Whaling in the 19th century, by the numbers: A quantitative look at maritime history.

whale fishery by ward of hull pd

Today, never mind why, I got to reading a book about the history of the American whaling industry in the 19th century, especially that of New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was the primary port for whalers during that century. The book–In Pursuit of Leviathan by Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman and Karin Gleiter–is primarily an economic history. If that makes your eyes glaze over, I don’t blame you, but sometimes economic history can be pretty illuminating. In this book I found an interesting list of everything that the owners and outfitters of the New Bedford whaling fleet purchased during one year, 1858, in order to keep their fleet of 65 whaling vessels going. It’s eye-popping. For what it’s worth, here, by the numbers, is a list of what they bought during one year, preserved in a publication called the Whalemen’s Shipping List.

  • Cords of oak: 1,200; cords of pine: 260.
  • Pounds of rivets: 33,000.
  • Copper sheathing: 530,000 pounds.
  • Barrels of tar: 400.
  • Boat boards: 32,000 board feet.
  • Canvas for sails: 205,000 yards.
  • Cotton twine: 13,000 pounds.
  • Cloth other than canvas: 234,000 yards.
  • Linseed oil: 5,200 gallons.
  • Turpentine: 400 gallons.
  • Paint: 13,000 pounds.
  • Gunpowder: 120 casks.
  • Barrels of flour: 13,650.
  • Barrels of beef: 10,400.
  • Barrels of pork: 7,150.
  • Salt: 19,500 bushels.
  • Rice: 39,000 pounds.
  • Beans: 1,300 bushels.
  • Dried apples: 39,000 pounds.
  • Sugar: 78,000 pounds.
  • Butter: 78,000 pounds.
  • Cheese: 19,500 pounds.
  • Ham: 16,300 pounds.

dangers of whaling 1820 pd

Many whaling-related illustrations from the 19th century emphasized the dangers of whalers being attacked by their prey, as this picture from 1820 does.
  • Codfish: 32,500 pounds.
  • Coffee: 78,000 pounds.
  • Tea: 14,300 pounds.
  • Tobacco: 130,000 pounds. (Whalers smoked a lot, evidently).
  • Potatoes: 2,600 bushels.
  • Fresh water: 32,500 barrels.
  • Rum: 2,800 gallons. (That’s all?)
  • Barrel staves: 1,000,000.
  • Iron hoops: 1,000 tons.
  • Oars: 36,000 feet worth.
  • Iron poles: 8,500
  • Flags: 22,500 pounds.
  • Bricks: 23,000. (Bricks were used as bases of the try-pots, in which whale blubber was boiled down to oil).
  • Jackets: 3,150.
  • Thick trousers: 4,550 pairs.
  • Thin trousers: 1,200 pairs.
  • Wool shirts: 5,200.
  • Cotton shirts: 3,250.
  • Woolen underwear: 3,900 pairs.
  • Socks: 7,800 pairs.
  • Shoes: 6,500 pairs.
  • Bed comforters: 1,300.
  • Pots and pans, mostly tin: 3,900.

This is only a partial list. Keep in mind that most of this stuff was not durable, meaning it was consumed or used up during the course of a voyage: ships’ sails got torn and tattered in storms, men wore out their clothing with heavy use (and dealing with ooky stuff like whale blubber, blood and ambergris), and ships themselves sometimes went down, were damaged beyond repair or simply vanished. And this was in the course of one year, 1858, from a single port, albeit far and away the largest. In that same year, while the count of the number of whales caught is not known, the New Bedford fleet hailed in 42,013 barrels of sperm whale oil, 73,195 barrels of regular whale oil, and 789,666 pounds of whalebone, which was used in the 19th century much the way plastic is used today.

Admittedly this is a list of raw numbers, but I think it conveys an interesting sense of the depth and complexity of 19th century whaling as a business and as a cultural institution–as well as the environmental havoc that it could wreak. All of this stuff, bought and paid for on land, was ultimately geared toward the hunting of wild animals for economic profit, which had a tremendous effect upon these species, their ecosystems and the oceans in general. Economic history may seem dry as dust, but sometimes it brings a point home that just can’t be appreciated any other way.

The data listed in this article comes principally from the book In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). The header image was painted by John Ward of Hull. All images in this article are all in the public domain.
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