Thursday, March 4, 2010

What the heck is a gum copal worker?

I saw in the 1850 Federal census that my 3x great grandfather, Abijah Hitchings of Salem, Massachusetts, was a “gum copal worker.” After doing a double take, I wasn’t sure that I even transcribed these words correctly, so I called over three other people to look at the image on my computer monitor. It seemed to be very clear, but some thought perhaps it could be “gun” or other variations on known words. We looked up copal, but it didn’t seem to make sense.

So I turned to the Google Book Search. There was the answer, and in reference to 19th century Salem, to boot! It seems that the manufacture of gum copal into varnishes for boats and furniture was an important industry in Salem. Gum copal was a form of amber, from Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean. Do you remember amber from “Jurassic Park?” It is the hardened resin of trees, often thousands of years old. This yellowish dross was somehow transmuted into a useful marine varnish.

From New York Coach-Maker's Magazine May 1863 page 230-232
From the website
“It is collected in this state, and shipped to this country. The greater part of it is brought to Salem, a few miles from Boston, where it undergoes the process of cleaning and assorting. The three principal kinds are called Zanzibar, Benguela, and Angola, taking their names from the different coasts they are imported from. Each of these different kinds is assorted into some five to ten grades, each according to brilliancy, color, purity, and size of the pieces; in this state it is sold to the merchants and manufacturers of Boston and other places. The surplus is exported to London, some of it to be returned to head quarters in a manufactured state. It is worth form 12 to 60 cents per pound, and it is the quality of the material used that regulates the price of the varnish. The poorer the quality of the stock used, the cheaper the varnish; so the reader will observe that it is no saving to buy varnish at twenty-five cents less per gallon, for the difference in quality may be four times that sum.”

"The Old Merchant Marine"
by Ralph D. Paine
Chapter IV. The Famous Days of Salem Port
"And so it happened that in the spicy warehouses that overlooked Salem Harbor there came to be stored hemp from Luzon, gum copal from Zanzibar, palm oil from Africa, coffee from Arabia, tallow from Madagascar, whale oil from the Antarctic, hides and wool from the Rio de la Plata, nutmeg and cloves from Malaysia."

"When I Lived in Salem 1822-1866" by King, Caroline Howard; Publisher: Stephen Daye Press; 1937, Brattleboro, VT. page 43
Chapter 3, Salem Merchants on the Seven Seas
"When Lucy Saltonstall and I were children, Derby Street was one of our favorite haunts. We loved to linger round the great storehouses, and to peep in at the open doors, and although even then the glory of Salem commerce had begun to wane, there was enough of the Eastern glamour hanging about the old wharves to make them enchanting places to children. They made the Arabian Nights real to us, and told stories of the time when as Hawthorne says: "India was a new region, to which only Salem knew the way." I remember now the queer spicy indescribable Eastern smell that floated out from those huge warehouses, wherein were stored spoils from every country: pepper from Sumatra, coffee from Arabia,-cinnamon, cloves and nutmegs from the Spice Islands,-ivory and dates from Africa,-sugar and molasses from the West Indies,-wine from Madeira, and figs and raisins from Spain. And happy children were we, when some old Salt sitting in the doorway would give us bits of rock candy, or a handful of gum Arabic, or pieces of gum copal, doubly happy, if a fly chanced to be imprisoned in its clear amber."

From “History of Essex County, Massachusetts”, Volume 1, page 85 edited by Duane Hamilton Hurd, Lewis & Co, Philadelphia, 1888
“The large importation of uncleaned gum copal…led to the establishment by Jonathan Whipple of a factory at the foot of Turner Street, in Salem, to clean and prepare the gum for the market…. This business [working gum copal] was established about 1835 and increased very rapidly. Mr. Whipple commenced by employing four or five men, but at the time of his death, in 1850, the number of men employed averaged thirty-five or forty, and the amount of gum cleaned each year was about one million five hundred thousand pounds, the gum losing in weight about one quarter during the process of cleaning…The business was prosperous until the year 1861, when an import duty of ten cents a pound was imposed on the uncleaned gum. The gum was thereafter cleaned on the coast of Africa before shipmen, and the business diminished until it was finally abandoned altogether.”

Now I not only do I know what “gum copal” is now, but I have a good idea of what Salem was like in the middle of the China Trade frenzy, and what an exciting place this old seaport town must have been! Gum copal was just another exotic ingredient in the mix of interesting imports to New England at this time. Other occupations on this same 1850 census page in Salem: carpenter, shipwright, cooper, tobacconist, machinist, painter, mariner and shoemaker. Abijah’s son, Abijah Franklin Hitchings, would grow up to be first a sail maker, and then the assistant deputy at the Old Custom House, where Nathaniel Hawthorne also worked earlier in the 19th century.

See my blog on Abijah Franklin Hitchings, with the story of his career, including the Salem Custom House, and his family tree back to our immigrant Ancestor, Daniel Hitchings, born about 1597 England and died in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Photo of Salem Harbor, August 2009

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Great post, Heather. I ran into a similar situation with some of the court records about William Gerrish when a inventory list left me scratching my head over some words.


  2. I agree with Bill! Very interesting. Love Salem history!

  3. Heather, thanks for this post. You know I must know EVERYTHING! And you have given me so much in this post. I must know more about the "China Trade Frenzy." What it looks like is that the Gum Copal industry was taken offshore due to taxes. Is this form of varnish used today? Wow, so many questions for an early Sunday morning. I guess I need to do some digging on my own. Thanks for sharing and stimulating my "WHAT????" factor! Gum Copal. Who knew!

  4. Thanks for this well-documented post. At the Phillips Library (at the Peabody Essex Museum) in Salem, MA, we just received a gift of two account books of Jonathan Whipple's. They describe in great detail his trade with various vendors in Zanzibar and other places in Africa for gum copal. Your information will be very helpful in cataloging these items.

  5. Gum Copal worker is the person taking the copals from the tree. Copals are like rubber, it is formed by cutting the tree then the latex flows out , you leave it for awhile , come back in 15 days it will harden to form like an amber.

    It is commonly used in the manufacture of varnishes. Gum Copal is commonly found in Southeast asia,

    here is a video of it :