Salem’s Whaling History

Information for this post was provided by the National Park Service’s publication, “Pickled Fish and Salted Provisions, Oil and Bone: Salem’s Whaling Industry.”

Did you know that whaling was once a major industry in Salem? While we often think of Salem’s merchant past in terms of the spice trade, whaling also contributed to Salem’s wealth for a short time during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The first whaling ventures in Salem began shortly after its founding in 1626. These early attempts at whaling used only a couple of small ships that were not large enough for the whales to be processed onboard. As a result, the whales needed to be pulled ashore where their blubber could be processed into oil.

During this time period, whales were considered valuable due to their oil which was often shipped back to Europe to fuel lamps, and whalebone and baleen were used to create the structures of corsets and eyeglass frames. As the popularity of these products and other consumer goods increased, Salem’s whaling ships grew to meet demand.

Salem’s presence in international trade was steadily increasing until President Jefferson issued the unpopular Embargo Act of 1807. The act came at the expense of Salem’s trading industries, and while it was repealed just two years later it was too late for Salem’s merchants to make a comeback on the international trade front. As a result, overseas consumers began to purchase goods elsewhere, which startled Salem residents who relied on international trade for income and inspired them to shift their focus back to whaling.

Their efforts paid off, and in 1830 an article in the Salem Gazette proclaimed Salem as the best location for the whaling industry in Massachusetts. Through the 1830s, Salem had three active whale oil refineries in town to help keep up with the demand for whale-based products like candles along with scrimshaw, corsets, and parasols. At the height of Salem’s whaling industry in the 1830s, whaling vessels produced $165,306 worth of oil and $7,535 worth of whalebone.

By 1837 the whaling industry began to rapidly decline primarily due to an economic recession (the result of land speculation) which made wealthy businessmen less likely to invest in whaling. Within the following decade, many of Salem’s whaling ships were destroyed at sea and funds were not available to repair or replace them.

Only about two whaling ships were active by 1842, and while they were able to make sizable profits, investors began to turn their support towards other industries like the railroad and manufacturing. Salem’s last whaling vessel was sold to a company in Boston in 1871 thereby ending Salem’s role in the industry. By this point whale oil had largely been replaced by petroleum and the steelspring had proved more efficient than whalebone.

You can learn about Salem’s whaling industry today with information from the National Park Service, and you can see whales yourself with 7 Seas Whale Watch and Capt. Bill & Sons Whale Watch a few towns away in Gloucester. For more on whaling throughout the state, be sure to check out the sites along the Massachusetts Whale Trail. The trail includes museums, attractions, historic sites, whale watching trips, and tours all related to whales and their connections to Massachusetts. Learn more about the Whale Trail at MassVacation.com and share you adventures with #whaletrailMA and #SalemMA.

Salem.org