A major economic depression in the 1870s caused two important citizens of Porkopolis to join forces in order to cut costs and survive the bear market. They formed a company that would eventually be responsible for the greatest dietary shift in our country's history. William Procter brought his candle-making business to the states after a fire destroyed his business in England. James Gamble fled Ireland during the Great Potato Famine and became a soap manufacturer. In a twist of fate, the two men happened to marry sisters in Cincinnati. Together, the brothers-in-law formed Procter & Gamble, a soap- and candle-manufacturing operation.
At the time, soap was sold in huge wheels that were sliced into custom-sized portions at general stores. Procter and Gamble decided to take a chance by mass-producing individually wrapped bars of soap. To pull this off, the brother-in-laws needed to drastically reduce the price of their raw ingredients, which meant finding a replacement for expensive animal fats. They settled on a mix of palm and coconut oils and created the first soap that floated in water -- a handy invention when clothes and dishes alike were washed in a sudsy basin. Hard pressed to come up with a name for this new product, Procter looked to the bible for inspiration and found it in Psalm 45:8: "All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad." The word Ivory was trademarked, and in short order Americans all over the country would know the purity of this soap.
Oddly enough, the company to thank for the fact that America now eats so much vegetable oil has never produced much in the way of food. Thanks to Procter & Gamble the United States boosted the production of a waste product of cotton farming, cottonseed oil. To ensure a steady, cheap supply for soap production the company formed a subsidiary in 1902 called Buckeye Cotton Oil Co. Before processing, cottonseed oil is cloudy red and bitter to the taste because of a natural phytochemical called gossypol (it's used today in China as male birth control) and is toxic to most animals, causing dangerous spikes in the body's potassium levels, organ damage, and paralysis.
An issue of Popular Science from the era sums up the evolution of cottonseed nicely: "What was garbage in 1860 was fertilizer in 1870, cattle feed in 1880, and table food and many things else in 1890." But it entered our food supply slowly. It wasn't until a new food-processing invention of hydrogenation that cottonseed oil found its way into the kitchens of America's restaurants and homes.
Edwin Kayser, a German chemist, wrote to Procter & Gamble on October 18, 1907, about a new chemical process that could create a solid fat from a liquid. The company's researchers had been interested in producing a solid form of cottonseed oil for years, and Kayser described his new process as "of the greatest possible importance to soap manufacturers." The company purchased US rights to the patents and created a lab on the Procter & Gamble campus, known as Ivorydale, to experiment with the new technology. Soon the company's scientists produced a new creamy, pearly white substance out of cottonseed oil. It looked a lot like the most popular cooking fat of the day: lard. Before long, Procter & Gamble sold this new substance (known today as hydrogenated vegetable oil) to home cooks as a replacement for animal fats.