One of the earliest forms of black tinting material known to man was the charred bones of animals remaining in their early cooking fires. As far back as 2650 BC, bone char was used to paint the interior walls of Pernebís tomb in Egypt. During the 18th dynasty at Thebes, bone char was ground with a gum to create the first type of paints.
Through the ages, bone char found many diverse avenues for use. Hypocrites used bone char as a medicinal aid as a treatment of a multitude of ailments including epilepsy, anthrax, gangrenous ulcers and mouth wash. Its medicinal value continued through the 1790ís, and many types of activated charcoal are still used for purification of pharmaceuticals today.
However, during the late 1790ís a new business emerged. Charcoal was discovered as a means to clarify sugar liquors in the production of crystallized sugar. Louis Constant received a patent in 1812 for this purpose. In the year prior to this, M. Figuier, a Montpellier pharmacist, found that bone char or bone black, worked better in decolorizing wines and vinegars. Considering Mr. Figuierís discovery, Mr. Payen and Sons, and Mr. Pluvinet introduced bone charcoal to the sugar industry. This began a new era for bone charcoal, and a suprisingly new industry for a developing country, called United States.
As settlers followed the trail west to establish homesteads and farms in the great American Heartland, they found the prairies littered with bones of the slaughtered buffalo or American Bison. Most settlers found the bones to be a nuisance, clearing them from their land, stock piling them and then destroying them. That is until fertilizer plants back East expressed interest in them.
Bone gathering and selling began first in the Plains area around 1884, and grew into a thriving industry. Four hundred trainloads per year of bones were shipped back East. The average price for one ton of dried bones was $10.00. This allowed many settlers to pick bones at their leisure to increase the family income. Because picking bones was not a strenuous chore, even the children participated in gathering bones to supplement the familyís income.
Notice to Farmers: I will pay cash for buffalo bones. Bring them in by the
Cash was seldom paid to bone pickers. Many times, bones were given in trade to merchants. Receipts given to bone pickers, called Buffalo Bone Money, could be used at any merchant if properly endorsed. Wagon loads of bones were brought to town where a local buyer would inspect them. Only bleached bones, free of flesh and oil were accepted. Skeletons were purchased by weight, so bone inspectors were careful to examine all bones. Some bone pickers soaked bones in water to make them heavier, others would add sod under the bones for weight. In its prime, 20 teams per day were bringing in bones for weighing and unloading.
Once the bones were purchased, they were heaped along railroad sidings awaiting transport back East. By the year 1889, the main depository for buffalo bones was Minneapolis, Minnesota. From this point, bones were diverted to places like Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia.
Bone black, fertilizer production and gelatin production were running at peak performance during the late 1880ís and early 1890ís. However, the industry was heading for disaster. As buffalo bones on the prairie became scarce, scavengers began to raid Indian Burial Grounds for bones. A great rift was created in the industry and human bones became a source for their arguments. Finally all human bones were unacceptable for the bone industry.
As the bone industry grew, one manufacturing site did too. This site was located in the Detroit area, Michigan Carbon Works. Michigan Carbon Works was established in 1873 by Deming Jarves and William Hooper. The main objective of Michigan Carbon Works was the destructive distillation of bones into animal charcoal to meet the growing demands of the sugar industry for filtering and purifying sugar.
Jarves and Hooper began their business with $18,000 capital investment and a building in Hamtramck, Michigan. Initially, only bone charcoal was produced. Being enterprising men, their stock products were expanded to include glues, fertilizer, neatís foot oil and other compounds related to bones. Business grew so quickly, that by 1879 the Michigan Carbon Works needed room to expand.
In 1880, Michigan Carbon Works bought the Harbaugh Farm in Springwells. This consisted of 72 acres near the Rouge River near Delray, Michigan. A sprawling complex, nicknamed "Boneville" was to emerge. A complex with 5 acres of floor space, costing $100,000 was built. Along with this, a boarding house on Forman Street to house 60 single employees, and 25 duplex cottages on Carbon Street for married workers.
Production of first rate bone charcoal was 5000 tons per year, and was of unusually high quality. By 1883, Michigan Carbon Works became the most extensive and complete carbon works in the United States. (Detroit Evening News, 27 March 1885 p4) Business was doing so well, that by 1885, the company was conducting over $50,000 worth of business per month. Bone charcoal was being produced on a 24 hour basis, using approximately 13% of bison bones from the prairies, one of the largest places of consumption in the country. By 1892, Michigan Carbon Works was the largest industry in Detroit. The plant covered 100 acres, employed 750 people, and had 10 acres of facilities that included a 50 building complex. Two buildings and a tower housed the sulfuric acid works, with a 30 ton per day capacity. A muriatic acid plant connected to the gelatin works plant by an overhead pipeline. Buildings housed four different gelatin factories, each devoted to a special line of gelatin. Ten buildings were devoted to the manufacture of homestead fertilizers, and beyond these, were the bone black works.
As the bone crisis on the prairies developed, Michigan Carbon Works began stockpiling bones. By 1896, nearly all buffalo bones were cleared from the Plains. Due to the foresight of this company, Michigan Carbon Works survived, using alternate sources of raw materials. Fertilizers made from bones, due to the scarcity and cost of bones, needed to find substitute materials. Most companies substituted phosphate rock and other cheaper materials for soil dressings. Michigan Carbon Works through its animal charcoal production, created a large component of phosphorous rich bone black dust that was too fine for the sugar industry. Instead of selling this dust, at this point, it was used as a basis for their homestead fertilizer.
Bone char and dust production continued well into the 1920ís when American Agricultural Chemical Company (Agrico) began consolidating bone char producing Companies. Michigan Carbon Works became a division of Agrico, as well as Cornelieus Harold Tiers (Philadelphia), Listerís Agricultural Chemical Works (Newark), and Empire Carbon Workís (St. Louis).
Bone char dust became known as bone black pigment and continued to grow in the pigment industry. Its uses varied from India ink to mascara for cosmetics, and paints and varnishes. Bone black became one the major black colorants. At the turn of the century, a new industry began to make its mark on the economy - oil. As the industry grew, one of its many by-products was a substance called carbon black, a black tinting pigment. At first it was thrown away, then given away. When oil companies found there was a demand for it, they began charging a nominal price for it. With the available supplies of carbon black at a cheap price, bone black was nearly forgotten except for a few applications where its superior handling properties and other advantages made it worth the extra cost. Then came the oil shortage and the rapid rise in the prices of all products derived from oil, including carbon black.
During the 1960ís, American Agricultural Company (Agrico) was pulling out of the Detroit area and was selling off divisions originally started by the Michigan Carbon Works. The bone black division was one of them. The division was purchased, and the Ebonex Corporation was formed. Ebonex Corporation continues the tradition of creating bone black for the pigment industry. The equipment was moved from the original location of the Michigan Carbon Works, just southwest, to Melvindale, Michigan where it stands today.
Bones no longer come from the prairies, but tradition is upheld when charred animal bones are milled and blended to create bone black pigments much the same way as it was produced over 100 years ago. Each grade of pigment is created with pride, and followed with excellent customer service.