T is for Tar

Not a lot of people like the smell of tar.  I could have chosen thyme or tarragon (like anise!) or any number of other herbs, flowers etc., but tar is the first thing that came to mind.  To me, it has a sharp clean smell and is related to the sea and sailing, one of the best things in the world to do.

Tar and pitch are produced from coal, wood, petroleum or peat by a process of destructive distillation, which I won’t get into.  It results in an odoriferous mixture of hydrocarbons and free carbon, and historically tar was pine-derived. It played a major role in the economy of colonial America and especially of my home state, North Carolina, because in the days of wooden sailing ships, tar and pitch were was used to preserve the wood against rot and destruction from ship worms.  North Carolina was called the tar or turpentine state and originally North Carolinians were derogatorily called tar boilers.

Nowadays, Carolinians in general, and the University of North Carolina sports teams specifically, are called Tar Heels.  There are several stories about how this name came about. One is that the troops of British General Cornwallis during the American Revolutionary War were fording what is now known as the Tar River when they discovered tar had been dumped into the stream to impede their crossing. When they finally got across the river, they found their feet completely black with tar, and the soldiers observed that anyone who waded through North Carolina rivers would acquire “tar heels.”  The most familiar explanation derives from the time of the Civil War.  During one battle in Virginia, the North Carolina troops held their ground while others retreated.  When asked why they held, they said they had tar on their heel, which made them stick in the fight.



3 thoughts on “T is for Tar”

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: