An entertaining combination of erudition, humor, and colorful prose makes an unlikely appearance in an obscure early history of the petroleum industry.

Front cover of Sketches in Crude-Oil.

If Mark Twain had been moved to write a history of the petroleum industry it might have come across a lot like Sketches in Crude-Oil, by John J. McLaurin of Harrisburg, Pa., which was published by the author in 1898. Ancient may be overstating it, but this obscure yet entertaining read was in fact written contemporaneously with the earliest days of petroleum development in the United States, and it looks back to the first appearances of the “unctuous fluid” in recorded history. Some quotations from the first chapter will give you some interesting historical tidbits and a sense of the book’s quaint style:

“Men and women in the prime of life have forgotten the flickering pine-knot, the sputtering candle or the smoking sconce hardly long enough to associate rock-oil with ‘the brave days of old.’ This idea of newness the host of fresh industries created by oil-operations has tended to deepen in the popular mind. Enjoying the brilliant glow of a modern argand-burner, double-wicked, silk-shaded, onyx-mounted and altogether a genuine luxury, it seems hard to realize that the actual basis of this up-to-date elegance has existed from time immemorial.” Thus did McLaurin describe the penchant of the public to “…consider the entire petroleum business of very recent date, whereas its history goes back to remotest antiquity.”

“Precisely how, why, when, where and by whom petroleum was first discovered and utilized nobody living can, and nobody dead will, tell anxious inquirers. The information has ‘gone where the woodbine twineth,’ to join the dodo, the megatherium, the ichthyosaurus and the ‘lost arts’ Wendell Phillips embalmed in fadeless prose.”
McLaurin was just warming up. He gets to full throttle a few paragraphs later, with his signature combination of erudition and peculiar but good-natured humor:

“Other wags attribute the longevity of antediluvian veterans to their unstinted use of petroleum for internal and external ailments! Had medical almanacs, patent nostrums and circus-bill testimonials been evolved at that interesting period, the oleum-vendor would have hit the bull’s-eye plump in the center. Guess at the value of recommendations like these, with the latest accompaniment of ‘before-and-after’ pictures in the newspapers: Land of Nod, April 1, B.C. 5678. This is to certify that I keep my strength up to blacksmith pitch by frequent applications of Petroleum Prophylactic and six big drinks of Benzine Bitters daily. Lifting an elephant, with one hand tied behind me, is my favorite trick.

Mt. Ararat, July 4, B.C. 4004. Your medicine is out of sight in our family. It relieved papa of an overdose of firewater, imbibed in honor of his boat distancing Dunraven’s barge on this glorious anniversary, and cured Ham of trichina yesterday. Mamma’s pug slid off the upper deck into the swim and was fished out in comatose condition. A solitary whiff of your Pungent Petroleum Pastils revived him instantly, and he was able to howl all night.

Pleasant Valley, Oct. 30, B.C. 5555. I just want to shout ‘Eureka,’ ‘Excelsior,’ ‘Hail Columbia,’ ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ and give three cheers for your Kill-em-off Kerosene! Both my mothers in-law, who had bossed me for seventy decades, tried a can of it on a sick fire this morning. Their funeral is billed for four o’clock p.m. to-morrow. Send me ten gallons more at once.

“Leaving the realm of conjecture,” McLaurin returns to history and continues his colorful account. “Whether petroleum, which literally signifies ‘rock-oil,’ be of mineral, vegetable, or animal origin matters little to the consumer, who views it from a commercial standpoint. In its natural state it is a variable mixture of numerous liquid hydro-carbons, holding in solution parafine and solid bitumen, or asphaltum. The fountains of Is, on the Euphrates, were familiar to the founders of Babylon, who secured indestructible mortar for the walls of the city by pouring melted asphaltum between the blocks of stone. These famous springs attracted the attention of Alexander, Trajan, and Julian. Even now asphaltum procured from them is sold in the adjacent villages. The commodity is skimmed of the saline and sulphurous waters and solidified by evaporation. The ancient Egyptians used another form of the same substance in preparing mummies, probably obtaining their supplies from a spring on the Island of Zante, described by Herodotus. It was flowing in his day, it is flowing to-day, and a citizen of Boston owns the property. Wells drilled near the Suez canal in 1885 found petroleum. So the gay world jogs on. Mummified Pharaohs are burned as fuel to drive locomotives across the Sahara, while the Zantean fount whose oil besmeared the ‘swathed and bandaged carcasses” is purchased by a Massachusetts bean-eater!

“Asphaltum is found in the Dead Sea, the supposed site of Sodom and Gomorrah, and on the surface of a chain of spring along its banks, far below the level of the ocean. Strabo referred to this remarkable feature two thousand years ago. The destruction of the two ill-fated cities may have been connected with, if not caused by, vast natural stores of this inflammable petroleum. The immense accumulations of hardened rock-oil in the center and on the banks of the sea were oxidized into rosin-like asphalt. Pieces picked up from the waters are frequently carved…into ornaments, which retain an oily flavor. Aristotle, Josephus, and Pliny mention similar deposits at Albania, on the shores of the Adriatic. Dioscorides Pedanius, the Greek historian, tells how the citizens of Agrigentum, in Sicily, burned petroleum in rude lamps prior to the birth of Christ.

For two centuries it lighted the streets of Genoa and Parma, in northern Italy. Plutarch describes a lake of blazing petroleum near Ecbatana. Persian wells have produced oil liberally for ages, under the name of ‘naphtha,’ the descendants of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes consuming the fluid for its light. The earliest records of China refer to petroleum, and small quantities have been found in Thibet. An oil-fountain on one of the Ionian Islands has gushed steadily for over twenty centuries, without once going on strike or taking a vacation. Austria and France likewise possess oil-springs of considerable importance. Thomas Shirley, in 1667, tested the contents of a shallow pit in Lancashire, England, which burned readily. Rev. John Clayton visited it and wrote in 1691: ‘I saw a ditch where the water burned like brandy. Country-folk boil eggs and meat in it.’

“Near Bitche, a small fort perched on the top of a peak, at the entrance of one of the defiles of Lorraine, opening into the Vosges Mountains – a fort which was of great embarrassment to the Prussians in their last French campaign – and in the valley guarded by this fortress stand the chateau and village of Walsbroun, so named for a strange spring in the forest behind it. In the middle ages this fountain was famous. Inscriptions, ancient coins and the relics of a Roman road attest that it had been celebrated even in earlier times. In the sixteenth century a basin and bath for sick people existed. No record of its abandonment has been preserved. In the last century it was rediscovered by a medical antiquarian, who found the naphtha, or white petroleum, almost exhausted.”

Sketches in Crude-Oil, which also contains nearly 200 portraits, did not claim to be comprehensive. In the introduction to the second edition, McLaurin wrote that the purpose of the 452-page book was “…to give the busy outside world, by anecdote and incident and brief narration, a glimpse of the grandest industry of the ages and of the men chiefly responsible for its origin and growth.”

That it does, and 110 years later the result is still a pleasure to peruse.