George Newton's Whale Show

Original content by: Vera Cecelski

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About This Document

At the end of 1880, George H. Newton purchased an entire dead right whale in Provincetown, MA, and loaded the carcass onto a railcar.  The special train took the whale to Chicago, where it became the prize exhibit in a traveling show that Newton named "The Pioneer Inland Whaling Company."  Newton created this broadside to attract visitors in each new city he visited, whether they be children, parents, or clergy.

At the show, visitors could walk around the entire whale while listening to a lecture on whaling, given by Newton himself (who often used the whale's body as his stage).  The whale travelled across the Midwest, where it could have been the first time that residents saw the animal whose oil and baleen they used frequently in daily life.  Initially preserved by the cold (and then by misguided attempts at embalming), the whale eventually deteriorated, and was finally sold at auction in 1884.

Reading by Brandon Morgan.

Historical Context

George Newton's whale show arrived well after traditional American whaling had slipped into decline.  Petroleum was discovered in 1859, and was put to use for fuel and lighting (though whale oil was still utilized for lubrication).  European steam whaleships were outcompeting America's wooden sailing ships.  Whalebone was often used for fashionable corsets, but mass-produced metal stays were quickly replacing it.  As the economics of whaling failed, so did the perception of whales as nothing more than an extractable resource.  More...

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Do you use materials in your everyday life that you don't know where they come from? If you can find out their origins, do they surprise you?
  2. What materials that we use today might not be available in 100 years? How would you think of them differently if they became very rare?
  3. What are traveling exhibits and shows about today? How are they advertised? What is their purpose? How are they similar to Newton's show?