Segment from Thar She Blows

Built on ‘Greasy Luck’

At the height of the whaling industry, the whaling capital of the world was the town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The whaling boom brought in everybody from boat steerers to bankers. Today, New Bedford no longer hosts whaling vessels. Instead, it has cultural artifacts like scrimshaw and giant paintings to emblemize the industry’s legacy. We talked to Michael Dyer, Curator of Maritime History for the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Hymn of the Exile by Jahzzar

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Brian Balogh: Today on the show, we’ll be looking at the history of whales and whaling in the Americas.

Joanne Freeman: We’ll be hearing about the town that made its fortune out of whaling.

Nathan C: And we’ll be discovering the role that native Americans played in this mighty industry.

Brian Balogh: And there’s so much to say about whales in US history, that next week we’d pick up the tail again.

Joanne Freeman: Okay. Brian, are you talking whale tail or story tale? Or both, I guess?

Brian Balogh: Either way I just put it down, Joanne.

Nathan C: Commercial whaling no longer exists in the United States. But back in the 19th century, it was big business. At its peak, there were more than 700 American whaling ships across the world. In the early 1850s, these vessels killed more than 8,000 Wales a year and brought in more than 5 million pounds of baleen. That’s the thick bristles made of Keratin that’s inside a whale’s mouth.

Joanne Freeman: Whale products could be found in every room in the house. It was used for soap and candles, but also for street lighting and industrial lubricants. The whale was nothing less than the chemical factory of the 19th century.

Brian Balogh: But the whaling industry wasn’t just about oil and blubber. It also extended into the culture of whaling communities. For example, women of whaling families often used whalebone as a way to keep their corsets stiff.

Nathan C: Ouch.

Brian Balogh: What do you know about that ouch, Nathan.

Nathan C: Nothing at all.

Brian Balogh: There’s also plenty of art depicting the whaling world. The longest painting in the US is actually a piece called The Grand Panorama of a whaling voyage around the world.

Nathan C: The longest. Really? How long is it?

Brian Balogh: Get ready for this. It’s 1300 feet long. That’s longer than the height of the empire state building.

Joanne Freeman: Wow.

Brian Balogh: This panorama shows different scenes of a whaling trip from navigating through erupting volcanoes in the Cape Verde islands, to returning home to the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Joanne Freeman: Wait a minute, we’re talking little local New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Brian Balogh: Yup. That’s right. At the height of the whaling industry, New Bedford, Massachusetts was the whaling capital of the world. You can actually go to New Bedford today and see The Grand Panorama.

Michael Dyer: That’s a really stunningly beautiful thing drawn by a Benjamin Russell, who is a whaleman out of New Bedford.

Brian Balogh: That’s Michael Dyer. He’s the curator of Maritime history of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. He says this guy, Benjamin Russell, was actually a failed businessman who decided to go out whaling. And he illustrated different scenes in a sketchbook along this journey.

Michael Dyer: But he came back, and he was going to make some money as an artist. He was tapping into the most popular themes of the day, as far as keeping the interest of a 19th century public. So he was talking about literary themes like Robinson Crusoe, like The Mutiny on the Bounty, like the Wreck of the Essex.

Brian Balogh: Dyer says, when Russell painted The Grand Panorama in 1848, New Bedford was bustling. The whaling industry brought in everybody from boats steerers to bankers. The town also welcomed a painless would be writer, Herman Melville. In December of 1840, Melville came into New Bedford to climb aboard the Acushnet and go out to sea. He’d go on to write about the thriving port in Moby Dick.

Speaker 8: In New Bedford fathers, they say, give whales for dowers to their daughters. And portion off their nieces with a few porpoises apiece. You must go to New Bedford to see a brilliant wedding, for they say they have reservoirs of oil in every house. And every night, recklessly burned their lengths in spermaceti candles.

Brian Balogh: Yes, business was good in New Bedford. As the whaling industry grew, Dyer says the city became one of the wealthiest in the country.

Hester Bloom: New Bedford was the fourth largest seaport in the USA. Now that’s saying something in a maritime culture. The USA was a maritime nation. New Bedford was sitting on $46 million dollars on it’s five banks, in the middle of the 1840s.

Joanne Freeman: So how did New Bedford become the whaling capital? What ended up setting it apart from places like Nantucket?

Brian Balogh: I got one word for you, Joanne. Location, location, location. Nantucket was an island, and New Bedford was on the mainland. It had dense forest on one side and a strong river on the other. But the glory days of whaling didn’t last forever in New Bedford. The beginning of the end for the industry came in 1859 with the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania. Then just a couple of years later, the civil war came along.

Michael Dyer: The civil war really did affect the whaling industry. In that the CSS, Alabama, the CSS, Florida, these commerce raters, the Shenandoah, targeted Yankee whalers, and they targeted them on purpose. Antebellum America was a maritime nation. Much of that maritime trade was centered in the northeast, but all of it depended on lighthouses. And if you could knock out the whalers that were providing the sperm oil to light houses, it could really cripple commercial navigation. And that was exactly what the confederate commerce raiders did, was they targeted Yankee whalers.

Brian Balogh: What happens to New Bedford after the civil war? How did the city respond to the decline of the whaling industry?

Michael Dyer: New Bedford merchants began putting their money into other things. Very shortly after the war, within five years of the end of the civil war, the second biggest textile mill in New Bedford was built. But these textile mills in New Bedford just grew and grew and grew. And so it really, it changed radically. Smokestacks rising big. Three, four story brick factories, that are three city blocks long. The people who came into work in the mills were French Canadians. They were, Portuguese islanders. They were English, highly specialized English mill operatives who came in. That radically changed the look of the place, because the whalers began to dwindle.

Joanne Freeman: So obviously Brian, whaling has a really rich history in New Bedford. But what does it end up meaning to the city today? How is whaling remembered there today?

Brian Balogh: Dyer says you can see the whale door knockers and weather veins around the town, but there’s also some really interesting artifacts that have been collected by the museum.

Nathan C: I love museums. What do you got?

Brian Balogh: Well, we talked earlier about the Grand Panorama that’s located in New Bedford. Actually, the painting is so long it can’t fit inside the museum. But there’s still a lot inside the place that can give you a sense of whaling at its high point. There’s huge whale skeletons, old harpoons and spears, and the model of a whaling ship. And on top of all that, they have the world’s largest collection of scrimshaw art. Okay.

Nathan C: Okay, hold on. You’re going to have to help me out again. I know I’ve heard something about scrimshaw bone or something, right?

Brian Balogh: That’s exactly right, Nathan. Dyer gave a tour of their Scrimshaw Gallery. Here he is with some more details.

Michael Dyer: Scrimshaw, of course is a very fine work that was done on ship board during whaling voyages, with materials obtained in the fishery. Including the skeletal bones of whales could be cut down nice and thin, and joined together into these complex swifts and yarn winders. There could be the teeth of sperm whales, that were extracted from the jaw, and polished and engraved with all kinds of scenes and pictures, copied from magazines, and books, and ship portraits and all. Whatever struck the sailor who was doing it. So, the scrimshaw provides a wonderful insight into the culture of whaling. Around the same time that we’re talking, the 1830s, and ’40s and ’50s.

Brian Balogh: Scrimshaw isn’t just art for art’s sake. It also had practical purposes. Dyer says it was often whittled into tools. And like we mentioned earlier, it was even used in women’s corsets as something called a busk.

Michael Dyer: So a busk is a stiff piece of material that would go down the front of a lady’s corset. The corsets were designed to keep your figure upright. And whalemen would make these busks and give them to their wives, or girlfriends, or other female members of their family. But, to me they’re fabulous because they speak so directly to the maritime culture that these people were living in. It’s not just the sailors, it’s not just the merchants, it’s the entire community.

Michael Dyer: So that, you see a busk like this one, where you’ve got a whale boat with six guys in it, and they’re being towed along behind a sperm whale that spouting blood, and they’re getting ready to stab it with a whaling lance. This is engraved in color on a piece of whale skeletal bones. So this is, this is a piece of whaling art that a man’s going to give to a woman to put in her underwear. This is part of a culture.

Brian Balogh: You can spend all day looking at the scrimshaw in this gallery, but there’s one piece in particular that stands out.

Michael Dyer: This particular sperm whale tooth is one of the great pieces of scrimshaw by Frederick Myrick of Nantucket, and he and he would engrave a little poem on these teeth. He did 37 of these teeth, and many of them have this poem. And it says, “Death to the living, long life to the killers. Success to sailor’s wives, and greasy luck to whalers.” So that’s a perfect synopsis. That is the perfect insight. That is the perfect statement. If you want understand Yankee whaling, it goes like that. Death to living, long life to the killers, Success to sailor’s wives, and greasy luck to whalers.

Joanne Freeman: Wait a minute. Greasy luck to whalers. Sometimes when I hear of a nifty phrase, I say to someone, “I want to keep that.” I don’t know if I want keep greasy luck to whalers, guys.

Brian Balogh: You have good judgment, Joanne?

Joanne Freeman: Thank you Brian.

Brian Balogh: It might seem a bit odd to think of a time when whaling reign supreme as an industry. But thanks to these artifacts, we can get a glimpse into the story of places like New Bedford. So I want to thank Michael Dyer again, and the New Bedford whaling museum for giving us this glimpse into the past.