Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The politics of turpentine

As noted in an earlier post, traditional art supplies often have odd histories. Today, I'd like to talk about -- stay right where you are, Mina: I see you sneaking toward the exit door -- turpentine.

To be specific, let us discuss the profound political implications of this review of Utrecht brand pure gum turpentine:
In the past you could find this in any hardware store but thanks to the Government you now have to pay more for it at art outlets but Utrecht has the best quality and quantity for the money I've found.
Let's zero in on those emphasized words: "Thanks to the government."

So far as I know, no government regulation prohibits hardware stores from selling turpentine of the best quality. The good stuff may even be available at a hardware store near you. (Though not near me, apparently.)

These nice people in Georgia offer what some connoisseurs consider the world's best turps, made the old-fashioned way. The makers sell it openly. It's not a black market product. If you want to acquire some, you don't have to travel to a sketchy part of town at midnight and be buzzed into a seedy back room where the turp bottles are stacked next to the heroin and C4.

Southerners know good turps the way Italians know good olive oil. Even though turp containers carry a "harmful or fatal if swallowed" label, some people even take the stuff internally as a medicine. I'm not kidding: You really ought to see this guy slurp it up. He's definitely a trip, especially when he describes the use of turpentine baths to cure erectile dysfunction. Wood giveth turps and turps giveth wood.

Of course, he's talking about real turpentine, not crap turpentine.

Real turpentine smells like a Christmas tree with licorice ornaments. Crap turpentine smells like the Grim Reaper's halitosis.

Real turpentine comes from a resin harvested from living pine trees (much as you might tap a maple tree to get real maple syrup, another product rarely encountered nowadays). I have theorized that the custom of bringing conifers indoors during the winter owes much to the mildly intoxicating "perfume" associated with pine resin.

Real turpentine is even said to intensify the high one gets from cannabis. If that proves to be true, then those nice folks in Georgia may have a whole new market open up for them.

Crap turpentine doesn't come from living trees. Crap turpentine is an industrial byproduct produced when trees are ground up into paper products.

So why does your local hardware store -- and most art stores -- stock only crap turpentine?

It's cheaper to produce.

Plain and simple. The Mean Ol' Gummint isn't the bad guy in this situation.

(Well, arguably the Mean Ol' Gummint did play a role, when it won the civil war and freed the slaves. The turpentine farms of the antebellum south relied on slave labor. The work was miserable -- even worse than picking cotton.)

Even the pricey turps sold in art supply stores tends to be crap turpentine, "rectified" and refined to subdue the stench-o-death. Some piney perfume may be added. The stuff is usable, but it's not the same as the magical elixer which the Old Masters slathered on their panels to achieve that ineffable glow-from-within.

So why am I telling you all of this? Because these words have haunted me all day:

"Thanks to the government."

Behold the triumph of libertarian brainwashing: Our citizenry has been trained to blame everything bad on the Mean Ol' Gummint, even when the culprit is actually a megacorporation. This is the way we think -- the way we've been taught to think.

Not just about turpentine. About everything.

Ideology is the strongest intoxicant, infinitely stronger than pine resin. This dangerous intoxicant induces hallucinations which can cause us to lose sight of reality.

A judicious use of gummint regulation might help us navigate the byways of Turpworld. The phrase "pure gum turpentine" is supposed to designate the real McCoy, but in my experience, even some hardware store cans which bear that label may neverthless smell pretty damned death-y when you open 'em up. I'd like to see labelling which clearly informs the turp-buying public as to whether a product has been derived from living trees via traditional methods. I believe that an educated consumer will choose to buy a substance which does not stink of decaying rodent cadavers.

On the other hand...

The world of folk remedies is not an area into which the Mean Ol' Gummint should intrude, even when those remedies seem really wacky and kind of dangerous. I will never take turpentine internally, and I would never advise anyone else to do so. But what you do with your body is own damned business.
During WWII my dad was a flight instructor stationed in Colorado. As an officer with family he had private quarters. He noticed that his liquor was becoming weaker and weaker as time went by. He suspected that somebody in the cleaning crew was taking shots from his liquor cabinet and then filling the bottles back to their original level with water. So he emptied all his clear liquor into other containers then refilled the bottles with turpentine. Next time he checked, one of the bottles was missing a few ounces. Never had a problem after that though. He didn't say whether or not he'd used the good stuff, but maybe in the early forties that's all there was.
There presently is an effort to bring back the Longleaf Pine which once was the dominant tree in my area. I have them on my lot and have transplanted several seedlings.

In the 18th & 19th centuries, the local trees were tapped, as you say, for the resin, which was then used for waterproofing ship's rigging. Most of the turpentine production came later by smother-burning in earth-covered piles, which frequently exploded. Later exploitation was for timber, with the port of Georgetown SC shipping more lumber than any other in the US.
Real maple syrup rare? I guess living in New England insulates me from that sad reality, though not from the price of the real stuff. You could always join us up here if you need to leave Baltimore.
I'm not Anonymous; I'm CambridgeKnitter. I guess Blogger decided to eat my name.
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