I recently visited the town where I grew up, Fredericksburg, Virginia. There is not much chemical history in this town that bills itself as America's most historic city. In colonial time, alum was mined, really more harvested, in the area. In my youth, there was a viscose plant on the banks of the Rappahannock River, almost across the river from where a young George Washington cut down a cherry tree. Its stacks dominated the skyline and its odors reminded all of its presence.
The town plays off its history, multiple Civil War battles, many colonial era events involving the founding fathers and, somewhat surprisingly given the intensity of the battles that occurred, many buildings more than a century old. Shops in the old downtown sell history. Civil war bullets and belt buckles are displayed. Mixed in among the colonial and Civil War items is the occasional item from the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) Railroad: pictures, tools, or lamps showing the logo of the railroad that once connected the north and south. The RF&P became a fallen flag in 1991. Fallen flag is the term of art for a railroad company that no longer exists. The Baltimore and Ohio, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Reading Line, the Illinois Central, the Erie Lackawana, and many others now qualify as fallen flags. Most, like the RF&P, are still loved. Shows devoted to collectors of railroad memorabilia occur regularly. Model railroaders go to great pains to reproduce the look of the historic lines. There are clubs devoted to keeping the memories alive. People still feel love for these industrial companies.
I feel nostalgia for the RF&P, but I don’t fully understand it. I lived very close to the main RF&P tracks during my college years. Little more than the width of a street separated my window from the tracks. The train disrupted life when it rumbled through town, stopping traffic, shaking buildings and stopping all conversation. Car encounters were not uncommon and never ended well for the car. Yet, like many others, I fondly recall the trains and wax nostalgic for the blue and gray of the RF&P.
Of the top 50 U.S. chemical companies of 1991, the year the RF&P ceased to exist, there are more companies that no longer exist than operating chemical companies today. There is no term of art for the chemical companies that have faded away. It is not just that there is nothing as poetic as fallen flags, there is no term. If there are clubs keeping the memory of departed chemical companies alive, I couldn’t find any. There is the Chemical Heritage Foundation, of course, preserving the industry, but I couldn’t find any swap meets devoted to the chemical industry. I did find a few industry trinkets on Ebay, but it is a much more thinly traded market than railroads. There are no exchanges where memorabilia and collectibles are traded, no clothing for sale bearing the logos. Chemical companies just don’t get the love that other industries, like railroads, get.
Returning for a moment to Fredericksburg, in the 1930's, the community welcomed the Sylvania Industrial Company. Sylvania was a viscose processing plant making both cellophane and rayon. The plant was sold to American Viscose and, ultimately, to FMC. It was the FMC plant that closed in the 1970s. The Fredericksburg of my youth had the large smokestack as a part of the skyline. The sulfur smell from the plant was, depending on wind direction, a reminder that the plant was there. The plant was a major employer in the area for nearly 50 years. The area overlooking the plant is still referred to as Sylvania Heights, one of the last remaining references to the plants existence. I have never seen memorabilia from the plant for sale with the other relics of bygone Fredericksburg. I can’t find any club that is keeping the memory alive. My recollection is that the community actually welcomed the closing as a sign of progress.
I have spent my career in the chemical industry. I don't recall a single time during my 25 years where I felt the industry being loved. Soft drinks are mentioned as a cause of obesity and health issues, but society loves them. Even oil companies seem to have loyal fans. Chemical companies provide many things that make life considerably better. Is your water safe to drink? Better thank the chemical industry. Do you have food to eat? Chemical industry, too. Fertilizer, crop protection and packaging are all products of the chemical industry. Did you take anything the last time you felt ill? It was made through chemistry. The list is near endless. The American Chemistry Council brags that greater than 96% of the products we touch on a daily basis are enabled by the chemical industry. Yet, we get no love.
I am resolved to the reality that the logo-bearing items I have collected over my career will never provide a windfall for me or my heirs. I am not yet resolved that we can't change public perception. We are facing daunting societal issues and the solutions require chemistry. We simply have to do a better job of describing the benefits created by chemists, chemical engineers and the chemical industry. Society loves our products and the advantages they bring. It is a shame that love doesn’t extend to the companies making them possible.
Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.