Whaler's Harpoon with Toggle Head

The first step in catching a whale was throwing at least two sharp harpoons into its back, to ensure that the whaleboat was securely fastened to its prey. Harpoon shafts were made of soft wrought iron, so that they would bend and not break off when twisted, which risked losing the wounded whale.
A line at the bottom of the harpoon’s wooden handle attached it to the whaleboat. Once in the whale’s flesh, the sharp toggle tip swiveled sideways, making it harder for the tip of the weapon to pull out. Whales normally dove deep after the first prick, to try and escape the sharp jab from the surface of the ocean. This harpoon shaft was twisted by a descending whale.
Object Name
date made
D. & D.
Physical Description
iron (overall material)
overall: 4 3/4 in x 29 1/2 in x 5 1/4 in; 12.065 cm x 74.93 cm x 13.335 cm
Place Made
United States: Massachusetts, New Bedford
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Natural Resources
Cultures & Communities
Industry & Manufacturing
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

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