Procter & Gamble organized the Buckeye Cotton Oil Company in 1901 to provide a reliable supply of cottonseed oil for the soaps and lard substitutes the company manufactured. Such popular Procter & Gamble products as Ivory soap and Crisco shortening were originally made from cottonseed oil. By 1914 Buckeye operated eleven large cottonseed oil mills in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. One of its Memphis plants, constructed in 1911, was described as “a monster cotton oil mill.” (1)
In order to buy enough seed to keep their large mills operating at full capacity for as many months as possible each year, Buckeye followed the common practice of loaning money to cotton ginners to help them buy the supplies needed to begin operations each fall and to build new gins or to improve old ones. Ginners took a portion of the seed they removed as their fee for ginning, and they usually purchased the remainder of the seed. Buckeye expected ginners who received loans to settle their debts by selling the seed they acquired to the company.
Independent mills had to buy seed at a price that would enable them to make a profit on the sale of crude cottonseed oil, but Buckeye could pay more for seed and make up losses from the profits Procter & Gamble earned on its manufactured products. Mills that lacked an affiliation with a large manufacturing corporation considered the practice of buying seed at a loss unfair competition.
After World War I, Buckeye moved into cellulose production. Demand for nitrocellulose, or gun cotton, during the war stimulated interest in the infant cellulose industry. In 1920 Buckeye became the first American company to manufacture cellulose from cottonseed linters, the short fibers that remain on the seed after ginning. Memphis was chosen as the site of Buckeye's new cellulose plant and as the headquarters of cellulose operations. In 1921 Procter & Gamble renamed its subsidiary the Buckeye Cellulose Corporation.
Treated with different chemicals, cellulose served as the raw material for a variety of synthetic products such as rayon, photographic and X-ray film, paper, celluloid, cellophane, plastics, tire cord, and gunpowder. The relative purity of cottonseed linters made them an excellent source of cellulose, but the supply of linters could not be expanded to meet growing demand. In the period between the World Wars, research on wood pulp provided Buckeye with an additional, cheaper, and more abundant source of cellulose.
At the end of World War II, Buckeye's fourteen cottonseed oil mills produced most of the linters used in cellulose production. By that time, more vegetable oil was being made from soybeans than from cottonseed. In the early 1950s Buckeye operated four soybean oil mills and processed both soybeans and cottonseed in other mills.
Procter & Gamble sold Buckeye's oil mills and in 1988 renamed the subsidiary Procter & Gamble Cellulose. Memphian Robert Cannon and a group of investors bought the Memphis facility and other assets from Procter & Gamble in 1992. Today, the company bears the name Buckeye Technologies. Corporate headquarters remain in Memphis and revenues in 2000 reached $713 million.
Lynette Boney Wrenn, Cinderella of the New South: A History of the Cottonseed Industry, 1855-1955 (1995)