Rubber Tires


Rubber Tires


This logo of the Nebraska Tire and Rubber Company represents the twentieth- century global rubber boom. It connects the evolution of transportation in Omaha to the demand for rubber. The early 1900s saw a dramatic increase in rubber driven partly by the popularity of the automobile. By 1923, Omaha had the highest ratio of population to automobiles. As the demand for rubber tires grew, so did deforestation. Rubber trees are native to the Amazon, and until 1876, environmental impacts remained confined to South America. By the early 1900s, rubber plantations took root in Southeast Asia and then western Africa. The rubber industry globalized forest clearance to make way for new monocrop plantations. This logo serves as a reminder of the global impact the items we use daily can have on the world around us.


Every commodity we use today has a story, a history, and simultaneously acts as a connection and division between nature and humanity. Rubber is no exception; its history is rich and widespread, connecting each place it comes into contact with to the Anthropocene. Omaha, like any other city, had its own role to play in this story. Serving as evidence, the logo of the Nebraska Tire and Rubber Company, our artifact, connects Omaha with changes in transportation and the global rubber industry. It symbolizes their coevolution and simultaneous effects on environments thousands of miles away. In this essay we examine the history of the rubber industry in the Amazon, its leap into Southeast Asia, and how these affected local environments. We then connect these histories with our specific company, the tire industry, and the United States’ continued role in the global rubber industry.

The story of rubber starts where the plant itself originated: in the Amazon basin. For most of the 18th and 19th centuries Brazil supplied almost all of the world’s demand for rubber. (Grandin, 2009) In the 18th century, the two most common rubber trees (Havea brasiliensis and Castilloa ulei) (Stanfield, 1998) grew wild in small patches of two to three trees spread throughout the jungle. (Grandin, 2009) Seringueros, or tree tappers, collected the sap from the trees and transported it back to their tents to create the first form of latex. There, he would smoke the sap over a fire to produce a ball of rubber taken to aviadores, or middlemen, who would then sell it . The collection of the latex was not simply a passive process. To extract the latex from the Castilloa trees required the tappers to create deep cuts which resulted in the death of the tree. This was such a problem that by 1874, reports came in telling of the decline in rubber exports due to the destruction of the trees. (Stanfield, 1998) This marked the first stage of environmental transformation due to the rubber industry.

In 1876, Henry Wickham committed an act of bio-piracy that would change the world forever. (Clay, 2004) He illegally smuggled over 70,000 seeds of rubber plants to Kew Gardens in London from the Amazon. The plants were then transferred to the British colonies in Southeast Asia. Rubber trees flourished on the plantations in Southeast Asia due to the lack of natural diseases and fungi that were a cause of concern for the plantations in the Amazon. Within a span of 9 years the amount of latex produced in Southeast Asia grew from 8,500 tons to 370,000 tons. (Grandin, 2009) From this point onward, the Amazonian monopoly began its slow decline. By 1947, Brazil was no longer exporting rubber to the rest of the world. Where one rubber empire fell another rose to power. New plantations developed in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka, and forests were clear cut to make room for the new monocrop, ultimately leading to a decrease in the natural biodiversity of the area. (Clay, 2004) The climate was perfect for the rubber species and the area provided cheap sources of labor. The trees are usually productive for up to 30-40 years and historically used for lumber after the end of their productive lifespan and ultimately replanted. (Gordon, 2004)

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the world used natural rubber as it’s source specifically in household items such as belts or hoses. (United States Synthetic Rubber Program, 2018) However, natural rubber has one major drawback, when exposed to extreme temperatures, it melts in the hot summer and cracks in the cold winter. In response, the rubber industry explored new ways to manufacture rubber. Through a process of trial, error, and serendipity, Charles Goodyear succeeded in “vulcanizing” rubber in 1839. Goodyear combined sulfur and rubber at a very high temperature. To his astonishment, instead of the rubber melting as it usually did at a high temperature, the rubber got harder as the heat rose. (Somma, 2015) Vulcanization is still in practice today.

Without Goodyear’s invention of vulcanization, rubber would not be able to provide the means of transportation through tires. During the 1880s, bicycling increased in popularity and opened up space for a new market, tire manufacturing. Most of the rubber companies found on the east coast wanted nothing to do with making tires and stuck to what they knew -- making rubber shoes. This opened up a new market within the Midwest for tire production. Bicycles continued to gain popularity and by 1897, 3 million bikes were being manufactured around the country. With the advent of a new transportation through automobiles, this number dropped to 225,000 machines in 1904. By 1907 companies producing tires for automobiles thrived with 33% of their sales being for the larger more expensive car tires. (French, 1991) The 1900s saw a rise in the demand for rubber and many places profited. As global demand increased so too did the need for new rubber plantations. From 1910-1920 the total global area of rubber trees planted increased from 1,125,000 acres to 4,500,000 acres. (Babcock, 1966)

The certificate of the Nebraska Tire and Rubber Company shows the importance of rubber not only in the United States, but specifically the impact of rubber in Omaha. In the 1920s, Omaha saw a boom in tire demand. The Nebraska Tire and Rubber Company was one of the leading producers at this time . The president, Mr. William Wuchter, began his career with bicycle tires in 1897 and adapted his business with the increasing use of the new household item, the automobile. (India Rubber & Tire Review, 1922) The automobile industry sparked not only across the nation in the 1920s, but specifically in Omaha. In fact, by 1923, Omaha was the leading city with the highest ratio of population to automobile ownership. (Harding,2017) According to the India Rubber & Tire Review, “Three tire manufacturers in Omaha are making approximately 1,500 tires and on average 1,000 a day each.” The Nebraska Rubber and Tire company attributed to 550 of these 1,500 tires and 500 of the 1,000 tubes produced each day. To keep up with high demand, the company was open and working 24/7. (India Rubber & Tire Review, 1922)

It is clear that rubber is one of the most important commodities in the United States, “The American rubber industry became the largest and the most technologically advanced in the world. By the late 1930s, the United States was using half the world's supply of natural rubber, and most of it originated in Southeast Asia.” However, in 1941, not only did the United States feel the impact of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but the Japanese also seized the United States’ rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. These rubber plantations consisted of 90%-95% of the world’s resource of rubber. Hence, the thought of losing almost all rubber resources caused the United States to question how they would proceed with the war. Without being able to produce tires for airplanes, cars, or other war machinery, an increasing fear arose that the Allies could not win the war. (United States Synthetic Rubber Program, 2018) It was time for a call to action.

Franklin Roosevelt responded to the rubber shortage through three specific actions. First, Roosevelt asked Americans to be mindful of their rubber consumption and to collect extra rubber for recycling. Next, U.S. plant scientists traveled to nearly all corners of the earth to find other resources that could be used to produce rubber. Lastly, Roosevelt called for a production of a new synthetic rubber. (United States Synthetic Rubber Program, 2018) Two lines of thought emerged on what the best starting material for synthetic rubber would be: one side argued to create it from grain alcohol while the other advocated for the use of petroleum. Some of the biggest advocates for rubber made from grain alcohol came from the Midwest. The plan included building alcohol plants in the middle of Nebraska. They never received government support because the petroleum industry assured the government that they would be able to provide the rubber the country needed, and so synthetic rubber plants based on converting petroleum started to pop up. (Finlay, 2009) As a result, hundreds of thousands of new synthetic rubber materials increased to make accommodations for World War II. These actions that Roosevelt called for were essential to the US victory in World War II.

In modern times, synthetic rubber has increased in demand. Countries in Asia, specifically China, have the highest demand for both synthetic and natural rubber. It is also evident that world consumption of synthetic rubber is higher than natural rubber. However, many products require natural rubber, such as airplane and car tires. Today natural rubber takes up 29% of the global rubber market, the remaining demand is synthetic rubber substitutes. (Clay, 2004) The United States consumption of natural rubber is highly used in the production of tires. (Tire Manufacturer Testing Dandelion Rubber, 2012) Natural rubber, made from latex not petroleum, favors over synthetic rubber in the manufacturing of tires because of its resilience, resistance to abrasion and high impact forces, ability to disperse heat and malleability when it gets cold. To this day, research with synthetic rubber has not been able to create a product that performs as well as natural rubber does. (Van Beilen and Poirier, 2007) “Aircraft tires require nearly 100% natural rubber to meet heat tolerance and required adhesion specifications.” (Tire Manufacturer Testing Dandelion Rubber, 2012) In comparison, car tires compose of 35-40% natural rubber for the same reasons. (Clay, 2004) Natural rubber is not only used for tires, but also found in tennis shoes, surgical gloves, rubber bands, hoses, and many more household items. With the large consumption of natural and synthetic rubber in our country, there is a push for recycling rubber materials, especially because it can take fifty to eighty years for rubber to decompose. (Adhikari and Maiti, 2000)

Even with the effort to find ways to start recycling rubber materials this does not change the fact that forest landscapes have suffered centuries of transformations and exploitative practices. During the start of his automobile empire Henry Ford wished to find ways to economize and control as many parts of his business as he could. This led to the purchase of land in the Amazon jungle in Brazil to be used for the creation of rubber plantations. This attempt failed, but Ford’s purchase, now called Fordlandia, has become pasture land for cattle after years of deforestation. The roads that Ford had built resulted in fragmented landscapes propelling extinctions of species that require huge amounts of land to survive. (Grandin, 2009)

Southeast Asia has also suffered from immense landscape change due to high demand for the latex. Since 1961 rubber production has increased by a factor of 1500% in Southeast Asia. (Fox et al., 2000) Its range is being expanded from where it was originally planted to keep up with demand. (Li and Fox, 2012) Typically, this process used the slash and burn tactic to clear forests needed for the new plantations. The new areas are less suitable for rubber plantations and usually require some form of terracing to grow properly leading to higher rates of soil erosion. (Ziegler, Fox, and Xu, 2009) As the demand for new tires continues to increase areas in Southeast Asia will continue to be transformed and degraded.

The Nebraska Tire & Rubber company shows the impact that a single commodity can have not only on the city of Omaha, but on a global perspective. Not only does rubber serve as a vital part to suffice our need for modern day transportation, but it is also seen in everyday objects. Our world would not be where it is today without rubber. From its original habitat in the Amazon, to Goodyear’s invention of producing natural rubber through vulcanization, and the increasing amount of natural forest loss, it is evident that the consumption of rubber on a global scale has attributed to the Anthropocene.


Emma Baker
Rebecca Hare


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