For Light and Fashion

For centuries, the bodies of whales furnished dozens of valuable products—from whale oil to skirt hoops. As a result, whales were hunted nearly to extinction by the late 1800s.



Whale Sales, 1853–92

Whale products were an important part of American culture in the 1800s. Merchants all over the East featured whale products in their advertisements and letterheads, even if they were nowhere near the sea.


Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

The Whale’s “Utility to Man,” 1800s

This illustration mixes scenes of capturing and processing whales with examples of products made from whales—from food for Eskimos to umbrella ribs to candles and oil for lighthouse illumination.


Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Baleen Drying Yard, 1880s

Baleen is a stiff material on the upper jaws of some whales that enables them to filter small particles of food from the ocean. By the late 1870s, it fetched more than $3.00 a pound as the raw material for umbrella stays, skirt hoops, fishing rods, shoehorns, and other products. The baleen from a single bowhead whale could be worth more than $50,000.


New Bedford Whale Oil Invoice, 1855

Whale hunts made for dramatic advertising, like the images on this invoice from a whale oil merchant in New Hampshire.


Madam Warren’s True Corset Story, late 1800s

This piece of advertising literature links a new corset to powerful improvements in beauty and comfort and universal admiration by men. It ends in the wedding of the purchaser, “illustrated in 4 chapters.”


Gift of K. Scofield

Gift of Mrs. Virginia W. Hillyer

Whale Oil Lamps, mid-1800s

Whale oil illuminated the homes and businesses of America from the 1700s to the late 1800s, in fixtures from barn lanterns to elegant blown-glass table lamps. Kerosene and other petroleum products largely replaced whale oil for illumination by the end of the century.


Ambergris, unknown date

Pound for pound, ambergris was whaling’s most valuable prize. A waxy substance from a sperm whale’s intestines, it was occasionally found in whales’ stomachs but more commonly floating on the sea or washed up on shore. Some pieces weighed several hundred pounds. For many decades, perfume makers used it as a fixative to prolong scents. Why whales produce ambergris remains unknown. It may coat indigestible fragments, such as pieces of squid beaks, to protect a whale’s intestines. Or it may be the whale’s equivalent of human gallstones.


Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

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Sewing Machine Sperm Oil, late 1800s

Sperm whale oil is light and has a low freezing point. It was used to lubricate fine machinery such as clocks, watches, and sewing machines until well into the 1800s.


Gift of A. M. Harrington

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Whalebone and Bone Umbrella, 1835–65

Baleen is formed of keratin, like human hair and nails. It hangs in long, parallel sheets in the mouths of some whale species and filters food from seawater. Dried out, baleen’s strength and flexibility made it ideal for buggy whips, corset busks, and umbrella ribs before the advent of plastic.

This large umbrella has a wooden shaft, heavy hinged baleen ribs made in short sections, and an ivory handle. Marked “G. Hobbs, Barre,” it belonged to the donor’s grandfather, who lived in Barre, Massachusetts, until around the end of the Civil War.


Gift of Mrs. Caroline E. Bates

Ivory and Bone Swift, 1800s

Swifts, or yarn-winders, were an extra pair of hands for a knitter. They held skeins of yarn or thread while it was being wound onto spools or rewound into measured lengths. This large swift was fastened to the edge of a table with the clamp on the bottom.


Spermaceti Candles, 1800s

The head of a sperm whale has two large chambers called the spermaceti organ. The lower chamber is filled with oil and dense connective tissue. The upper section is filled with lighter, more valuable oil. A large whale could yield several hundred gallons. This sperm oil was chilled to extract a whitish, crystalline waxy solid known as spermaceti. Candles made from spermaceti burned with almost no odor or smoke.


Corset and Busks, mid-1800s

For much of the 1800s, ladies’ fashion required very small waists. Most women attained this shape by wearing tight-laced corsets stiffened by pieces of whalebone known as busks. One of the most intimate pieces of scrimshaw a whaleman could produce was a carved whalebone busk for a loved one’s corset.

Each of these busks has a cityscape etched into one side. The other side of one has eight pictures, topped by a portrait of a beautiful young woman. The other has a plaintive love poem on the back.

Gifts of Frederic A. Delano, Dr. and Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood, and the Belcher Family