Whales Favored for Hunting

So WHY did we hunt whales during the 19th century? As Eric Jay Dolan writes in his book, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, “From the moment the Pilgrims landed until the early twentieth century, whaling was a powerful force in the evolution of the country [United States]. Much of America’s culture, economy, and in fact its  spirit were literally and figuratively rendered from the bodies of whales.” Whales were valued for its products as well as its profits. Whale oil was used to produce oil for lamps, soap, and many other oil-based substances. It lubricated tools and machines that drove the Industrial Revolution. Baleen, or whale bone was used to give Victorian women their hour-glass shape; to make the hoops for hoop skirts and stays for corsets. Spermaceti, only found in Sperm whales, and the most valuable of whale product, produced the brightest and cleansest burning candles and oil for lamps. It also served as a lubrication for machines, guns, and clocks.  “Ambergris… gave perfumes great staying power and was worth its weight in gold (Dolin, page 12)”.

Favored whales species of the 19th century: American whalemen preferred three species of whales; the Right (also known as Northern, Pacific or Southern Right), Bowhead, and Sperm Whales.

Right Whales were the first whales commercial hunters went after. It was given the name “right” whale simply because it was a slow, lumbering swimmer, it was placid and amiable, which made approaching it in a boat easy, and it floated when dead. As a baleen whale, it provided large quantities of oil and baleen. It grows to between 36 to 50 feet and can weigh between 60,000 to 160,000 pounds.

The Bowhead whale, although toothless, was favored primarily for its baleen. It had a bow-shaped mouth with 460-720 baleen plates which could be as long as 14 feet. Baleen was a flexible but very strong, comb-like plate of bone across the top of the whale’s mouth which acted as a strainer when it fed on tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill.  It was a slow, leisurely swimmer, making it easy to approach in a boat, and they floated when dead. Adult bowhead whales grew to between 46-60 feet and weighed between 120,000 to 200,000 pounds.  “An average Bowhead whale can yield more than 300 barrels of oil, and the average was about 150, which still far outstripped sperms and rights which averaged 25 to 60 barrels respectively. And in each bowhead’s mouth were thousands of pounds of long and valuable baleen,” (Dolin, page 231).

Sperm whales although much smaller than the other two species, was valued for its “liquid-gold” (so-to-speak) or spermaceti, to burn in oil lamps or to make candles. One sperm whale alone might yield up to six thousand pounds of this fatty substance.  Unlike the other two species of whale, a sperm whale would grow to only about 36 to 60 feet and weight between 40,000 to 100,000 pounds. “Spermaceti also was valued for its medicinal uses, ‘…a noble remedy in many cases,’ as Shakespeare noted in Part I of Henry IV.  It was used to treat Asthma and the discomfort felt after childbirth, or applied as cream or lotion to soften the skin and treat tumors of the breast,” (Dolin, pages 85-86).  Another valued product of the sperm whale was ambergris, sometimes referred to as “Neptune’s Treasure” – worth its weight in gold.  It was used by the Italians to make chocolate, or as icings for ‘great cakes’ made by the English, flavoring for wines and cordials, and finally as a fixative for perfumes.

Prices for Sperm Oil, Whale Oil, and Whalebone

1847     Sperm oil was $1.0075 per gallon; whale oil $.36 per gallon; whalebone $.31 per pound.

1848      Sperm oil was $1.00 per gallon; whale oil $.33 per gallon; and whalebone $.25 per pound.

1858     Sperm oil was $1.21 per gallon; whale oil was $.54 per gallon; whalebone was $.93 per pound.

Highest value for sperm oil was in 1866 (during the Civil War) at $2.55 per gallon; it was at its lowest in 1896 at $.40 per gallon.  From 1861-1865 sperm oil averaged $1.70 per gallon.

Highest value for whale oil was in 1865 (during the Civil War) when it was valued at $1.45 per gallon, and at its lowest value from 1828-1829 and 1833, when it was $.26 per gallon. During the Civil War (1861-1865), whale oil averaged $.94 per gallon.

Highest value for whalebone was in 1892 when it sold for $5.35 per pound, and at its lowest between 1806-1808 when it sold for $.07 per pound. During the Civil War it averaged $1.32 per pound.

{Sources for whale product value: Reginald B. Hegarty (1959) Return of Whaling Vessels Sailing From American Ports. New Bedford, The Old Dartmouth Historical Society.  Alexander Starbuck (1964) History of the American Whale Fishery…to 1876, 2 vols., New York: Argosy-Antiquarian.}


  1. I like looking at your blog posts, Whales Favored for Hunting America's Victorian Era in the Age of Sail: Women at Sea was included in my bookmarks in firefox.

    • That is my goal – to share little-known info about American history and make it interesting, too. I’m glad you enjoy it. And thanks, too, for sharing it with others.

  2. Hi Karlee
    We would like to use your right whale image (Whales Favored for Hunting) on a new display panel we are producing here at the Butler Point Whaling Museum in beautiful Mangonui, New Zealand (www.butlerpoint.co.nz). Could you please tell us the source of this image &/or how we can go about getting copyright permission to use it?

    • Good Afternoon:

      In response to your request regarding the Right Whale; I don’t recall the source. I looked through all my whaling books and couldn’t locate the image I used on the blog post “Whales Favored for Hunting”. If I recall correctly, the image came from the Internet and had no copyright with it; which is why I used it.

      However, since you first located the image at my wordpress blog, and if it’s within my right to grant you its use, then please do so. If you do use it, I would appreciate your noting somewhere within your exhibit, my blog/address as a source.

      Do let me know when the exhibit is opening and for how long. Although I have no current plans to visit Australia (you are VERY FAR away from little old CT), it is on my list of places to visit someday.

      Thanks for the inquiry. I’m VERY flattered that a museum half-way across the world has taken such an interest in my blog! As you may well be able to tell, my blog is a labor of love and an effort to educate the world about those brave women who traversed the seven seas over one hundred years ago. If you don’t mind I would like to use your museum’s interest in my blog, as a “footnote” when role playing a whaling captain’s wife and with the current publisher who has my book (but not yet published….Keeping my fingers crossed).

      Karlee Turner Etter

  3. Hi Karlee,
    Do you have any information on John Gallop from pt Judith, RI? Family research shows he sailed over from England in the 1600’s and may have had something to do with starting the war with the Narragansett Indians!
    Thank you,

    • I’m sorry, I have no information about the 1600’s; my era of expertise is 19th century maritime history. Have you tried any of the genealogy sites to try and locate John Gallop during the 1600’s?

  4. I’ve just read the query about John Gallop. There is a booklet on him, entitled “John Gallop, Master Mariner,” if I recall correctly, published by Pequot Press in either the 1960s or 1970s. John Gallop was involved in the beginning of the Pequot War of 1636/7. There are still descendants in this area today.

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