The Golden Age of Whaling

Painting by Fitz Henry Lane - Boston Harbor, Sunset - from LACMA
Boston Harbor, Sunset, by Fitz Henry Lane

The mid-19th century was the “golden age” of whaling in America, with hundreds of ships making long voyages – often into uncharted parts of the oceans – to kill whales and process them into key ingredients of the Industrial Revolution: oil to illuminate homes, offices, streets and factories at night; and lubrication for machines. Candles made from the rich oil contained in the massive heads of sperm whales – spermaceti – were the premier indoor lighting technology of the late 1700s and beyond.  Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend that these candles “…afford a clear white Light; may be held in the Hand, even in hot Weather, without softining; that their Drops do not make Grease Spots like those from common Candles; that they last much longer, and need little or no Snuffing.”  But like one of those premium spermaceti candles, the industry burned bright and quickly went dark, as the figure below indicates. Although the common story is that the whalers wiped out the whales, the reality is different1:  replacement of whale oil by fossil fuels (especially oil), the rise of non-American whaling nations (especially Norway), and the massive disruption caused by the American Civil War.

Chart of revenue from Whaling in dollars 1816-1905
Revenue from whaling, 1816-1905

Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling In America, says that at its peak, 70,000 people were employed in the industry, directly or indirectly2. It was the third largest industry in Massachusetts in the middle of the 19th century, after shoes and cotton, and the fifth largest in the U.S. The most profitable year was 1853, when sales of whale oil, spermaceti, and baleen amounted to $11 million.3 The leading whaling port, New Bedford, Massachusetts, was said to be the richest city in the United States, and possibly even the world.4

Seventy thousand doesn’t sound like a very big industry in modern America, but back in 1853 the nation was much smaller and concentrated, so perhaps some scaling can bring it into perspective.

First, let’s start with people.  The U.S. population in 1850 was 23 million, including 3.2 million slaves (Census Bureau, Census of 1850).  A recent estimate of the current population is 326 million (Census Bureau Population Clock).  If we simply scale for population growth, the 70,000 active in the whaling business would be around 950,000 today, about 1 in every 350 people, or about 1 in every 200 adults.

The automobile industry is an easily accessible comparison. We have motor vehicle manufacturing with around 160,000 workers, motor vehicle parts manufacturing with 443,000 workers, dealers with 1,050,000 workers, and repair with 815,000 workers, for a total of about 2.4 million, about 1 in every 140 people, about 1 in every 80 adults (Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-seasonally adjusted figures).  So, in person-terms, about two and a half times bigger than than the scaled whaling business. Of course, the auto industry has a massive physical and commercial footprint in the United States, with multiple dealerships in just about every city and advertisements blanketing the airwaves and print media. If whaling materials were brought into the modern era, I doubt that the industry would have such a noisy position in the commercial marketplace as autos – a candle or whalebone girdle-stay isn’t quite as exciting as a shiny car – but would probably be a bit more like the commercial presence of light bulbs and motor oil.

Next, we’ll take a look at the money. The simplest way to adjust for the times is with the consumer price index, a measure of the average prices of a basket of goods and services. Although my favorite inflation calculator from the BLS only goes back to 1913, I found some CPI estimates at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that go to 1800. Between 1853 and 2012, the purchasing power of a dollar decreased by a factor 27.92, so an $11 million industry in 1853 would be roughly equivalent to a $307 million industry in 2012 (of course, there might be better ways to handle this than CPI).  A few hundred million is pretty big, but almost nothing compared to today’s automotive industry, which sold over 13 million new cars and trucks in 2011 (WardsAuto) – using a wild guess of $30,000 per vehicle, that’s about $390 billion – and paid $500 billion in salaries in 2010 (Center for Automotive Research).  And that’s not even considering the used car, service and parts markets.  What’s behind this thousand-fold difference between the big industries of the mid-19th century and today’s auto industry,  despite only a 28-fold increase in the CPI? The answer is well beyond my knowledge of economics.

An economic historian or business analyst might have something more to say about these things in terms of productivity, the industrial revolution, multiplier effects, innovation and more.  But I think I’ll leave it here with two links:

  • At the Atlantic, Derek Thompson has an interesting take on whaling, innovation and 19th century global trade
  • James Murray at Business Green recalls that the American whaling industry was the center point of the greatest green economy speech that he ever saw.


Davis, Lance E., Gallman, Robert E., and Gleiter, Karin, In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906, University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Dolin, Eric Jay, Leviathan: The History of Whaling In America, W. W. Norton, 2007.

Image Credit
Fitz Henry Lane, Boston Harbor, Sunset, 1850-1855. Downloaded from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Image Library, part of the public domain collection (higher resolution is available at LACMA).  I don’t know what kinds of ships these are, but whatever the case, the painting is beautiful, a great example of luminism.


  1. Stocks of sperm whales and humpback whales were not significantly decreased by the sail-powered whalers of the mid-19th century for a number or reasons, which are detailed in In Pursuit of Leviathan (Full text available from the National Bureau of Economic Research). But once the whaling ships became motorized and harpooning technology advanced in the late 19th century and 20th century, the stocks were seriously threatened. Davis et al. write on page 508, “In that one year [1931] the modem industry killed more than 10 percent as many whales as the American industry had destroyed in the entire nineteenth century. Well over 1,000,000 whales were captured between 1904 and 1978, compared with something over 350,000 during the nineteenth century.” (my emphasis)
  2. Dolin says this during one of his interview segments in Into the Deep, a presentation of PBS’s American Experience, but I can’t find its source in his book.  The program was directed by Ric Burns and narrated by Willem Dafoe. It uses the story of the whaleship Essex as the dramatic narrative that underpins a thorough look at American’’s whaling industry.  The full video should be available for viewing on PBS’s website and on the Netflix instant service.  Highly recommended.
  3. These figures are in Dolin’s Leviathan, p. 206 in the paperback edition.
  4. The tidbit about New Bedford is from In Pursuit of Leviathan.


    1. That was a terrible typo, right in the first sentence. Sometimes my proofreading process malfunctions. Thanks for pointing out the error.

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