Earth Science Week Classroom Activities

Products Made from Petroleum

American Oil and Gas HistoricalSociety

Activity Source:

Adapted with permission by Bruce Wells, American Oil & Gas Historical Society.


Most people associate petroleum with transportation — but we are surrounded by thousands of other everyday products that come from this vital natural resource. A typical 42- gallon barrel of crude oil yields about 20 gallons of gasoline and 4 gallons of jet fuel. What products come from the other 18 gallons?

Almost 150 years ago, on Aug. 27, 1859, “Colonel” Edwin Drake discovered oil at a depth of 69½ feet near Titusville, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of America’s petroleum industry. A replica of his wooden derrick stands at the Drake Well Museum. The museum’s exhibits tell the story of technologies that led to kerosene, gasoline, jet fuel, and an abundance of other commonplace products.

For example, in 1872, a young chemist named Robert Chesebrough patented a method for turning a waxy residue from oil wells into a balm. He called it Vaseline. In 1913, Thomas Williams became intrigued when his sister mixed Vaseline with a darkening agent, perhaps coal dust. Before long, he was selling “Lash-Brow-Ine” by mailorder catalogue. He later renamed his product Maybelline.

Did you know that automobile tires were white until 1910, when B.F. Goodrich Co. introduced “carbon black” into the vulcanizing process? Carbon black, which looks like soot, is produced by controlled combustion of petroleum products, both oil and natural gas. Its use in tires dramatically increased strength and durability — and created an immense market.

A byproduct of petroleum distillation quickly found its way from refinery to marketplace in the form of candles, sealing waxes, and peculiar American candies. In the early 1920s, a Buffalo, N.Y., confectioner used fully refined, foodgrade paraffin to produce “penny chewing gum novelties.” His business boomed.


  • Paper and pen (to record research)
  • A computer with access to the Internet


Work in small groups to research products made from petroleum other than fuels — the challenge is to find such products “hiding in plain sight.” For
example, an April 2007 nationwide online survey revealed that 72 percent of the American public does not know that conventional plastic is made
from petroleum products, primarily oil.

Conduct Internet research for resources relating to the manufacturing of those products. Choose the most unusual or surprising product and describe its history and relationship to petroleum and your standard of living.

  1. Prior to your research, make a list of petroleum products commonly seen in the classroom or at home.
  2. Select one of your products for research that is more detailed.
  3. Write a report about the product and its history. If possible, include an image or illustration.
  4. Make a presentation to the class.
  5. Ask your class members to vote on the most
    interesting result — and compare products. If there is time, allow your teacher to guide a discussion reviewing the role of petroleum
    products in relation to the past and current American standard of living.

Common Products That Use Petroleum:

  • Plastics
  • Ink
  • Paint
  • Shoe Polish
  • Nylons
  • Roof shingles
  • Novelty Candy
  • Cosmetics
  • Candles
  • Vaseline
  • Bug Killer
  • Ammonia
  • Tires
  • Asphalt
  • Crayons
  • Paper cups
  • Wax paper