Interpretive Theme: Products, Technology & Business

Advertisement for woman's corset.
Corset stays were made from baleen, a substance found in the mouths of some whales.

2A. Whale Products

“New Bedford…is a land of oil, true enough.”

Occasionally, whales come out of the sea and die onshore. In ancient times people discovered that the stranded carcasses of such animals had valuable oil, bone, meat, blubber, and baleen. These products proved lucrative enough to inspire people on several continents to begin to hunt whales near their own shores. By the 17th century active whale hunts were being prosecuted by people from northern Europe, Asia, the Arctic, and the Pacific Coast of North America.

In the Massachusetts colony, settlers quickly began to include fishing and off-shore whaling among their other seasonal activities. Having brought the technology with them from Europe, settlers of Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Long Island began to watch for whales alongshore and to send boats out to chase them when the opportunity arose. As whales moved farther offshore, New Englanders followed, eventually developing an industry with a remarkably well-adapted technology.

Americans depended on candles and oil-filled lamps to light their homes in the years before electricity. Whales provided both the best oil and the best candle wax for home illumination. In addition, whale oil was used to lubricate fine machinery. Two kinds of oil came from whales, oil rendered from the blubber, and the higher-grade spermaceti oil. All whales have a thick layer of blubber that keeps their body temperature regulated as they travel through cold water; at a high enough temperature this blubber can be rendered into oil-a process the whalemen referred to as “trying out.” Sperm whales have an additional source of oil in a cavity in their head. This waxy oil, called spermaceti, can be separated by pressing into the highest grade of oil and a superior candle wax.

Some whales have a substance in their mouths, called baleen, which was also extremely valuable, especially in the 19th century. Baleen hangs in plates from the upper jaw of whales in the group known as Mysticeti and is used by them to strain food out of seawater. Strong and flexible, these plates of baleen also proved useful to people. Many of the fashions of the last century would have been impossible without baleen. Sometimes called “whalebone” in the fashion industry, baleen was used to stiffen corsets and collars and to make the hooped frame on which skirts rode. Other products that utilized the flexible strength of baleen included umbrella ribs, riding crops, buggy whips, and hat brims.

The third important product obtained from whales was ambergris, a substance produced occasionally in the intestines of sperm whales. Ambergris was used in fine perfumes to keep the scent from changing and was occasionally added to wine as an aphrodisiac.

A statue of African-American blacksmith Lewis Temple holding his invention, the Toggle Iron.

Photo by John Robson

2B. The Whale Hunt
“The Spermaceti Whale…is an active, fierce animal, and requires vast address and boldness in the fisherman.”
Thomas Jefferson

From the mastheads of their vessels (ships, barks, and schooners, not usually exceeding 400 tons), whalemen watched for whales to come to the surface to breathe. If it was determined that the whale or whales in view was one of the species they hunted –animals which were not too fast to be pursued under sail or oar power, and which, once killed, could be expected to float long enough to be towed and processed-then one or more whaleboats was lowered from the side of the vessel for the chase. In each whaleboat were six men:an officer, a harpooner (called a “boatsteerer”), and four oarsmen. For the trip out to the whale the boatsteerer rowed at the bow oar and the officer steered with a steering oar; if conditions allowed, a mast and sail could be raised. When the boat reached the whale it was the job of the boatsteerer to thrust the harpoon. If the harpoon stuck, then the boat would be towed behind the whale by the line that was attached to it-an event referred to as a “Nantucket Sleighride.” When the whale tired from towing the boat and loss of blood, the men would pull themselves up to the whale’s back, the officer would kill the whale by puncturing its lung with a long, iron lance. The whale would then be towed back to the ship for processing.

Americans developed the shipboard tryworks and cutting stage as voyages moved farther offshore, into the Atlantic. These allowed for whales to be processed while laying alongside a ship at sea. The cutting stage was lowered over the back of the whale to allow two or three officers or boatsteerers to stand over the whale outboard of the ship’s rail. The blubber was loosened with a sharp, long-handled spades and was hoisted with a winch and tackle onto the deck of the ship in a long strip called a blanket piece. That piece was subsequently cut into smaller pieces on deck or in a protected area just below main deck, and the small pieces were conveyed to two tryouts-cast-iron kettles bricked into a furnace on deck, the tryworks. The blubber was reduced to oil, which was conveyed, when cooled, into barrels assembled for the purpose by the ship’s cooper.

In the 1840s Lewis Temple, an African-American blacksmith working in New Bedford, developed a harpoon with a toggling head that pulled out of the whale much less frequently than other kinds of harpoons; this dramatically improved the success of the hunt. At around the same time, New Bedford ships began to press for the first time into icy waters of the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean in search of bowhead whales. The native people of the region had been involved in an active whale hunt for two hundred years. By the middle of the 19th century the indigenous people found themselves competing for whales with an ever-increasing number of Yankee ships. More that 2,500 American whaling voyages were made into Arctic waters in the last half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century.

Ice was a dangerous factor in the region. In 1871 and again in 1876, a number of ships were trapped near Point Barrow, Alaska, and had to be abandoned. In response to these disasters, a number of ship owners began to use auxiliary steam power, and as the 19th century came to a close, more and more New Bedford ships involved in the Arctic hunt carried steam engines in addition to sails.
More about Barrow, Alaska

Other new technologies were adopted, including the use of guns and exploding harpoons. These new technologies would, however, be better exploited by the whalemen of other nations; even as they were being introduced onto New Bedford vessels, the industry was beginning to decline and ship owners were moving their investments from whaling into the new promising textile industry.

New Bedford City Seal

2C. The Whaling Business
Lucem Diffundo:”We light the world”
-New Bedford City Motto

When a ship departed a New England port to begin a whaling voyage, the work of the owners and agent was already well advanced. It took a tremendous amount of planning to prepare a vessel for a long voyage. The officers and crew must be hired, their provisions purchased, and the vessel readied for hunting and processing whales with suitable gear and equipment. In the course of preparing a vessel, it was not unusual for an agent to be in contact with more than a hundred vendors of tools, boats, sails, rigging, navigating instruments, food, gear, medical supplies, and trade goods. Ships were either converted from the merchant service or purposefully built in the shipyards that began to spring up in New Bedford and the surrounding towns. Banks and insurance companies were founded, and grew in response to the demands of the whaling industry.

Most ships had a number of investors or owners, who generally employed an agent to oversee all of the details. (Often the agent held a share in the vessel as well.) during the course of the cruise the agent corresponded as well as possible with the captain, forwarding mail for the crew and making arrangements for the crew to ship barrels of oil back home and to purchase supplies en route. At the end of the voyage the agent’s job continued until the oil and baleen were sold and the investors, officers, and crew paid off.

In the earliest years of New Bedford whaling, a strong market for whale products in England existed, with whale oil and spermaceti candles making up half of the exports from New England to “old” England in the five years before the Boston Tea Party. But whalemen were not always so lucky. The products brought back to New Bedford entered a marketplace that was constantly fluctuating with competition from new technology, changes in fashion, the health of whale stocks, and the vagaries caused by the large number of vessels active at different times and departing from numerous ports. By the second half of the 19th century investors had to wait a long time to see a return on their investment.

As whaling declined, textiles were on the rise, and many investors moved their money from one industry into the other. Ports closer to the Pacific whale stocks-Lahaina and Honolulu in the Hawaiian Islands-consequently arose to pick up much of New Bedford’s slack, consequently San Francisco took over the registry of many of New Bedford’s ships in the declining years.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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