Wooden-handled Harpoon

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, simple sharp-barbed harpoons on long wooden shafts were used to “dart” or fasten to the whales from whaleboats. Two darts were thrown, in case one broke loose. Then, sometime in the early 19th century, the toggle iron was developed, possibly by African American blacksmith Lewis Temple in New Bedford, MA.
Once embedded in the whale’s flesh, the sharp point of a toggle iron rotated, or toggled sideways, making it harder to pull out. Normally, at least six sharp darting irons were carried aboard individual whaleboats to ensure that lost or broken ones could be replaced without returning to the mother ship.
Object Name
Physical Description
metal (overall material)
wood (overall material)
rope (overall material)
overall: 109 3/4 in; x 278.765 cm
United States: Massachusetts, New Bedford
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
related event
Expansion and Reform
Civil War and Reconstruction
The Development of the Industrial United States
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Industry & Manufacturing
On the Water
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
J. H. Bartlett & Son
Related Publication
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL

Visitor Comments

Add a comment about this object

**Please read before submitting the form**

Have a comment or question about this object to share with the community? Please use the form below. Selected comments will appear on this page and may receive a museum response (but we can't promise). Please note that we generally cannot answer questions about the history, rarity, or value of your personal artifacts.

Have a question about anything else, or would you prefer a personal response? Please visit our FAQ or contact page.

Personal information will not be shared or result in unsolicited e-mail. See our privacy policy.

Enter the characters shown in the image.