Wherever you look around the state of Connecticut, you’ll be reminded of the historic whaling industry that was once one of the strongest pillars of our local economy. Whether it be the big, climbable whale statue at the Children’s Science museum in West Hartford, New London’s all-things “Whaling City”, hardcore hockey fans still sporting Whalers garb, or even Fudgie the Whale cakes (okay, not so much Fudgie) the strong link to our state’s whaling past is still alive and thriving today. In some ways, little as changed from these days, as can be told from this turn-of-the-century era post card predicting Bank Street in New London. It has often been said that Bank Street is visually reminiscent of the quintessential 19th century seaport street, both in its design and in its architecture1.
Let’s take a step back in time and set aside a moment to remember exactly why whaling was so important in the earlier days of Connecticut and why its memory will continue to live on for years to come. To begin with, did you know that New London was the third biggest whaling port and contributor to the whaling industry in the entire United States? While this industry reached its peak in the 1840s, it still continued into the early 20th century and there’s a chance that some of your oldest relatives might even have a few memories they could share with you.
As stated before, more whaling ships sailed out of New London than in any port in the USA other than New Bedford (of Moby Dick fame, and Nantucket. In fact, the longest whaling voyage in world history was made by the crew of The Nile who set sail from New London in 1858 and returned in 1869. That’s 11 years of non-stop whaling!1
The objectives of a typical whaling voyage were great in number. Whales were sought for their meat, but even moreso for their blubber and in the case of Sperm Whales, their spermaceti. We’ll get to that a little bit later in the article. Many whaling ships featured smaller boats that would be lowered into the water in which whalemen would crowd in and shoot their harpoons in hopes of pulling in a big catch. Though there were many wooden whaling ships around in the 19th century, the only one that still is in existence today is the Charles W Morgan, docked in Mystic.
In general, Humpbacks, Right Whales, and Bowhead Whales were the varieties that were most targeted by the whaling industry. These are all baleen whales, whose brush-like teeth were prized nearly as much as their oil-producing blubbrer. The extracted baleen was frequently called whalebone and was used to make buggy whips, corsets, hairbrush bristles, collar stiffeners2 and many more items. Baleen whales were also heavily targeted because their blubber tended to yield more oil when processed than that of toothed whales. This led to an over-aggressive pursuit of baleen whales which for a time greatly depleted their numbers. With the decline of the whaling industry, they are now gaining back their once prosperous numbers.
Toothed whales were also prized, but for somewhat different reasons. In addition to their harvested meat and blubber, their teeth would often be extracted, brought to shore, and purchased by local craftsmen. These artisans would then clean, decorate, and shape the whale teeth into crafts, jewelry and other opulent items. This trade was known as the now-obscure term of Scrimshaw.
Now that we’ve introduced you to some of the fringe benefits of whaling it’s time to chew the fat (literally) and get into the area of blubber-derived whale oil. When a whale would be captured, it would be pulled in by the men who operated the smaller harpoon boats and then it would be hoisted into the ship. The whale would then be stripped down for meat and blubber and the blubber would usually be placed in enormous rooms within the ship that were built for the sole purpose of housing this fantastic fat. In most cases, the stripped blubber would be brought back to land where it would be boiled down into an oil, a process that was referred to as “trying out”3. Sometimes especially aggressive whalers would perform this operation while still on the ship and then discard the unusable parts of the whale to make room for more captured whales before returning to shore.
Once boiled down and properly rendered, whale oil served many purposes. Most notably, it was used for lighting lamps to provide lighting in the days before electricity. It was also frequently employed in the process of creating soaps and margarine. Eventually, whale oil started falling out of fashion for these items as more ready and renewable sources such as kerosene and vegetable oil (and later on, electricity) started to take its place as whale populations rapidly dwindled.
Another whale species that was widely pursued was the Sperm Whale. While Sperm Whales produce blubber, they also produce a substance in their head cavities that is known as Spermaceti. While inside of the Sperm Whale, Spermaceti is in a liquid state but after their capture, the Spermaceti would be removed and processed into a wax-like substance that was very versatile in its uses and brought in a considerable amount of extra money when compared to regular whale oil. Spermaceti could be used to light lamps, but was also used in such applications as the production of cosmetics, fabric dressings, pharmaceutical ointments, candles, and much more3.
While many whales were captured in the somewhat close waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Connecticut whalemen traveled throughout the globe in pursuit of their prey. Voyages extending as far south as Tierra Del Fuego and as far north as the Arctic were not at all uncommon. These brave and stalwart men were among the first Americans ever to visit and become familiar with the iciest confines of the North. While there are too many famous whalemen from Connecticut to cover in one article, we’d still like to introduce you to two of the most notable. Captain Joel Root was a circumnavigator who embarked on an around-the-world whaling voyage that left port from New Haven during the early 1800s that lasted for 4 years. Captain Stanley O Buddington, another whaler of note, was both a whaleman and a sealer who made several whaling voyages, and was among the first American men to captain voyages into the Arctic.
Coming full circle, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, our state has not forgotten its proud whaling history and relics from this era are great in number and in prominence. Just take Huntington Street in downtown New London as an example. A line of houses that were built between 1833 and 1845 in the Greek Revival style that once house the state’s most prominent whalers, whaling ship owners/builders, and peddlers of all things whale is still to this day referred to as “Whale Oil Row”.3 In addition to this, in 1975, the Sperm Whale was declared to be the Official State Animal of Connecticut, an illustrious status that it still holds to this day.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of whaling in Connecticut, you can visit the Connecticut Whaling Museum at Mystic Seaport. This is a fascinating museum filled with educational and informative exhibits that makes for an ideal day of educational family fun for any Connecticut family who wants to get more in touch with their roots.
1. Author Unvailable
New London, Connecticut – THE Whaling City!? – Of Course!
New London Gazette
History of Whaling
3. Author Unavailable
Heritage of the District