On the Water


American whaling flourished from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s. Hundreds of ships left American ports, hunting the planet’s largest living creatures. Commercial whaling began in the Atlantic, but as whale populations declined, the chase spread to the Pacific and Arctic oceans. While whalebone and ivory were valuable, a whaler’s main profits came from the oil derived from whale blubber.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Whale Chart, 1851

By 1851, overfishing had decimated whale populations in the Atlantic Ocean. Most whalers moved to the Pacific and Indian oceans. Ships traveled north and south with the seasons, following the large whale populations on their annual migrations.

This chart was produced by oceanographer Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury for the U.S. Navy. It showed whale populations in the world’s major seas and oceans and aided hundreds of whalers in finding their prey.

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.

Cast Iron Whale [19th century]
Cast Iron Whale

Gift of J. H. Thomson

Cast-Iron Whale, late 1800s

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This one-sided sperm whale probably served as a shop sign or decoration. Cast into the back are the words “BAKER NEW BEDFORD.” In the 1878 city directory for New Bedford, Massachusetts, the only Baker was Ansol Baker, a machinist.

From G. Brown Goode, The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, Section V, History and Methods of the Fisheries, 1887

New Bedford Whaling Bark Alice Knowles, about 1878

Whaleships were floating factories and warehouses. The top view of the deck plan shows the try works, a pair of big iron kettles where the whale blubber was boiled into oil. The lower view shows how the full barrels of whale oil were stowed below deck. Pieces of barrels, ready to be put together, were stored in the bow.

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Oil Casks, New Bedford, Massachusetts, late 1800s

Barrels of whale oil made movement around the busy wharves at New Bedford almost impossible.

New England Whale Ship [1875]
New England Whale Ship

New England Whale Ship, about 1850

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This model shows the typical outfit and gear for a deepwater whaling ship of the mid-1800s, when the industry was at its peak.

Pacific Steam Whaleship Orca [1894]
Pacific Steam Whaleship Orca

Steam whaler Orca

Built in San Francisco, 1882

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission

Pacific Steam Whaler Orca, 1882

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The bark-rigged steam whaler Orca was constructed for the western whaling grounds. The steamship included all the latest innovations, although it still carried a full suit of sails for backup. The Orca was built heavily to operate around the northern icepack, but it was among a whale ship fleet caught in the ice and abandoned off Point Barrow, Alaska, in 1897.

Processing the Catch

Working aboard a whale ship was strenuous and often unpleasant. After securing a whale’s carcass beside the ship, crewmen cut away the blubber, or outer fat layer, in long strips. They hauled the strips aboard, cut them into smaller pieces, and tossed them into boiling cauldrons on deck to render the fat into oil. The whale oil was stored in barrels in the cargo hold.

Very little of the whale was wasted: its bones were stripped clean of flesh, bundled, and stowed for making products to sell on shore. Depending on the species, other parts were saved. The stench of processing whales was so strong a whale ship could be smelled over the horizon before it could be seen.

Whaler's Cutting Spade [mid-1800s]
Whaler's Cutting Spade

Gift of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries

Cutting Spade, mid-1800s

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With the whale alongside the ship, a heavy hook was set into its skin and the hook’s line was taken aboard. Set on a long wooden handle, the cutting spade was used to cut long, thick, wide slices of skin and blubber from the carcass. The whale’s flesh was then hauled aboard for further processing. This example is marked “J.D. Cast Steel.”

Whaler's Head Spade
Whaler's Head Spade

Head Spade, mid-1800s

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The heavy, sharp head spade was commonly mounted on a short but heavy pole. It was used for driving through thick bone when decapitating a whale, and its weight made it easier to chop through the heavy vertebrae in a whale’s neck.

Whaler's Blubber Fork [mid-1800s]
Whaler's Blubber Fork

Gift of Mackey & Pindar

Blubber Fork, mid-1800s

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Whalers used sharp-tipped blubber forks to toss chunks of whale blubber onto the deck or into the heavy iron try pots, where the fat was rendered down or “tried out” into oil.

Whaler's Chopper
Whaler's Chopper

Chopper, mid-800s

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Like the mincing knife, the chopper was used to cut whale blubber into smaller pieces to speed the process of rendering it into oil.

Whaler's Mincing Knife [1876]
Whaler's Mincing Knife

Gift of E. B. and F. Macy

Mincing Knife, about 1876

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Whaling crew used mincing knives to cut the blubber strips into thin slices down to, but not through, the whale skin. Cut in this fashion, the sections of whale blubber and skin were known as “bible leaves” because they resembled the pages of a book. This process increased the surface area of the blubber and helped it melt faster in the try pots.

Whaler's Boarding Knife [1876]
Whaler's Boarding Knife

Gift of A. R. Crittenden

Boarding Knife, about 1876

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The work of carving blubber from a whale carcass and hauling the strips aboard was called “boarding.” The boarding knife was an extremely sharp, double-edged sword at the end of a short wooden pole. It served a variety of purposes, from cutting a hole in the whale’s flesh for the blubber hook, to cutting the long strips of flesh into shorter sections for further processing.

Whaler's Whalebone Scraper [1880s]
Whaler's Whalebone Scraper

Gift of F. S. Allen, through J. T. Brown

Whalebone Scraper, 1880s

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Whalebone scrapers were used to scrape the flesh off the bones, which were then dried on deck and stowed below for later processing and eventual sale.

Whaleship Skimmer [1880s]
Whaleship Skimmer

Skimmer, late 1800s

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After a whale’s blubber was melted down in the try pots, a few solids, like the skin, remained. These were removed with a skimmer. The tool’s long handle helped keep the crew from being burned or splashed with hot oil. The leftovers, or “fritters,” were then tossed under the pots and recycled into fuel to keep the fires burning.

Transfer from the U.S. Patent Office

Image courtesy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Whale Hoist Patent Model, 1862

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After whales died, they usually floated on the water, but sometimes the carcasses sank. To avoid this sort of loss, Thomas Roys of Southampton, Long Island, patented an apparatus for “Raising Dead Whales From the Bottom of the Sea.” Few American whalers tried it.

Whale Hoist Patent Model [1862]
Whale Hoist Patent Model

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission

Whaler's Monkey Belt [1883]
Whaler's Monkey Belt

Gift of Jonathan Bourne

“Monkey Belt,” about 1883

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Crewmen used this canvas “monkey belt” to hang over the side of the ship while they stripped the whale of its blubber. It was dangerous and slippery work, and if a sailor slid into the water, he risked drowning or being attacked by sharks looking for an easy meal.

Whaler's Carved Bailer Handle [1828]
Whaler's Carved Bailer Handle

Gift of Jonathan Bourne

Carved Bailer Handle, about 1828

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Whalemen used bailers to remove oil from large try pots into cooling tanks. The handle of this bailer has the figures of whales whittled into its surface to show the number and species of whales that had been processed. The “B.H.” refers to bowhead; “S” for sperm, “H.B.” for humpback, and “W” for right whale.

African Americans and Whaling

Commercial whaling in the 1800s was far more integrated than most trades on land, and racial prejudice was generally more muted on whaleships than in society at large. Black and white whalers had to work side by side to get the job done—and to survive.

Many owners of whaleships were Quakers, a religious group opposed to slavery. Some New England towns were also important stops on the Underground Railroad, an informal network that provided safe passage to people trying to escape slavery. And these towns needed seamen, including free black people and those who had escaped slavery.

Image of Cuffe courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Image of Douglass courtesy of the Albert Cook Myers Collection, Chester County Historical Society

Merchant and shipowner Paul Cuffe was the son of a Native American mother and an enslaved father. Frederick Douglass was one of the most influential speakers and abolitionists of his day. Both were African Americans who worked in the New England whaling industry at one time or another.

Captains Ashore

These whaling captains photographed in New Bedford around 1882 may have been from the Azores or the Cape Verde Islands. In the 1800s, whaling vessels often landed at both groups of islands to take on provisions and crew.

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Master Shipbuilder John Mashow (1805–1893)

John Mashow was born enslaved in South Carolina. By unknown means he found his way to Dartmouth, Massachusetts, apprenticed to a local shipbuilder, and then set up his own shipyard. Mashow’s yard at Padanarum designed more than 100 ships and built about 60, including 14 whaleships. When his yard closed, he received a public testimonial as “a thorough, practical master shipbuilder and a most worthy and respected citizen.”

Blacksmith and Inventor Lewis Temple (about 1800–1854)

Lewis Temple was born into slavery about 1800 in Richmond, Virginia. By 1829, he had moved to New Bedford. Whether he bought his freedom or escaped from slavery is unknown. He set up a blacksmith shop and in 1848 made an important improvement in harpoon design. The Temple iron featured a toggle at the harpoon’s tip that helped hook a whale more securely. Whalers around the world quickly adopted Temple’s idea, which he never patented. He died in May 1854, unrecognized and in debt.

Temple Toggle Irons, about 1850

The first barb at the tip of the dart was designed to penetrate the whale’s flesh, and the second barb also went straight in. A small wooden peg holding the lower barb in place would then break, allowing the barbed head to swivel away from the shaft. The new T-shape of the barb prevented the dart from pulling out of a wound.

It was a harpooner’s responsibility to keep his tools sharp and well-lubricated, to ensure the toggle swiveled freely. Sometimes they fashioned covers for the harpoon heads to keep them clean and dry until needed for use.

Whale Harpoons, or Temple Toggle Irons [1882]
Whale Harpoons, or Temple Toggle Irons
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Gifts of Jonathan Bourne and Wilfred A. and Daniel J. Mack Jr.

Shipbuilder's Half Hull Model, Whaleship Jireh Swift [1853]
Shipbuilder's Half Hull Model, Whaleship Jireh Swift

Whaleship Jireh Swift

Built by John Mashow, 1853

Length: 122 feet

Gift of White & Allen, New Bedford

Builder’s Half Hull, Whaleship Jireh Swift

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The Jireh Swift sailed to the northern Pacific on its first voyage, which lasted nearly four years. The crew collected 2,719 barrels of whale oil and 14,900 pounds of bone. During the vessel’s third voyage, on June 22, 1865, it was captured by the Confederate raider Shenandoah and burned, for a loss of more than $40,000.

Darts of Death

Whalers stood in small boats buffeted by pitching waves, trying to kill a powerful, thrashing creature. It was a grisly, dangerous business.

The first dart thrown into a whale’s back was a long, sharp, barbed harpoon, followed quickly by a second one, both attached to long lines coiled in tubs in the whaleboat. Harpoons were made of soft iron so they would bend and not break from a whale’s violent thrashing.

After the harpoon came the lance, or killing iron. Its sharp oval- or leaf-shaped tip let the whaler do the job quickly.

Other crewmen jabbed sharp-edged boat spades at a whale’s tail tendons to immobilize the animal—the most dangerous act in whaling.

Whaler's Harpoon with Toggle Head [1882]
Whaler's Harpoon with Toggle Head

Gift of Jonathan Bourne Cat.

Harpoon with Toggle Head, 1882

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The first step in catching a whale was sticking harpoons into its back. 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 to pull out. Whales normally dove deep after the first prick. This harpoon was twisted by a descending whale.

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission through Luther Cole

Hand Lance, 1880s

Also known as killing irons, lances were designed to kill the whale. They were stabbed repeatedly into the thick neck arteries; the sharp leaf-shaped tip allowed easy removal for another thrust. Cutting these arteries prevented the whale from deep dives and hastened its bleeding to death.

Whaler's Fluke Lance [ca 1880-1889]
Whaler's Fluke Lance

Gift of James D. Driggs

Fluke Lance, 1880s

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The sharp fluke lance was designed to immobilize a running whale by cutting its tail tendons. This rare inscribed example was used aboard the starboard whaleboat of the bark Sea Fox.

Whaler's Shoulder or Darting Gun [1880s]
Whaler's Shoulder or Darting Gun

Gift of Capt. Eben Pierce through F. Gilbert Hinsdale

Shoulder or Darting Gun, 1880s

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Guns replaced most hand harpoons and lances in the later 19th century. The darting gun was one of the most popular types—loaded with different darts, it could be used both for harpooning and killing whales. This example was given to the Smithsonian by its inventor, Capt. Eben Pierce of New Bedford, Massachusetts, after it was displayed at the 1883 International Fisheries Exhibition in London, England.

Explosive Lance, after 1879

Explosive lances were designed to kill by exploding inside the whale’s body. Many different types were invented in the late 19th century. When they worked properly, they were extremely efficient.

Whaler's Allen's Gun Harpoon [mid-1800s]
Whaler's Allen's Gun Harpoon

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission, through J. T. Brown

Allen’s Gun Harpoon, mid 1800s

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Designed to be fired from a shoulder gun, this nonexplosive style of harpoon was invented by Oliver Allen of Norwich, Connecticut, to fasten to whales prior to killing.

Pursuing the Whale

Whaling meant long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of intense, dangerous activity. When a lookout aboard the ship spotted a whale, crewmen lowered small boats over the side and rowed hard in its direction. As they approached, the harpooner threw a barbed harpoon at the whale, and crewmen quickly thrust sharp lances into its body to hasten death. Then whaleboats towed the carcass back to the ship.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride, late 1800s

An angry whale might tow a whaleboat for miles before it tired. Exciting but dangerous, these “Nantucket sleigh rides” were named for the birthplace of the New England whaling industry. A whale sometimes smashed or overturned a boat during the chase, and few crewmen knew how to swim. The whale pictured here cannot go much farther. Blood in its air spout indicates a mortal wound in the lungs.

Lent by Mystic Seaport Museum

The Whaleboat

Light and fast, a whaleboat commonly had a crew of six men. One steered from the stern (back) of the boat when approaching the whale. After the oarsman in the bow (front) harpooned the whale, he took over steering. Various members of the crew killed the whale, tended the lines (ropes), and pulled the oars to return to the ship.

Whaleboats were crowded with gear. Line tubs carried enough rope to allow the whale to swim a safe distance from the boat until it tired. Lances, spades, and extra harpoons were kept on board, along with buckets for bailing. Whaleboats also carried a sail, a compass, a foghorn, and a keg of drinking water in case they were separated from the mother ship by a storm or fog.

Life on the Long Voyage

Crewmen on American whaleships came from all over the globe. Their work was hard, dirty, smelly, dangerous, lonely, and poorly paid, but some still liked it better than their prospects ashore.

Whaling threw together men from vastly different backgrounds. Many had no nautical skills at the beginning of a voyage and had to learn them on the spot. Even in well-run ships, the living quarters were often dank and infested with vermin. Aboard some ships, crewmen might work for two or three long, dangerous years only to find at the voyage’s end that they owed the shipowner money for medicine, tobacco, or other supplies. Some whalers loved the sea, but the romance of whaling was mostly in novels.

We have to work like horses and live like pigs.
—Robert Weir, aboard the Clara Bell, 1855
The most filthy, indecent and distressed set of men I ever came across.
—Thomas Roe, on his shipmates aboard the Chelsea, 1831
A person who has not been aboard a Nantucket Whaleman cannot imagine how close and miserable they live.
—Thomas Roe, aboard the Sarah, 1831

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

South Sea Whale Fishery, about 1835

In the foreground of this fanciful print, a whaleboat approaches a wounded right whale. The harpooner stands in the bow to deliver the killing lance behind the fin. Behind is the mother ship, with a crew cutting in, or trimming, long strips of fat off a floating whale.

Passing the Time at Sea

During their idle hours, whalemen produced scrimshaw for family members, sweethearts, and friends. Scrimshaw refers to decorative and utilitarian objects carved from bone, ivory teeth, and baleen, and to designs engraved on the same materials.

Some whalemen sketched their designs freehand, but more often they copied or traced drawings from popular publications. The subjects often included whaling ships and details of the whale hunt, racy images of women, patriotic motifs, and idealized images of home and family.

Moby Dick, or The Whale [1930]
Moby Dick, or The Whale

Gift of Elizabeth and Helen Jennings

A Whaler’s Tale, 1800s

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In early 1841, at age 21, Herman Melville shipped out on a voyage to the Pacific Ocean aboard the whaler Acushnet. He deserted in the Marquesas Islands after only 18 months and then served briefly on other ships. His time at sea supplied the background for his novel Moby-Dick, or The Whale, published in 1851.

The first American edition of Moby-Dick sold poorly and netted Melville only $556.37. In the 1920s, however, the book’s reputation began to rise. Illustrated by American artist Rockwell Kent, this 1930 edition of Moby-Dick introduced whaling to thousands of Americans.

New Bedford Whaleship Crew List [1876-05]
New Bedford Whaleship Crew List

Gift of J. T. Brown

Crew List, 1876

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Every voyage began with assembling a crew. In May 1876, the small 106-foot bark Bartholomew Gosnold signed a crew of 31 men for its next voyage from New Bedford. Less than half were from the United States; the rest were from Portugal, England, Ireland, Germany, France, and Scotland; two were listed as blacks. The oldest crewman was in his forties; the youngest was sixteen.

Manifest for the Bartholomew Gosnold, 1880

The Bartholomew Gosnold returned home to New Bedford in June 1880, just over four years after it left. Its cargo was sworn to include 1,260 barrels of whale and sperm oil; 95 casks of sperm, whale, and humpback oil totaling 26,742 gallons; and 27 bundles of whalebone, for a profitable voyage.

Scrimshaw Panbone [mid-1800s]
Scrimshaw Panbone

Gift of Joseph B. Bloss

Scrimshaw Panbone, 1800s

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This panbone, part of a sperm whale’s jaw, served as a sailor’s canvas. He drew a busy whale hunt—seven whaleboats chasing a pod of whales. The background depicts the coast of Ternate, one of the Spice Islands in Indonesia.

Scrimshaw Panbone Port Scene [1800s]
Scrimshaw Panbone Port Scene

Gift of Frederic A. Delano

Panbone Port Scene, 1800s

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This freehand sketch of an imaginary port scene includes a warship, a lighthouse, a military camp, and even a turreted medieval castle.

Scrimshaw Tooth [ca 1840]
Scrimshaw Tooth

Gift of Frederic A. Delano

Scrimshaw Tooth, 1840–45

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Women and ships were the most popular subjects for scrimshaw carved by crewmen on whaling voyages. In this example, a young lady, possibly in mourning dress, gazes longingly at an open locket containing a picture of a young man.

Polychrome Scrimshaw Whale Tooth [1865-1869]
Polychrome Scrimshaw Whale Tooth

Gift of Frederic A. Delano

Polychrome Scrimshaw Tooth, 1865--69

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Even whalemen with little or no artistic talent could carve highly detailed scenes like this with the pinprick technique. A picture cut from a magazine was pasted or dampened and wrapped on the polished surface of a sperm whale’s tooth. The whaler pushed a sharp pin through the lines of the image, then removed it, leaving the dots on the surface. He engraved the picture by connecting the dots and rubbing black soot or colored pigments into the lines.

USS Alaska Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth [1878]
USS Alaska Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth

Gift of Frederic A. Delano

USS Alaska Commemorative Tooth, 1878

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This massive tooth of a sperm whale records the visit of the sloop of war USS Alaska to Talcahuano, Chile, in September 1878. Fifty-four of Alaska’s crew went absent without leave, and three more were confined to leg irons and handcuffs for their behavior on shore.

Scrimshaw Ivory Jagging Wheel [1800s]
Scrimshaw Ivory Jagging Wheel

Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood

Ivory Jagging Wheel, 1800s

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Pie crimpers, or jagging wheels, were common scrimshaw items made by American whalemen. The fluted wheel was used to cut dough or seal the top of a piecrust.

Scrimshaw Whale Bone Food Chopper [1800s]
Scrimshaw Whale Bone Food Chopper

Gift of Spencer F. Baird

Scrimshaw Food Chopper, 1800s

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This food chopper, or mincer, was carved in two pieces from the jawbone of a sperm whale. The blunt, curved blade was used to chop soft foods such as bread dough, fruits, sausage, and animal fats.

Sperm Whale Tooth Watch Stand [1800s]
Sperm Whale Tooth Watch Stand

Gift of J. H. Clark

Sperm Whale Tooth Watch Stand, 1800s

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This unfinished tooth is hollowed out from the back to hold a gentleman’s pocket watch.

Wood and Ivory Parallel Rule
Wood and Ivory Parallel Rule

Gift of Wilbur James Gould

Ivory Whale Stamp, 1800s

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Carved from the teeth of sperm whales, whale stamps were used to record types of whales and the number of barrels of oil rendered from them. The stamps were inked into a whaleship’s log, with an empty space for writing in the number. This stamp is carved in the shape of a sperm whale.

Whale Bone Seam Rubber [1800s]
Whale Bone Seam Rubber

Bone Seam Rubber, 1800s

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Seam rubbers were part of a sailmaker’s tool kit. They were used to smooth and flatten the seams of heavy canvas sailcloth. This example was probably carved from the panbone, part of a whale’s jaw.

Bone Dice, 1800s

Gambling was banned aboard some whaling ships because it caused too much strife among the crew. But “bones,” or dice, were easily concealed, and crews found out-of-the way places to spend their free time wagering their earnings, tobacco, or other assets.

Gift of A. R. Crittenden

Bone Fid, 1800s

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Made of hard wood, bone, or ivory and tapering to a point, fids were tools used for ropework, such as splicing rope or breaking knots that froze from overtightening or wet weather. In a pinch, they served as temporary belaying pins to tie off a line or even as weapons.

Whalebone Thimble Eye [1800s]
Whalebone Thimble Eye

Gift of E. H. Cook

Whalebone Thimble Eye, 1800s

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This rope-strapped thimble carved from whalebone would have had a light rope through the eye for rigging, perhaps on a whaleboat. These miniature items also served as children’s toys or curiosities back home, reminding families of their connections to the sea.

Wood and Ivory Parallel Rule
Wood and Ivory Parallel Rule

Gift of Wilbur James Gould

Wood and Ivory Parallel Rule, 1800s

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Part of the navigator’s tool kit, parallel rules were used to transfer compass points, course lines, and other directional information across nautical charts. This wooden set has a carved ivory whale inlaid into its surface, with a brass tack for the whale’s eye.

Logbook, Whaling Bark Virginia of New Bedford [1840]
Logbook, Whaling Bark Virginia of New Bedford

Logbook, Whaling Bark Virginia of New Bedford, 1840

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This logbook chronicles the Virginia’s voyage through the Pacific whaling grounds. The December 16 entry tells the story of two whales that were caught and processed. The figures inside the whale stamps show the barrels of oil taken from each whale. The last word, “Amanda,” reveals the writer’s homesickness. Her name appears often, as do the words “home sweet home.”

Gift of Thomas M. Peakes

Whalebone Ruler [1800s]
Whalebone Ruler

Whalebone Ruler, 1800s

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Straight edges or rulers, were used aboard whale ships as writing guides in the unlined pages of journals and logbooks. The back side of this long stick is marked in 2-1/4, 4-1/2 and 9-inch sections. The ship’s cooper may have used the ruler to measure the level of liquid in his wooden casks.

Sea Songs


Injury and Sickness at Sea

Whaling was a dangerous way to make a living. Crews spent years on the ocean, far from land and medical help. Drowning was an ever-present risk, and few sailors in the 1800s could swim. A fall from the rigging, a slip on an oily deck, a tool or weapon in the hands of an angry shipmate, a stumble, a foot caught in a coil of rope—all could cause permanent injury or death.

Other hazards to a crewman’s health were not so obvious. Scurvy, venereal disease, rickets, tetanus, and poor diets afflicted the crews of whalers and merchant ships alike.

Oil Painting or Overpainted Print, Capturing a Sperm Whale
Oil Painting or Overpainted Print, Capturing a Sperm Whale

Gift of Eleanor and Mable (Marsh) Van Alstyne

Capturing a Sperm Whale, after 1835

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The most dangerous part of a dangerous job was working in a whaleboat. Gravely wounded, a whale was still strong enough to break a boat in half and flip crewmen into the water. This painting is a copy of what may be the first American whaling print, issued in 1835. It is derived from a sketch by whaler Cornelius Hulsart, who lost an arm on the whaling ship Superior.

Ship's Medicine Chest [19th Century]
Ship's Medicine Chest

Gift of Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of the State of Maryland

Ship’s Medicine Chest, 1800s

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Starting in 1790, American merchant ships larger than 150 tons and with more than 10 crew members were required to have medicine chests. The chests came with instructions, and the captain or first mate usually administered the medicines. This well-traveled example has labels from Baltimore, Maryland; Mamaroneck, New York; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Ship's Surgical Kit [1862-1865]
Ship's Surgical Kit

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gustav Sokol

Ship’s Surgical Kit, 1870s

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Surgical kits were not required on merchant vessels, but larger and better-equipped ships often carried them. They were used for everything from pulling teeth to amputating limbs. Like medicine chests, these kits were often sold with simple instructions on how to use them in emergencies.

Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Amputation at Sea

This illustration from the Mariner’s Medical Guide (1864) details procedures for amputating a limb, an ordeal for anyone in the 1860s, and especially so for someone injured at sea. Setting a fracture leg (below) was another procedure included in the guide.


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.

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.”

Whale Oil Lamp [mid 1800s]
Whale Oil Lamp

Gift of K. Scofield

View Object Record
Whale Oil Lamp [mid 1800s]
Whale Oil Lamp

Gift of Mrs. Virginia W. Hillyer

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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

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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.

Sewing Machine Sperm Oil [1870-1880]
Sewing Machine Sperm Oil

Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Sewing Machine Sperm Oil, late 1800s

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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.

Whalebone and Bone Umbrella [ca 1835 - 1865]
Whalebone and Bone Umbrella

Gift of A. M. Harrington

Whalebone and Bone Umbrella, 1835–65

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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.

Ivory and Bone Yarn Swift [19th century]
Ivory and Bone Yarn Swift

Gift of Mrs. Caroline E. Bates

Ivory and Bone Swift, 1800s

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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.

Woman's Corset, 1810-1820 [1810-1820]
Woman's Corset, 1810-1820
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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

Corset and Whalebone Scrimshaw Busk [mid-1800s]
Corset and Whalebone Scrimshaw Busk
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Corset and Whalebone Scrimshaw Busk [mid-1800s]
Corset and Whalebone Scrimshaw Busk
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