Archives & Special Collections Gallery Exhibit




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Creation Date

Fall 2014


Artifact Label:

About American Whaling:

The history of American whaling goes back as far as the 17th century when early colonists began harvesting whales that had drifted to shore. By the late eighteenth century Americans were beginning to whale hunt in the Pacific and, by the early 19th century, they dominated the industry. Major whaling ports included Cape Cod, New Bedford and Nantucket. At its height, the New Bedford fleet reached as many as 329 whaling vessels that employed more than 10,000 men.

Whales provided a variety of resources from baleen for such goods as hoop skirts and umbrella frames to oils for trains, lamps, soaps, cosmetics and machine lubricants. Sperm whale oil, which comes from a sperm whale’s blubber and spermaceti, a liquid wax found in a sperm whale’s head, were considered the finest of whale substances. Their most distinctive feature was how brightly they burned, so much so that on occasion other whale oils were added to reduce their luminosity.

By the 1860s the American whaling industry had begun to decline. In part this was due to the Civil War, the discovery of petroleum and, most notably, the rise of the Norwegian whaling industry, which had developed far more sophisticated technology.

“But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!”