There are two ways to explain the end of American whaling.
First, history. During the Civil War, the North bought up aging whaleships, loaded them with stone, and sank them in Charleston Harbor in an attempt to block it. The South, meanwhile, purchased warships from Britain and set about catching and burning Union whalers. In all, Dolin reckons, more than eighty whaleships perished in the Civil War. Then, in 1871, pack ice descended on the northern coast of Alaska sooner than expected, pinning a fleet of whalers and cracking their hulls like so many eggshells. In this and a similar disaster five years later, forty-five more whaleships were lost. A new and far more destructive era of global whaling was about to begin—in the eighteen-sixties, a Norwegian named Svend Foyn devised a radically more efficient way to kill whales, by firing explosive-tipped harpoons from a cannon mounted on a steam-powered, iron-hulled schooner—but the American industry was too demoralized to participate.
Second, economics. If all had been well with whaling’s profit margins, the Civil War’s blow would have glanced like a blunt iron off a sperm whale’s snout. But for a long time beef tallow had been selling cheaper than spermaceti as an ingredient in candles, and lard oil had been underselling whale oil as a fuel for lamps. From the eighteen-forties on, more and more cities lit their streets with coal-derived gas, and a Canadian discovered how to extract from coal an oil called kerosene, which burned brighter and cleaner than whale oil. By the time crude petroleum was found underground in western Pennsylvania, in 1859, the whaling industry was already in retreat. Petroleum doomed it. In a single day, an oil well pumped as many barrels as a whaleship might collect in a three-year voyage. As sales shrank, the owners of whaleships cut costs by offering smaller lays, and the rate of literacy and the level of experience of the whaling workforce dropped, dragging productivity down with it. Davis, Gallman, and Gleiter surmise that the fashion for wasp waists in the late nineteenth century added about fifteen years to the dying industry’s life, by bidding up the price of baleen for corsets, but it was only a temporary reprieve….
But the economists tell us that whales are innocent of having damaged the whaling industry by becoming scarce, and nineteenth-century whalers had to keep searching for new grounds because whales in much-hunted areas grew more canny. Americans never caught enough sperm whales to throw them out of equilibrium. They did harm the populations of grays and bowheads, it seems, and maybe of right whales, too, but too late to have contributed to the decline of American whaling.
With Foyn’s new technology, the Norwegians hunted bigger and faster whales than the ones that man power and sail power had been able to handle; requiring new fleets, it was tantamount to a whole new industry. There was no reason to think that America would be good at it, especially since American labor cost more than Norwegian labor, so New Bedford’s millionaires quietly shifted their capital to railroads, petroleum refining, and textiles.
Whaling in the United States survived as a conscious antique, but only for a few decades. In 1914, the newspaper of the whaling industry shut down for lack of readers. Like “a staunch old whaling bark,” the editors wrote, the “Journal is to be hauled out on the beach.” As it happens, Melville dropped hints from time to time that the making of literature was like whaling. It, too, was a craft that lingered into the industrial age. It, too, expressed by a somewhat violent process the essence that a living creature collected in its head. In “Moby-Dick,” Ishmael even claims that, while working at his desk, he once saw in a mirror “a certain semi-visible steam” rising from his own head, like a whale’s spout. Perhaps writing, then, is the career to run away to—so long as you don’t mind figuring as both whaler and whale.