"Oils of All Kinds"

Whale Oil Samples from the Bark Ohio

Original content by: Emily Schimelman

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

The whaling bark Ohio was captained by Fred. H. Smith from 1875-1878.  His wife, Sallie G. Smith, went along on the whaling voyage that left on July 1, 1875.  This wooden, hinged box includes 26 small glass bottles which contain whale oil samples from the whales that were taken during their three-year voyage.  Oil from each whale that was killed was carefully sampled and recorded with the type of whale taken, the total number of barrels that came from the whale, and the date of capture. Ohio sailed in and out of New Bedford, Massachusetts (commonly referred to as "The City that Lit the World").  With all of the oil that thousands of voyages took home (these vials being just a microscopic sample), it was no surprise that whale oil literally changed the world.  These samples are unique as they serve many purposes, from acting as a record of a successful voyage, to the documentation of the location of successful whale hunts, and even as a type of souvenir for the trip.

As is evident by the diversity of the samples in the box, whale oil comes in many different grades and forms, frequently depending on the location of the whale the oil is extracted from as well as the species of whale.  Sperm whale oil has a slight yellowish tint and a very faint odor.  On the market, this was sold as Grade 1 or Grade 2 oil.  It was highly desirable, as it did not dry out over time or corrode metals.  This grade of oil was taken solely from the whale's blubber and mixed with nothing else from the body.  It was not only used to illuminate street lights and make candles, but it was also frequently used as a lubricant for machinery during the Industrial Revolution.  For example, great quantities of whale oil were used in New England's textile mills during the first half of the 19th century.  The quality and desired use of the specified oil determined its prices.  In 1804, the price of sperm whale oil was over $30.00 per gallon (in 2008 dollars).  As the years went on, due to the demand and need of lubricant for machines, as well as the decimation of whale populations, the price went as high as over $60.00 per gallon (in 2008 dollars) in 1855.

Spermaceti, also known as "case oil," was solely found in the head of a sperm whale.  This unusual substance is a liquid wax, clear in color, and odorless.  In order to retrieve the sought-after product, the crew members on board a ship would dip buckets into the head cavity of a whale that had been hauled on deck, and bail out the spermaceti.  Because of its superior quality, spermaceti was used in cosmetics, lubricants, soaps, and higher quality, odorless, bright burning candles.

The lowest quality of whale oil, known as "train oil," was obtained from any species of whale.  Train oil was not as highly priced as sperm whale oil.  This oil was typically known on the market as Grade 3 and Grade 4 oil.  Grade 3 was prepared with the meat and bones, while grade 4 consisted of blood, viscera, and other bits and pieces of the dead whale.  The color of this oil right out of the try-pots was dark brown, and quite (foully) odorous.  Yet, this oil was used in the same manner, for both lubrication and illumination.  In 1804, the price of train oil, per gallon, was roughly around $15.00 (in 2008 dollars), while in 1855 it was priced close to $30.00 (in 2008 dollars).

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Whose job do you think it was to keep these samples? The captain? Mates? The captain's wife, Sallie G. Smith?
  2. Why do you think the oils vary in color? Do you think they may have changed in appearance and composition since they were collected over 100 years ago?
  3. Why do you believe these samples were kept?