The History of Charcoal Briquettes

There is nothing quite like backyard charcoal barbecues, and food never tastes better than when it is cooked to perfection over a nice bed of charcoal briquettes. Even though pretty much everyone loves what these little black lumps can do, few know how this fuel source came to be.

The truth is that though charcoal goes back thousands of years as a source of fuel, it didn’t really catch on in regular usage, let alone briquettes, until the last century. Amazingly this tale is intertwined with early American industrialists and automobiles. So, sit back and let us show you how charcoal briquettes came to be.

Early History Of Charcoal Briquettes

The story of charcoal briquettes actually started several decades before the events that caused them to catch on and with no real relation to them. A man named W.P. Tagged patented a form of treated charcoal identified as a “Lump of Fuel” in 1895. However, this fuel source was not even intended for cooking, a job more often handled by wood on that day. Instead, it was intended for industrial applications such as smelting metal, and the briquettes shape would allow it to better circulate air, giving it a greater heat potential and a more stable one as well.

However, this does not appear to have taken off because, in 1897, Taggart gave ownership of this patent to another man, Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer, who created another design for the fuel source but similarly made little use of this product. After the First This union led to a long friendship and working World War, Zwoyer founded a fuel company manufacturing his version of charcoal briquettes with two plants, one each in New York and Massachusetts. However, Zwoyer’s product failed to gain traction and become marketed nationwide as it struggled to compete against small local makers simply selling briquettes in their local markets.

Ford Charcoal Briquettes

The real history behind why charcoal briquettes dominate our grills every summer starts with Edward G. Kingsford, and Henry Ford, the automotive pioneer. E.G. Kingsford worked in the lumber industry and land sales throughout his young adult life and in 1890 wed Mary Frances Flaherty, the first cousin of Henry Ford.

Relationship between the two that went on throughout both of the businessmen’s lives. Henry Ford would often go to Kingsford for advice, and the relationship was highly profitable for both men, with Kingsford even revealing at one point that he received a $20,000 bonus from the industrialist.

In 1919 Kingsford was enlisted by Ford to help boost the production of Model Ts, and to do this, he needed more wood. Kingsford was placed at the helm of the Michigan Iron, Land and Lumber Company tasked with supplying the company the lumber it desperately needed. This left him overseeing the operations throughout northern Michigan starting in 1920.

At this point, wood was still a critical resource in many parts of vehicle production, and one of the most critical parts was through the wood alcohols it could produce. Henry Ford wanted more of this critical component of producing Model Ts so badly that he planned to build the biggest and most efficient facility to process the wood the world had ever seen in order to produce vast quantities of these chemicals.

At this point, Kingsford convinced Ford to locate the facility in Dickinson County, where the company Kingsford was in charge of began performing construction on the plant. In order to produce these chemicals, the wood would need to be treated using a vast facility to extract the chemicals.

This process was extremely efficient at removing most chemicals from the raw lumber, leaving little more than plain black carbon, also known as lump charcoal, as a byproduct. Unfortunately, even though the Ford plant produced vast quantities of this material, there was little demand for it. Seeing this waste and the vast quantities of wood waste that were produced in his lumber facility did not sit well with Henry Ford.

In order to solve this problem, Ford needed a way to market this vast amount of charcoal to the public. Luckily for Ford, a scientist from the University of Oregon had recently devised a simple way to make charcoal briquettes using a simple mixture of binder chemicals. This would allow the otherwise useless sawdust and other byproducts from these facilities to be used to manufacture charcoal briquettes affordably.

Ford enlisted Thomas Edison to design a charcoal briquette manufacturing plant next to his existing one, and soon it was mass-producing vast quantities of the material under Kingsford’s management. These Ford Charcoal Briquettes were sold through his dealerships already located throughout the country marketed as a “Fuel of a Hundred Uses.” But, soon, it found the one use that really stuck.

With the freedom to explore far from home that Ford Motor Cars offered the public, Ford offered picnic kits, including a grill that tied outdoor adventuring with the company’s own charcoal briquettes. These Ford Charcoal Grills and accompanying Ford Briquettes became immensely successful.

As a result of the growth in the plant and accompanying employees, the formerly quite small Dickinson County grew in population immensely. This led to the creation of the village and later city of Kingsford, named after the man who made its growth possible. As the town grew, Kingsford continued to prove its loyal benefactor until his death in 1943.

In 1951, the Iron Mountain Ford Motor Company Plant shut down, stopping production of the beloved briquettes, but an investment group quickly stepped in to resume production, and in honor of the plant’s former manager and namesake of the town, they named their new enterprise the Kingsford Chemical Company.

So, even though he never owned the company or invented charcoal briquettes, Kingsford still played a significant part in their success. Today he can still be remembered through the popular brand of charcoal that bears his name.

Final Thoughts

Charcoal has had a long history dating back thousands of years, but charcoal briquettes have only existed for a little more than one hundred. Though makers of charcoal briquettes existed before Henry Ford and E.G., Kingsford began manufacturing and selling them, Ford Charcoal Briquettes are what really cemented their place in our hearts and grills. So, the next time you have a weekend barbecue and pour in the charcoal briquettes, take a moment to think about how far this fuel has come to make it to your grill today.

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In Post Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons