The mid-19th Century marks a “Golden Age” in the American whaling industry. Hundreds of ships roamed the seas, searching farther and farther for their valuable prey. Ironically, the “Golden Age” ended a decline. (See the chart at the end of this blog post.)
Today, we’ll explore some aspects of the high point in this maritime trade and the circumstances that started to curtail the hunt for whales.
By The Numbers
By the mid-19th Century, the United States owned about half the whaling ships in the world. There were twenty major whaling ports in the country, including a west coast harbor: San Francisco.
According to research and documentation from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford alone had a fleet of three hundred twenty-nine ships in 1857. The vessels were worth over twelve million dollars. Ten thousand men found employment on the whaling ships, just from that harbor city.
The American whaling fleet may have dominated and impressed with sheer numbers, but the profitability of the industry started to change during this mid-century “golden age.” The world and markets were always changing which meant supply and demand was also changing.
Supply & Demand
We’re actually going to tackle this topic backwards: demand and supply.
The demand for whale oil started decreasing during the large fleet era. Why? Petroleum. Discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, this oil from the ground was more efficient and cost effective for the consumer than whale oil. It could be made into fuel for lamps. However, don’t imagine that the demand for whale oil ceased with the discovery of petroleum; it didn’t. Whale oil was still desired into the 20th Century for lubricant, food industry, and technological work. The discovery of petroleum simple changed the market by adding a competitor for the lighting fuel.
Supply. Whales. Huge numbers of whales killed during the Colonial Era, Early American Period, and the “Golden Age” impacted the whale population around the globe. By the “Golden Age,” most of the normal migratory paths, breeding grounds, and feeding regions had been overhunted. Ships ventured farther and farther and hunted new species in the Arctic Seas. The largest, most valuable whales for oil were harder and harder to find. Some researchers have suggested that there may not have been the shortage of whales that the whalers perceived. There may have been many whales surviving; they just weren’t in the traditional hunting “grounds.” Since the whales were harder to find, the investors and whalers supposed there just weren’t many left, and this impacted their perception of supply.
The Civil War
The American Civil War also impacted the whaling industry. The Confederate navy didn’t have much to boast about, but they sent raiding vessels to sea. What better target to try to hurt the northern economy than a whaling ship? Whale ships became prizes for the Confederate captains. In fact, in 1865, a Confederate ship called the CSS Shenandoah made it to the Alaskan waters. It decimated the U.S. Arctic whaling fleet.
The ship owners had insurance on their ships. There was still a market for whale oil and whale bone. The industry probably could’ve recovered economically after the Civil War, but the conflict did signal a decline in the trade and business interest in that maritime pursuit.
Interestingly, the demand for whale bone remanded high throughout the later half of the 19th Century, giving the ship owners and whalers in the industry a good market and reason to continue the hunt. Women’s corsets were stiffened with whale bone and the tight, smooth fitting bodices of the ladies’ dresses typically used whale bone to achieve the fashionable look. (And don’t forget their were other uses for whale bone too.)
So…while there was some decline and competition in the need for whale oil, baleen was still a saleable, profitable item. Conveniently, the whales in the colder water hunting grounds were usually baleen whales.
It’s pretty hard to point to one cause as the deciding factor in the decline of American whaling and the closure of the “Golden Age.” Petroleum, loss of whales in the traditional hunting grounds, aspects of the Civil War, and other factors impacted the industry and transformed it. However, the end of the mid-century “Golden Age” wasn’t the end of American whaling. The need for whale bone and whale oil continued, leaving the seas as a profitable “field” for maritime business venturers, captains, and crews into the early 20th Century when the Americans were eventually pushed out the field by the new technology and whaling insight from other nations.