Thursday, April 18, 2024




Born in St. Paul, Ramsey, Minnesota,  on September 1, 1860, his father was James Nolan, and mother, Mary McCormack. He is first noted in the 1880 U.S. Census for San Francisco, where he was living with his widowed mother. His first job was with Heuter Brothers, Pioneer Varnish Works, and he quickly assumed a role as a salesman.

 He apparently acquired a sense of the utility of paint as a method of preservation of the underlying surface and became fascinated with the concept of keeping iron and steel from rusting, without impacting the usebility and appearance of the treated item. Nolan decided to take a big step in his career and develop a product that could be a little better than those already on the market. Brands such as Cosmoline and similar ‘jelled” petroleum products were quite messy if one wanted full protection. His product would protect with less mess, and he decided to become an entrepreneur and start his own company.

 What is with the name Bessemer Compound? It was Nolan’s way of marketing his product by tagging it onto the name of a state-of-the-art process for producing steel from ‘pig-iron’, which was introduced by Henry Bessemer, beginning in the mid 1850’s. Simply described, it was a method by which oxygen was introduced to molten pig-iron, thus removing impurities from the iron, and producing a much improved product. The impurities would rise to the surface of the molten iron in the form of slag, which could then be discarded. Nolan’s product had no connection with the Bessemer process, but Bessemer steel was nearly always the product used in firearms, which would have been a primary use for his “Bessemer Compound”.

 Nolan received a utility patent for his product from the U.S. Patent Office on January 5, 1886. The main ingredients were bi-sulphide of carbon, beeswax, and sperm oil, combined per his specifications. The bi-sulphide of carbon has a disagreeable ‘rotten-egg’ odor, so his patent also included the addition of some sort of perfumed substance as well, in order to sweeten the aromatics. Each bottle is small, just 4 5/8 inches tall and holding slightly less than two ounces of liquid. Marketed as a rust preventer, the small amount could only be used for small iron or steel products, as in pistols and rifles.


A copy of Nolan’s patent document, describing the details of his new product.


As any responsible entrepreneur would do, Nolan also requested trademark rights for his Bessemer Compound, and received it from the U.S. Patent Office on April 12, 1887 as number 14281. Beginning with his arrival in San Francisco about 1880, Nolan was a traveling salesman for several paint and varnish companies, and continued with that line of work nearly throughout his stay in San Francisco, except for the few years from 1886 to 1888, when he focused on the sale of his compound. In 1889 he went to work for the Pacific Varnish Co. until he left San Francisco in 1892.There is no record of his Bessemer Compound after that date, and it is likely that he moved to Ohio, where he is scheduled in the U.S. Census there in 1900. In that year he was listed as a boarder in the home of the Barron family with the occupation of traveling salesman.


The box wrapper for Nolan's Bessemer Compound accompanied his trademark application.

Nolan’s partner in the Bessemer business was Horace Van Arsdale Scott, described as a general commission merchant. In June 1888 he was forced to file bankruptcy, and probably no longer became associated with Nolan. (San Jose Mercury-news, June 2, 1888). Scott later became a traveling salesman for W.P. Fuller & Co., a large paint and glass establishment in San Francisco. Scott later filed his own patent for a “refilled bottle detector”. (San Francisco Call, July 2, 1903) Patent No. 732,592. It is doubtful the patent was a success as it appears somewhat useless.




A nearly complete label connected to the Bessemer Compound.

At age 39, Nolan married Louise C. Siehl, age 21, in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 20, 1900, and had three children there, Ruth May Nolan, born March 20, 1901, John Francis Nolan, born Dec 16, 1902 and Louise Christine Nolan, born September 3, 1905. By 1920 the U.S. census notes his residence as Ardmore, Oklahoma, with the occupation of paint manufacturer. By 1925, his son, John F. Nolan, jr., had established a paint manufacturing business in Houston, Texas. It was there, at the William Penn Hotel, on June 8, 1931, in downtown Houston, that Henry Francis Nolan, took his last breath. His body was transported to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was buried with his wife, who joined him there upon her death on February 25, 1955, in West Palm Beach, Florida.


An interesting look at the business of J.F. Nolan and his mastic paint company. (The Daily Ardmoreite, Ardmore, Oklahoma • Jun 3, 1920)

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