“Some farmers believe that they cannot procure absolutely pure animal bones finely ground.” So proclaimed a long-winded 1913 marketing pamphlet for Baugh & Sons Company. However, to assure those skeptical farmers, the South Philadelphia outfit guaranteed their bone meal as “free from adulteration”; moreover, “all who want pure bone can depend on getting it from us.”
Baugh & Sons, founded in 1855, described itself as “the largest importers and collectors of animal bones in the United States.” Along with manufacturing plants in Norfolk, Galveston, Baltimore, and Oneida, NY, Baugh & Sons kept its corporate offices with its main production plant on the Delaware Riverfront at South Philadelphia Wharf #70, now site of the Pier 70 shopping center.
While your average Philadelphian probably didn’t fall within the pure bone customer base, the farmers in the nearby hinterlands certainly did. Previously when it came to fertilizers, “most people used manure or swamp muck or green manures—soybeans, rye grass, alfalfa,” explains Timothy Johnson, Allington Dissertation Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation for 2014-15 and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Georgia. Johnson’s dissertation topic is the history of fertilizer, which in his telling is surprisingly political: think of the global food supply, famines and embargoes. Johnson’s chosen topic also gives him free reign to use puns like “shit happens.”
The problem with mammal-based manure is that it’s very heavy, and so its use would be limited to what was available nearby. As an alternative, guano—bird excrement—was “potent, light and dry,” Johnson says, “but really expensive.” Much of it came from seabird-inhabited small islands off the desert coast of Peru, and that supply was pretty much exhausted by the 1870s. Eventually the focus turned to bones-based fertilizers, which are relatively rich in phosphorous.
Baugh & Sons’ factory, called the Delaware River Chemical Works, contained big acid chambers to render the animals it received. But mostly it had of bones—mounds of bones. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History holds a collection of Baugh & Sons’ glass plate negatives and advertising ephemera; its online inventory includes this quote from a visitor to the plant:
“I have just inspected the Baugh Fertilizer Works on the Delaware River. I saw many large buildings, much machinery and numerous workmen. There was business activity everywhere; but, more than anything else, I saw bones. The whole placed suggested animal bones. There were bones in heaps, in sheds, on carts, on ships. There were bones whole and bones crushed; and bone ground, ready for shipment. . . . It was intimated that the present big bone heaps would soon be bigger, owing to incoming cargoes.”
Johnson notes that in the 1890s, Chicago bone-fertilizer companies that were byproduct businesses of slaughterhouses began to surpass Baugh’s dominance: “Those meatpackers had tremendous amounts of bones,” he says. But by the by mid-20th century, phosphate beds had been discovered in places like South Carolina and Florida, and the production of fertilizer became a much more high-tech process, including the extraction of nitrogen from the atmosphere. Incidentally, the composition of phosphate beds comes from bones hundreds of millions of years old. In effect, using the phosphate is “delving down into time for a more potent resource,” as Johnson describes it.
The fertilizer and chemical works amassed the Baughs quite a fortune. Daniel Baugh, one of the Sons, leveraged his wealth to sit at the head of many local institutions and build an imposing mansion at 16th and Locust Streets. Steven Ujifusa profiled it for the Philly History Blog in April 2013, noting that it “lasted for a mere quarter-of-a-century.”
Hexamer General Surveys, as was their wont, published an incredibly detailed map of Baugh & Sons’ Delaware River Chemical Works, with one building labeled the “tallow rendering house,” a floor of another devoted to “store phosphates and dissolving tanks,” and several grinding mills. View it HERE.
Then known as the Baugh Chemical Company, the company was purchased by Oklahoma-based Kerr-McGee Oil Industries in 1963. Kerr-McGee ceased to exist in 2006, when Anadarko Petroleum of Texas acquired their assets, further obscuring a once powerful Philadelphia fertilizer and chemical company.
Where a tallow rendering house once stood, cyclists and joggers now pass through the southern terminus of the Delaware River Trail, entering a land of lumber, performance fleece, and rollback sales at the Pier 70 shopping center.
I worked for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission in the late ’70’s – early ’80’s, a time when the Commission was producing a series of waterfront plans. I had worked on the S. Delaware Waterfront District Plan, when the waterfront was just starting to generate interest as a place to live. I recall visiting the Baugh site around 1982 with a group of NY residential developers, we walked out onto the site and it was completely covered with bones. Across the Delaware a car crusher was banging away. The developers did not return.