Monday, January 25, 2010

Robert Fergusson and Rust-Oleum Paint

Robert Fergusson was born in Scotland but left his native land in 1890 at the age of 12 to serve as a cabin boy on a sailing ship. He sailed on a number of whaling ships and became intrigued with the ability of fish oil to prevent rust.  In those days, the decks of ships were made of steel and painted with a mixture of fish oil and flake graphite.  It had two problems:  it took a long time to dry and you could "smell the stuff a mile away."  In his travels around the world, he experimented with various kinds of fish, some worked better than others, but all "smelled to vigorously."

From 1901 to 1914, Mr. Fergusson sailed the Pacific coast of the United States and obtained his  master's rating along the way.  But he continued to search for the right fish oil and visited commercial fisheries from Alaska to San Diego.  Finally, he found that the oil from the Pilchard sardine produced the right effect.

World War One came and Fergusson joined the British merchant marines.  When America entered the war, he joined the American merchant marines.  After the war, he was in charge of a maintenance organization which had 100 ships in mothballs in New Orleans.  This gave him time to continue his experiments.  In 1922, he finally found that processed sardine oil would dry over night, could be produced in color, and didn't smell.  In 1930, he retired from the merchant marines and began to sell his product.  When the depression hit, he moved to Chicago because there was talk of a World's Fair. He named his product Rust-Oleum because "oleum" is Latin for oil.

"In Chicago the Captain embarked on a remarkable sales program, gratuitously slapping Rust-Oleum in assorted patterns on rusting water tanks, old locomotives, and steel fence posts.  Evidence of his artistic inclinations was visible for years."

Robert Fergusson died in October, 1940 at the age of 63.  He was in Toronto and suffered a heart attack in the Union station.  He lived at 1704 Wilmette Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois,  and was an active member of the Illinois St. Andrew's Society.  For many years he provided tobacco for the "old men" at the Scottish Home in North Riverside.  He was survived by two sons, Robert and Donald Fergusson.

The obituary for his wife was published 16 December, 1944 - "Mrs. Robert Fergusson (Ellen W.) of 1704 Wilmette avenue, Wilmette, wife of the late Capt. Robert Fergusson, mother of Robert A. and Donald W.Fergusson, sister of Archibald and Robert Wilson, services at the chapel and interment at Memorial Park,".

I will continue this family story tomorrow.


  1. Rest In Peace brother! -Bran US/DYM

  2. Great article, Wayne. I have read the abridged history of Rusto before but never in such detail. Terrific job!

  3. Hello Wayne,

    Great story! Since I happen to work for Rust-Oleum the heritage that comes with the brand it very interesting to me. Do you have any photo's of captain R.Fergusson by any chance? We only have one picture of him. It would be great to have some others to use in our Rust-Oleum brand-communication.


    1. Hello V.Voorhoeve, my name is Doug. I came across this article while searching for information on the history of Rust Oleum. I am an artist and collector of vintage Rust Oleum paint and Rust Oleum products. . I was wondering if you happen anything related to the brand that you would be willing to part with? I am very passionate about the company and my collection of Rusto relics, I would greatly appreciate any help in my mission, or just a chance to speak with you about your time with Rust Oleum!
      Please feel free to contact me via email.
      Thanks much, Doug