PETROLEUM: The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859 supplanted some of the many applications for sperm and whale oils, but the burgeoning industrial economy was rapidly creating new uses for whale oils. The American whaling industry might have continued to flourish had it adapted and modernized –as the runaway efficiency and economic viability of the "modern" Norwegian technology abundantly demonstrates. Whale oil could not compete with petroleum as a fuel or illuminant; but as a lubricant for clockworks and delicate machinery, as a foodstuff and source of fat for human consumption, as animal feed, fertilizer, and (later) as a lubricant for military use and the aerospace industry, whale oils were ideally suited and remained viable and much in demand until the mid 20th century.
CONFEDERATE NAVY: The American Civil War (1861-65) diverted attention from whaling, raised insurance premiums to unprecedented heights, and subjected the Yankee fleet to the depredations of Confederate commerce raiders. The Confederate Navy– largely lacking the numbers and firepower to break the Union blockade, to defend Southern ports, or to engage Union warships in actual combat–concentrated their energies on capturing and burning merchantmen and whalers wherever they could be intercepted at sea. (Characteristically, the crews and passengers were not harmed. In courtly Southern fashion, they were generally put safely ashore, and only the vessels and cargoes destroyed–the motive being to disrupt the Northern economy.) Confederate corsairs depleted the whaling fleet and cost the Yankees money, but the ships and cargoes were insured and the crews survived. The owners could have recuperated, and the fishery been revitalized, had postwar economic circumstances warranted.
BLOCKADE OF SOUTHERN PORTS: Part of the Northern effort to inhibit commerce and shut off the inflow of supplies to the Confederacy was to blockade Southern ports, for which purpose they purchased old and derelict whaleships, filled them with stone ballast, and scuttled the hulks in the harbors of Charleston and Savannah –a program subsequently dubbed the "Stone Fleet." This is erroneously taken to have been a severe blow to the whaling industry; however, it was quite the reverse. Only a small portion of the whaling fleet was involved. Most of the affected vessels were already derelict and all were past their prime–this is precisely what made them eligible. Wartime conditions were already making whaling quite hazardous, insurance premiums were so high that cash flow was strained and profits were difficult even if a ship were to return home safely; and these particular vessels were already so dilapidated that they would hardly have been the best ones to insure and risk on a whaling voyage. More to the point, the whaleships were sold, not given , to the government. At a time when whaling merchants were hard pressed to make any kind of profit with these derelict vessels, they were offered a great deal: sell them outright.. The capital realized from the sale, added to profits earned from ascending wartime oil prices, could have been reinvested in whaling at war’s end–and the fishery thus been revitalized–had postwar economic circumstances warranted.
ARCTIC DISASTERS: Loss of life, loss of cargoes, and depletion of the whaling fleet in individual shipwrecks in the Arctic ice, and the cataclysmic loss of 45 ships and barks in disasters off Alaska in 1871 and 1876, effectively dampened enthusiasm for bowhead whaling. The implication was that there may have been better ways to earn a living and better investments for capital. This was perhaps especially the case when technological remedies–reinforcement of hulls to withstand Arctic ice, and auxiliary steam engines, to facilitate navigation and increase maneuverability in high latitudes–failed to produce the intended result. Nevertheless, despite that insurance payments and other reimbursements (such as restitution for the rescuers) were tied up in decades-long litigation, the economic consequences of these setbacks were not in themselves ruinous. The fishery could have recuperated, had economic circumstances warranted. Moreover, a proven technology was available: by the 1870s Norway’s new, mechanized whaling technology had already shown itself to be viable and profitable. Yankee whaling merchants could have adopted it had they wanted.
DECLINING WHALE STOCKS: Ever since the first Basque pelagic voyages, the history of whaling was a cycle of depletion of stocks, constant searching for new grounds and new stocks, and efforts to improve the efficiency of the hunting-and-killing apparatus, the better and more effectively to harvest whales. In the 1860s and ’70s, when American whaling went into decline, there was no shortage of whales, only a perceived shortage–a decline in numbers among the traditionally hunted species on traditionally hunted grounds. This was coupled with another (erroneous) perception, that all or virtually all of the potential grounds had already been discovered and were already being exploited. "Modern" Norwegian whalers readily proved otherwise.
The real reason for the decline of the American whaling industry was the economics of the new Norwegian technology compared with other, more advantageous pursuits for American investment. The "modern" Norwegian whalers were efficiently able to harvest not only all of the species that had been hunted for centuries, but also blue whales and finbacks–species that, by reason of their speed in the water, eluded the Yankee hand-whalers. Mechanized chaser boats equipped with high-powered deck cannons firing heavy-caliber, explosive harpoons increased volume and efficiency. This was a significant opportunity for an emerging Norwegian economy, but for Americans to adopt these "modern" methods and convert to the new technology would have diverted capital and resources from potentially more lucrative opportunities. The Norwegians exploited their own coastal waters; later, between 1904 and 1940, they established shore-whaling stations on six continents (including on the American Northwest Coast) and pioneered pelagic factory-ship expeditions to hitherto unexploited grounds off Antarctica. It was this efficient technology, and the failure of the whaling nations to adhere to protective quotas regulating the catch, that in the mid 20th century devastated several species to the point of extinction. American hand-whaling became obsolete except among Native Arctic peoples, whose motives were subsistence and cultural, rather than commercial. The new whaling technology passed America by, as American interests, American expectations, and American capital turned to more promising ventures–in manufacturing, railroads, mining, agriculture, and exploitation of western lands.
The Industrial Revolution and World-Class Manufactures
Even before the whaling industry began to falter, diversification of capital was creating new venues for prosperity and employment. The Wamsutta Company, founded on the banks of the Acushnet in 1846 and opened in 1848, was the first of many textile mills that gradually came to supplant whaling as the principal employer in New Bedford. Potomska Mills opened in 1871–the same year as the great Western Arctic whaling disaster–and several other textile firms followed. By the 1870s cotton textile manufacture was eclipsing the economic importance, if not the romance and international renown of the whaling industry. In 1875 Wamsutta alone rendered 19 thousand bales of cotton into 20 million yards of cloth, an output with a wholesale value roughly equal to that of the entire whaling catch. The years 1881-83 witnessed a virtual doubling of mill capacity in New Bedford. A similar burst of expansion occurred during 1887-89. Between 1880 and 1890 seven new companies entered the field, and the following decade seven more. Meanwhile, Wamsutta Mills expanded several times, until by 1892, with a total of seven mills, Wamsutta was the largest cotton weaving plant in the world. In 1897 Wamsutta was operating 4450 looms and employing 2100 workers. In 1907 New Bedford was home to 25 textile manufacturing companies operating two million spindles in 50 separate mill buildings, with 14 additional mills under construction.
Meanwhile, a variety of other industries arose: The New Bedford Gas Company in 1853; the city’s first iron-rolling plant, the Gosnold Iron Mill, in 1856; and, in 1860, the New Bedford Coal Oil Company, which made sheathing, yellow-metal fastenings, and rollers for printing patterns on calico cotton. The Morse Twist Drill Company, founded by inventor-entrepreneur Stephen Ambrose Morse in 1864, introduced the marvelous new invention from which the company took its name, and eventually branched out into the manufacture of other kinds of industrial blades, cutters, and jigs–reamers, milling tools, lathe chuck, gauges, mandrels, and threading tools. The New Bedford Cordage Company, founded in 1842 to furnish all kinds of rope and line to the whale fishery, actually expanded with the explosion of new industries and the many new demands for cordage. In 1888 this company’s production facility covered four acres with a 500-horsepower steam plant, employed 250, and included among its wares high-quality cordage for the private yachts that prosperity had made fashionable in the higher and middle echelons of New England society.
After the Civil War, with the whaling industry already past its prime, New Bedford became almost as famous for the manufacture of art glass as it was for whaling. The New Bedford Glass Company, established in 1866, was the pioneer, followed by the Mount Washington Glass Works, which moved to New Bedford from Boston in 1870; Smith Brothers, founded by Harry and Alfred Smith in 1873; Samuel R. Bowie, who was in business for only a few years (1876-82); and the best known of all, the Pairpoint Manufacturing Company, which was founded in 1880 and eventually merged with Mount Washington in 1894. The consolidated firm was employing 1000 workers in 1900.
Glass products were primarily decorative and functional objects intended for domestic use, such as lamps with colored floral or pictorial shades, and bottles and serving vessels of cut- or blown-glass. Another component in New Bedford’s new so-called "art industry." The Charles Taber Company, who began as stationers, successfully published prints, photographs, stereopticon views, and calendars, and produced picture frames and other objects of wood and faux ivory.
Electricity came to the city by way of the New Bedford Edison Illuminating Company, organized in 1884, delivering DC current by 1886, and by 1889 running eight steam-driven dynamos delivering between 375 and 435 horsepower. The gas and electric companies were consolidated in 1890, and by 1897 New Bedford had 200 arc street-lamps, more than 20,000 incandescent lamps in homes and private buildings, and about 300 horsepower in electric motors.
The tremendous demand for managers, skilled labor, and ordinary factory-workers that these industries required exceeded the region’s indigenous capacity. Immigration from abroad, migration from other parts of the United States, and the recruitment of specialist technicians contributed to a dramatic increase in the city’s population, from 15,000 to 60,000 in two generations. The aggregate became a fertile network of evolving opportunities: Men trained as blacksmiths became carriage-makers and, later, auto mechanics and machinists; machinists who had apprenticed as mill operators formed companies with iron-founders and engaged in manufacturing mill machinery, training men who went into engine-building. Manufacturers sold their machines to mill owners who hired millwrights to install them, mechanics to maintain and repair them, and stationary engineers to operate the power supply. Burgeoning industries constructed factory housing for their expanding ranks, who in turn required the usual array of consumer goods, civic services, churches, schools, and public entertainment. New Bedford was no longer a one-industry town.
Mustafa Umut Sarac