A Whale of a Tale about Oil

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A Whale of a Tale About Oil

Nantucket Whaling scrimshaw - A Whale of a Tale About Oil

Here is the story for a whaler.
There’s the ship, the hunt boats and the whales.
The dangerous, gory, glorious part of the story.
All presented through the sailor’s art of scrimshaw on the ivory tooth of a sperm whale.
A contemporary work from the times.
Nantucket Whaling scrimshaw
Photo: EBurdett-wikicommons

There’s much more…

The U.S. Whaling Industry

U.S. Sperm Whale harvesting began sometime about 1712 and whaling became a powerful economic driver for the US colonies in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. The whaling fleet was hit hard by both that war and the war of 1812, but recovered. New Bedford, MA became the epicenter of U.S. whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the 1840s, there were some 900 ships around the world engaged in commercial whaling, of these some 735 were American. By the early 1850’s it was the fifth largest industry in the United States.  The industry’s most profitable year (1853), generated sales of 11 million dollars. That year, the fleet killed more than 8,000 whales, produced some 260,000 barrels of whale oil, 103,000 barrels of sperm oil and 5.7 million pounds of baleen.

New Bedford - whale oil & ships - A Whale of a Tale About Oil

It starts with light.

Refined whale oil was used to produce a lot of it. Large quantities went into the newly important street lighting in the genteel eastern cities. It was also used as lamp oil, made into candles, and used in miner’s headlamps, but it gave off a strong odor when burnt and was not very popular for domestic lighting. A non-lighting byproduct of refining whale-oil was soap, actually, industrial-grade cleansers, it was unsuitable for cosmetic soap because of its foul smell and tendency to discolor.
The best lighting came from spermaceti, a clear liquid wax contained within the head cavities of sperm whales. Valuable for its use in lighthouse lamps. Candles made from it, the best reading light, burned 4-6 times brighter than traditional beeswax candles, and were very clean, far superior to homemade tallow candles.

1850  – The cost of lighting…
Lard oil – 90 cents gallon (low quality, smelly) (1842)
Whale oil – $1.30 to $2.50/gallon (smelly unless spermaceti) (up to the mid 1840’s?)
Camphine or “burning fluid” – 50 cents/gallon (combinations of alcohol,
turpentine and camphor oil – bright, sweet smelling) (1830-1835)
coal oil – 50 cents gallon (sooty, smelly, low quality) (1846)
kerosene from petroleum — 60 cents gallon  (1858)  (introduced in early 1860s)


A baleen Corset - A Whale of a Tale About OilA baleen corset
c. 1835
Photo: U.S. PD VA Museum

As the light from whale oil began to fade, baleen (aka: whalebone), originally just a byproduct of whaling, became the principal product due to its wide use in the fashion market. Baleen is the dense, fibrous bristles which hang from the upper jaws of baleen whales, which the animals use to filter tiny crustaceans, plankton and fish from the sea. The bony plates from which the bristles hung provided the perfect combination of sturdiness and flexibility needed to craft round skirt hoops and the structured boning inside corsets. That gave women the hourglass figures that were so in vogue at the time. You can bet your poke that beneath those Paris gowns, sold right from the wagons they came in on, Tombstone’s lovelies had on a whalebone corset! The fashion market also found uses for baleen in the making of some of the elaborate designs of women’s hats.

 “Fashion maintained the whaling industry, right up to the 1890s.”

Baleen appeared in an amazing array of industrial and consumer items. Called whalebone, it was used wherever flexible, springy, rod or ribbon shapes were needed, much as fiberglass rods and plastic strips are used today. Those plates could be made into fishing poles, crossbows and the ribbing for umbrellas and parasols. It made excellent springs for horse-drawn carriages, mattress, and pianos. Untold thousands of buggy whips, eyeglass frames, hair and chimney brushes, and shirt collar components were manufactured from baleen. It was even used in medicine to help set broken bones. However, in time, as with whale oil, materials that could be manufactured cheaper and more readily on land, gradually replaced it, buggy whips and all…

A different kind of smell…

Ambergris as found - A Whale of a Tale about Oil


The last valuable whale commodity was ambergris, a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish color produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and occasionally found floating in the sea or washed up on the beach, always an uncertain and rare find. It  was, and still is, used to make perfume. FYI: This beach found piece, weighing in at somewhat over a pound was estimated to be worth about $65,000. Photo: U.S. PD internet.


But there was always Lubrication
Its qualities as a lubricant are legend.

whale oil is “as rare as the milk of queens.”
The fictional narrator in Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick (1851)
 describes the preciousness of the substance to contemporary American society.

It’s hard to overstate the profound importance of whaling to the US economy beginning in the 18th century and throughout the entire 19th century. It was foundational. It’s arguable that, had we not had access to this lubricant, the industrial revolution would have been have been pushed back decades.  It was burgeoning industry that kept the need for whale oil alive, including the massive textile and cordage industries. It was the best lubricant for all sorts of machines, watches, clocks, chronometers, sewing machines, typewriters and firearms. In today’s dollars, the value of the whaling fleet in 1846 alone was equivalent to a third of a trillion dollars, in a much smaller overall economy.

Sperm Oil for firearms - A Whale of a Tale About Oil

Sperm Oil Photo: U.S. PD? internet

Sperm oil, a special kind of oil obtained from the head cavities of sperm whales, differs chemically from ordinary whale oil: it is composed mostly of liquid wax. Its properties, and applications differ from those of regular whale oil, its numerous variations brought higher prices.
The premium lubricant of the day was Blackfish Oil (Pilot Whale).* More expensive and far surpassing the best that could be produced from Sperm Whales, it was used in the finest watches and chronometers, on the coldest sub-zero days. It was said to improve in quality with age. A gallon of the highest grade Blackfish oil was worth around $10 (1904) – about $250 in today’s devalued money.
The refining and production of these premium oils required specialized machinery and time. These costs added into the expense of the finished products. It didn’t matter to the consumers. Nothing else had the endurance or phenomenal physical properties of whale oil.

It literally lubricated the entire industrial revolution.

*FYI: A toothed, predatory whale (smaller than sperm whales) with a bulbous head containing an oil chamber for its echolocation system.

Today, most countries around the world have agreed to moratorium on commercial whaling. (1982)
Other laws ban all whale products in commerce.

There are those who maintain that even in face of modern synthetics,
Whale Oils are still the best lubricants.
The firearms of the Old West functioned on Whale Oil.
Things would have been very different without it.
I suspect there still may be, yet today, a few old gunsmiths
who might have a small quantity of the forbidden elixir
and only provide it to their best work.
Dixie gun Works markets a synthetic Sperm Whale Oil.
The story continues to drip out, it’s too big for OWDR…


The above information was derived from a number of sources:

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2007)*
Eric Jay Dolin, author and maritime history expert
**Cherry Balmz Weapons Lubes – Firearms Lubricant history
Camphine article in Wikipedia
Whale Oil article in Wikipedia
and others…

for further references related to A Whale of a Tale About Oil on Old West Daily Reader
see also:
Photo Gallery Index – Weapons Photos – Firearms
*References – Books – Novels and History (non-ref) – Leviathan
**References – WebsitesCherry Balmz Weapons Lubes
References – Dictionary:
Coal oil
Lard oil
Whale oil

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