2013.22.1]
Right: Prestone Anti-Freeze Can (ca. 1930),
Left: Prestone Advertisement 1935

In the early 1900s the combination of oil, coal, salt, railroads, rivers, and workers drew the attention of early chemical manufacturers to the Kanawha River Valley in West Virginia. World War I helped create a market, and chemistry research offered a means, to use these resources to make a whole new array of chemical products. Many of the chemicals and plastics abundant in our lives are connected to this place, either directly made there, made from chemicals made there, or made with the results of the research done there. The chemical industry’s connection to West Virginia is multifaceted.  It has provided jobs and economic benefits, but it also leaves a legacy of health problems and environmental damage.

Ethylene glycol anti-freeze was the first petrochemical produced on a large scale.  Petrochemicals are chemicals derived from oil and gas. In 1920 the National Carbon Company set up a plant in Clendenin, West Virginia.  Ethylene Glycol is also used in manufacturing dynamite.

National Carbon Company, Washington Factory, in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where Prestone® anti-freeze was first made.
Postcard published by Curt Teich & Co as A-45880, ca. 1930.

From Camera Film to Fibers to Plastics: Tennessee Eastman Corporation

[Accession 2011.17.1]
Kodak Verichrome® Photgraphic Film (1937)
Emulsion and plastic base made by Tennessee Eastman Corp., Kingsport, Tennessee

In the 1890s Eastman Kodak Company helped to get America hooked on photography. Back then cameras used film, a thin layer of chemicals on glass, paper, or metal. These chemicals mostly came from Europe.  Kodak was the number one manufacturer of cameras and photographic film during most of the 20th century.  One of its most important products was safety film, a film that was not highly flammable, made of cellulose acetate.  During World War I, Eastman couldn’t get the chemicals it needed, so it decided to build its own chemical factory in Kingsport, Tennessee, where coal, water, and wood were abundant. In 1920, the Tennessee Eastman factory opened to make the components of safety film.  Final assembly into film happened in New York. 

At first Tennessee Eastman only made chemicals. Later, the factory also produced the acetate plastic strips for film. Acetate plastic turned out to be useful for others products too. The plastic was named Tenite® for Tennessee and was made into many things. Other plastics and products followed.  By the mid-1950s the Tennessee Eastman factories made more plastic than camera film.

[Accession 2013.16.1]
Tenite® Plastic Salt & Pepper Picnic Set (1930s)
Raw plastic resin made by Tennessee Eastman Corp., Kingsport, Tennessee

Tenite® acetate plastic is one of a series of synthetic materials developed at Tennessee Eastman’s R&D lab.  Originally developed as base for photographic film, Eastman made it into a general purpose plastic in 1932. Raw plastic beads were sold to other companies who made them into many different products, like this picnic set.

Kodel® polyester is one of a series of synthetic materials developed at Tennessee Eastman’s R&D lab. It was created in 1958 and the first large scale fiber production plant was built in 1960. Polyester became a very popular clothing fiber in the 1970s but its popularity waned in the mid-1980s.

[Accession 2013.15.1]
Child’s Dress of Kodel® Polyester (1960s)
Fibers made by Tennessee Eastman Corp., Kingsport, Tennessee.

A small portion of the Tennessee Eastman industrial complex in Kingsport, Tennessee, 2011
Photograph by Susan Carver Williams © 2011 used by permission

Appalachian Acetate for the Stylish Woman


Left: [Accession 2013.14.1] Suzette “Snip-It Slip” (1946) of cellulose acetate fibers
made at the Celanese® factory in Cumberland, Maryland.
Right: Snip-It Slip advertisement from Vogue, 1946

During World War I, cellulose acetate cloth was proposed as a replacement for expensive silk on airplane wings. A factory was planned but, fearing Zeppelin airship attacks on the coast, planners located it far inland in Cumberland, Maryland. The war ended before the factory was completed in 1924, so it was converted to civilian use.  The American Cellulose and Chemical Manufacturing Company was the first cellulose acetate factory in the U.S., but no one knew what acetate cloth was good for.

The Celanese acetate fiber factory, along the Potomic River, in Cumberland, Maryland, ca. 1935
Postcard published by Marken & Bielfeld, Inc, Frederick, Md. No. 7A-H370

Unable to get clothing distributors to take interest, the company worked directly with East Coast department stores to establish acetate as stylish fabric for high-end women’s clothing and underwear. In 1927 the company changed its name to Celanese.® That is how 1920s flapper fashion came to include a healthy dose of Appalachian-made acetate.

A storefront display for Celanese acetate clothing, Anderson Department Store, St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, ca. 1930
Image courtesy Elgin County Archives, Ontario, Canada, Scott Studio Collection, B # 504 N # 97217