Photo Gallery: Depictions of Whaling in America

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Whaling has captured Americans' imaginations since settlers first landed in the New World. See depictions of the industry's violence and death as well as its popularity in the popular culture, immortalized through centuries of maps, paintings and photographs.

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Whale Stranding of 1617, Esaias van de Velde. This painting was produced at the height of the Dutch whale fishery, in many ways the predecessor to the later American industry.

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In the 1770s, almost half of American whaleships acted out of Nantucket. Whaling reached a fever pitch in New England in the mid-18th century when the sperm whale was discovered as a resource for oil used for candles, lubricants, and cosmetics.

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This needlework tapestry (c. 1810) commemorates a young Nantucket whaleman's 1806 death at sea. Whaling was inherently dangerous, but industry mortality rates during the colonial period were lower than in the slave trade. This would not hold true as vessels moved into the arctic.

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The recently-discovered "offshore" grounds in the South Pacific were crowded with American whaling vessels by 1825.

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1830 Scrimshaw engraving. Though a whaling scene is depicted here, scrimshaw engravings were diverse in their content and included renderings of exotic harbors, political satire, and the women left on shore. Many whalemen turned to scrimshaw carving to alleviate the intense boredom that went along with the enterprise.

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Referenced by name in Moby Dick, Louis Ambroise Garneray painted many scenes of American whalers, prints of which were commercially very popular.

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Producers of whale products found the use of whaling imagery to be a compelling way to advertise. This firm used the above print in various iterations for 30 years.

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Captain James Coffin depicted the ship Washington during voyages from 1842-44, with tryworks burning and four whaleboats out slaughtering whales.

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The whales on Lieutenant Matthew Maury's widely-used chart represented confirmed whale sightings, and the colors correspond to the three species of whale targeted by American whalers at the time - Sperm (pink), Right (green), Bowhead (blue). Conspicuous is the near-total absence of these species from the Atlantic by mid-century.

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The primary source record of the American whaling industry is rich, in large measure due to the many idle hours suffered by American whalemen. Joseph Ray, the boat steerer on the Washington, made beautiful drawings in the ship's log book. (c. 1854-58)

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Eliza Spencer Brock, the wife of the Captain of whaleship Lexington, kept a detailed journal on their trip to Hawaii, New Zealand, and the South Pacific from 1853-56. Here, she catalogues the number of barrels of oil acquired from various whales in 1855.

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A dollar bill from The Whaling Bank in Connecticut. Whaling had become so ingrained in New England's popular culture that it even became part of the currency. By 1864, when this note is dated, the whaling industry has already passed its peak in America.

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Eight New Bedford whalemen just back from a whaling cruise in 1860. With the Victorianization of American society, going to sea was seen increasingly as an opportunity to affirm one's masculinity.

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This intaglio from Moby Dick portrays the deck of the Pequod and Captain Ahab inspecting his crew. Herman Melville's 1861 novel included vivid and accurate descriptions of a sailor's life from Melville's own personal experiences on the whaling ship Acushnet in the 1840s.

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The largest Bowhead and Sperm whales could yield 100 barrels of oil, and the largest vessels could accommodate more than 1,000 barrels. By 1870, demand for whale oil illuminants had fallen off dramatically. 

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In  late 19th century San Francisco, the yard of Pacific Steam Whaling Co. brims with whalebone. The use of baleen products in women's fashion prolonged the life of the whaling industry. Around this time, Baleen whales were still abundant in the Arctic, and west-coast ports in California and Alaska became the new centers of the industry.

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As in Europe, whales were a curiosity in the U.S., and P.T. Barnum made them the feature exhibit when he opened America's first aquarium in 1856.

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After being skinned, a whale carcass was cut into large pieces and hauled onto the deck where it would be further sectioned and minced. Depending on the size of the whale, the process could take days. With the arrival of modern factory ships in the 20th century, an entire blue whale weighing over 100 tons could be hauled aboard in one piece and processed in half an hour.

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Whaling in the Arctic was extreme by any measure -- in 1871, a dozen whaling vessels were trapped in the ice and abandoned, stranding nearly 1,200 whalers on the tundra.

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Though profit margins were rapidly thinning by the turn of the century, shore whaling continued in America until the moratorium in 1972.

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The light in this picture is given off by the fire of the try-works, large kettles used aboard whaleships to boil the oil out of a whale's blubber. In August 1924, the Wanderer was destroyed by a hurricane, understood by many to be the symbolic end of the American whaling industry.

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  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Rosalind P. Walter
  • NEH