Whale Harpoons, or Temple Toggle Irons

While the African American blacksmith and former slave Lewis Temple did not invent the harpoon toggle, his invention made it better. The first barb at the tip of the toggle iron was designed to penetrate the whale’s flesh. The second barb also went straight in. A small wooden peg holding the lower barb in place would then break when the whale pulled away, allowing the barbed head to swivel away from the shaft. The new T-shape of the barb prevented the dart from pulling out of its wound.
It was a harpooner’s responsibility to keep his tools sharp and well lubricated, to ensure that the toggle swiveled freely. Sometimes the men fashioned covers for the heads of their harpoons to keep them clean and dry until needed for use.
One of these irons, or gigs, is shown in the closed position for entering the whale’s flesh; the other is toggled open to show how much harder it was to pull out.
Object Name
Date made
Temple, Lewis
Physical Description
wrought iron (overall material)
overall: 39 1/4 in; x 99.695 cm
Place Made
United States: Massachusetts, New Bedford
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Natural Resources
Cultures & Communities
On the Water exhibit
The Development of the Industrial United States
See more items in
Work and Industry: Fisheries
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Jonathan Bourne through J. T. Brown
Brown, James Temple. The Whale Fishery and Its Appliances
Publication title
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL
Additional Media

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