The Sticky Truth Behind Tar and Feathering

Today, we bandy about the term “tar and feathering” to indicate public shaming or humiliation. In the not-so-distant past, tar and feathering was a more physical way to show extreme dissatisfaction. Especially during the revolutionary years, it was a crowd (or more like an angry mob) favorite meant to expose and punish bad behavior, disloyalty, or increasingly unpopular support of crown policies. Think vigilante justice for perceived crimes that don’t warrant capital punishment. The end result was not only public embarrassment but a not insignificant amount of pain and suffering.

The Process

The process is no more complex than the name. The victim is stripped, usually to the waist, but on special occasions, entirely and covered with hot tar. Not the roadside stuff, but pine tar, used at the time as an adhesive and to fill the seams in wooden boats and ships. Once the victim was adequately sticky, they’d be covered in feathers.

Pardon the language, but the bottom line was… this sucked.

If you’ve ever grabbed a freshly cut log oozing with sap, you know precisely how sticky it is and how hard it is to remove from your skin. Now add semi-permanently attached feathers and the spectacle of morphing into a large bird with second and third-degree skin burns. Not fun. And everyone knew you’d been in hot water for some reason or another. There’s no hiding the tar and feathering treatment.

Pine Tar

When we think of tar in these modern times, images of roadside crews cooking that smelly stuff come to mind. Typical road “tar” is heated to 275 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember, water boils at just 212.

While pine tar is not nearly as hot as the highway stuff, it’s still plenty uncomfortable. The melting point of pine tar varies with the type and composition of the substance but ranges from 194 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s still hot.

How Hot Are We Talking?

To put those temperatures in perspective, a hot tub that’s “human safe” and won’t scald you maxes out at about 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

While hot tubs can feel uncomfortable hot, one in the factory-recommended temperature range is unlikely to cause burns, so let’s consider some other data points.

McDonald’s is known for its piping-hot coffee (this is a selling point), and these days, word on the street is the appropriate temperature for their fresh Joe, which is between 167 and 176 degrees Fahrenheit. It used to be hotter until the famous Liebeck v. McDonald’s, where a woman sued the company for medical damages after receiving third-degree burns when she spilled a cup of hot coffee in her lap. In those days, the suit alleged the company served coffee hotter than other industry players, possibly in the 180 to 190-degree range.

So, whatever the nature of the specific pine tar used in tar and feathering, it’s likely it was plenty hot enough to cause painful burns on contact. As for removing it? It’s not just uncomfortable, you’re going to lose skin.


It’s hard to argue the punishment factor of tarring and feathering as it’s a painful and messy process, but perhaps the real appeal to those who inflicted the practice was the “message” component. In a time when the populace was divided between support of and rebellion against the crown, it was perceived as an effective way to show displeasure to those who violated boycotts against England or engaged in other activities not in support of the revolution.

Ever wonder about...

Whose idea was it to drink cow milk?
Is there weather inside the world’s largest building?
Do hangovers get worse as you get older?
How many stars are in our universe?

Subscribe now and get your free Constitutional Fun Facts eBook!

Learn something new every day. And have fun doing it!

Sign up to receive fun and interesting stories every Wedsnesday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *