They Used to Say Whale Oil Was Indispensable, Too





From the 1700s through the mid-1800s, oil extracted from the blubber of whales and boiled in giant pots gave light to America and much of the Western world. The United States whaling fleet peaked in 1846 with 735 ships out of 900 in the world. Whaling was the fifth-largest industry in the United States; in 1853 alone, 8,000 whales were slaughtered for whale oil shipped to light lamps around the world, plus sundry other parts used in hoop skirts, perfume, lubricants and candles.

Like oil, particularly in its early days, whaling spawned dazzling fortunes, depending on the brute labor of tens of thousands of men doing dirty, sweaty, dangerous work. Like oil, it began with the prizes closest to home and then found itself exploring every corner of the globe. And like oil, whaling at its peak seemed impregnable, its product so far superior to its trifling rivals, like smelly lard oil or volatile camphene, that whaling interests mocked their competitors.

“Great noise is made by many of the newspapers and thousands of the traders in the country about lard oil, chemical oil, camphene oil, and a half-dozen other luminous humbugs,” The Nantucket Inquirer snorted derisively in 1843. It went on: “But let not our envious and — in view of the lard oil mania — we had well nigh said, hog-gish opponents, indulge themselves in any such dreams.”



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