loads of greasy luck," or whaleships full of whale oil, helped to build
the fortunes of many New Englanders. Once the primary industry along the
coast of New England, from Long Island to Connecticut to Massachusetts,
whaling, as with many industries fell victim to changing needs and changing
For years, only a handful of specialized collectors gathered the bits and
pieces of memorabilia left from this once great business. Environmental
concerns of the last several decades decried whaling, so those who collected
any items having to do with it stayed in the background.
Today, that’s no longer the case, as auctions and sales of whaling
paraphernalia fetch higher and higher prices.
In 1857, at the height of the whaling in America, forty-three ports
registered whaling ships in the Northeast, with New Bedford, Massachusetts
having the largest fleet with 329 active ships. Almost 10,000 men worked
aboard these ships, supported by thousands more on shore.
A Brief History
Man in ancient times discovered that the whale carcasses that occasionally
stranded ashore contained valuable blubber. By the 19th century the market
for whale products was substantial. The heyday of whaling occurred
from about 1810 to 1870, when hundreds of Yankee ships carried men from Cape
Cod, Nantucket or New Bedford in Massachusetts, Narragansett in Rhode
Island, and Sag Harbor, Cold Spring Harbor and East Hampton out on eastern
Long Island, New York.
At first men hunted only right or baleen whales close to shore,
but when Christopher Hussey of Nantucket accidently stumbled on a sperm
whale after having been driven off course in a gale, whalemen began to hunt
sperm whales for spermaceti oil, a valuable lubricant for watches and
delicate instruments. Spermacetti, a waxy substance
retrieved from the so-called junk found in the head of sperm whales, yielded
two valuable products--a high-grade oil and a superior wax for candles. The
manufacture of drippless, smokeless, bright-burning spermacetti candles
originated in Rhode Island in the second quarter of the 18th century and has
been called the first industry in America, eventually making these candles
one of the most valuable products made in New England.
They also hunted right and bowhead whales for oil and baleen–often
mistakenly called whalebone--the elongated plates of elastic, horny matter
that hangs from the upper jaw of these whales is
used to strain out food from sea water. As the 19th
century wore on, baleen became increasingly significant as a raw material
for corset stays, carriage springs, umbrella ribs, buggy whips, shoelaces,
hat brims, collar stays and skirt hoops.
In the years before electricity, people depended on whale oil and lamps
to light their homes. Oil lamps, used in every situation from the
forecastles of ships to the finest Victorian parlors, were fitted with a
special burner for whale oil said to have been invented by Benjamin Franklin
Yankee vessels of the 19th century, especially those built specifically for
whaling rather than converted from other uses, were of a type built to
withstand diverse climates from Equatorial heat to Arctic ice. Bluff bowed,
straight sided, and spacious to accommodate provisions and supplies for
voyages of two to three years and homebound cargos of 2,000 to 3,000 barrels
of oil and several thousand pounds of baleen, they were sheathed in copper
to protect their hulls against chaffing and tropical parasites. They also
contained various distinctive fixtures, such as a starboard-side blubber
cutting apparatus, a mid-ship try works and a mast head fitted with padded
rings for lookouts aloft.
A Yankee whaleboat of the 19th century was
the highly evolved result of 300 years of hunting whales in all types of
climates and virtually every corner of the globe. Extremely fast and
maneuverable, these boats could be rowed or sailed. When rowed they're
steered with a large mounted sweep oar at the stern, and when sailed, the
center board and detachable rudder were sometimes used in making the initial
approach to the whale. Whalemen stowed three
lances under the top edge of the starboard side and three extra harpoons on
the port side. The whaleboat also carried
two tubs of lime, oars, paddles, hatchet, shouldergun, bomb lances, spade
drug, and water keg–in all 48 articles–as well as a crew of six–a boat
steerer, harpooner, a mate and four oarsmen.
Once a whale was captured and the grueling process of cutting-in
(flensing off the blubber) and trying-out (rendering the blubber into
oil in the tryworks on deck) was completed, the 20-30-some men were
free to clean and prepare the ivory and bone for scrimshaw and practical
objects made of bone and wood.
While many antique collectors are familiar with scrimshaw, the folk art
form created by homesick whalemen who incised drawings into the surfaces of
ivory and bone as gifts to their sweethearts back home, few know much of the
implements used in the everyday life of the whaling industry.
To begin with, there were eventually 23 types of
harpoons, including the single and double fluted variety, as well as the
electric and barbed harpoon. The most famous and the one that simplified
whale hunting almost overnight was the Temple Toggle Iron. This harpoon,
invented by African American shipsmith Lewis Temple of New Bedford in 1848.,
offered significantly improved tenacity through a toggle that prevented the
harpoon from pulling free of the whale’s blubber by locking in a crossed
position once inside the whale.
An earlier improvement on the standard harpoon was the Greener’s Gun, a
harpoon gun made in Birmingham, England and introduced in America in 1837.
Were it not for the utility of the Greener's gun, the coast fishery of
whales would have been abandoned since it was often impossible to strike
whales with a hand harpoon.
Hunting the Whale
After the harpooner got a line attached to the whale, the whaleboat went on
what was known as a "Nantucket sleighride," with the giant whale
pulling up to three whaleboats over the waves for three hours or more–or
until it got tired. Then it was the first mate’s turn to kill the whale by
driving a sharp lance into its heart and lungs. At first, only a sharpened
steel lance was used, but in 1869, whaling Captain Ebenezer Pierce,
in conjunction with a gunsmith, developed the bomb lance, a brass breech
loader which could fire either a harpoon with a line attached or a small
When the whale spouted blood, the mate would cry, "There’s fire in
the chimney," signaling that the whale would soon die. It’s body was
towed back to the ship and secured to the side with humpback irons. A monkey
rope was used to lower a seaman from the deck to back of whale. He would
then use a cutting spade to cut into the blubber at three-foot intervals,
rolling the whale around as he cut. He then would slice a hole in one end of
the strip of blubber and a 3'x10' section of it, called a "horse
piece," was hoisted onto the deck to be cut into "Bible
leaves" by crew members using mincing knives. Then another crew member
would use a blubber fork to load the minced Bible
leaves of raw blubber into one of two cast iron trypots or oversized kettles
built side by side into a brick oven called a tryworks. Another used a
skimmer or strainer to remove the cracklings of spent blubber from the
trypot to be used as fuel. Later, someone used a dipper or bailer to
remove the rendered oil from the trypot and place it into the cooling tank
Before all of this was done, however, a crew member cut the head of the
whale from the body and hoisted it on deck. Another seaman used a similar
dipper to remove the spermaceti or case oil from a pocket in the whale’s
head called the case and poured it into barrels.
A bow gauge calibrated the external measurements of the various size
containers in which oil was stored--standard barrels, hogsheads, butts,
puncheons–to calculate the quantity of their contents. The
ship’s cooper used a backing knife and hollowing knife to round out or
hollow out the back of each individualized stave for these barrels. A
hull scraper, normally used for cleaning ships'
hulls, was also used for cleaning oil barrels.
In addition to the many tools on board, a whaling captain also kept a
collection of handcuffs, leg shackles, and blackjacks to help maintain
But whaling was a business and every business has paperwork–ships’
logs, accounting books, bills of lading, old whaling charts. The intricacies
of captains’ logs ranged from a simple day-to-day accounting of what went
on aboard ship to colorful volumes, judiciously illustrated with watercolor
paintings, showing scenes of faraway lands and encounters with whales.
Accounting for the complicated expenses for a two-and-a-half to four-year
whaling voyage occupied much of the time of merchants and captains.
Outfitting and provisioning for sea, shipboard tallies of stores consumed,
slops accounts (expenses incurred by the crew particularly for clothing,
tobacco and cash advances against pay) and accumulated expenses of the
voyage such as provisions en route, harbor taxes, etc—all had to recorded.
Originally published in AntiqueWeek.
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