Whaling in the 1800s was just an evolution of centuries-long organized whaling throughout the world. The first to go out on organized whaling voyages were the Basques of Spain 1,000 years ago. Arctic whaling began with the British and Dutch in the 1600s with whalers using harpoons to kill whales and then melting down the whales' blubber to make oil. The American whaling industry emerged in the late 1700s because of the high demand for numerous whale byproducts.
Whaling in the 1800s in America was based out of several New England ports. Whaling ships from these ports would hunt for whales in the Atlantic and even sailed around Cape Horn to hunt for the highly sought-after sperm whale in the Pacific. New Bedford, Massachusetts, was regarded as the center of the world's whaling industry in the 1800s, as it was home to over 400 of the 700 total whaling ships worldwide. Since whale oil was predominantly used to light lamps, and ships returning to New Bedford carried whale oil that was exported worldwide, the town earned the name "The City That Lit the World."
Thousands of New England men worked on board whaling vessels during the height of whaling in the 1800s. The profit-sharing aspect of the whaling industry enticed many men to take jobs on whaling boats in the 1800s despite the dangers and discomfort of a whaler's life. Conditions on board whaling boats were less than ideal, and it was common for whaling ships to be out of port for over a year. Injuries and deaths from throwing harpoons were also common, in addition to whale strikes that would capsize ships and cause drowning deaths for many whalers.
Whaling in the 1800s was performed by striking whales with harpoons and then pulling the whales to the boat to begin the flensing process. Flensing was the term used to describe how a whale's blubber was cut into and removed in strips on board the whaling ship. Then the blubber was melted down on the ship and packaged in crates to be unloaded when the ship returned to port.
Whaling in the 1800s provided many products, both daily necessities and finer goods, for use in America and worldwide. The oil made from the melting of whale blubber was the primary whale byproduct sought after during whaling in the 1800s. Whale oil was used at the time to light lamps, make soap and lubricate factory machinery. Sperm whales were prized during whaling in the 1800s for a waxy substance found in their heads that was used to make candles that did not smoke or emanate a foul odor.
Whalebone, either actual bones or the baleen from a whale's mouth, was used predominantly in corsets during the 1800s but could also be found in children's toys and numerous household items.
Whaling in the 1800s declined after the 1850s when oil wells began to be drilled in America. This oil could easily be made into kerosene, eliminating the need for whale oil as a fuel for lamps. After the 1850s, the whaling industry rapidly grew smaller, and today it is highly regulated due to the dwindling numbers of many whale species. Whale conservationists point to whaling in the 1800s as a major source of whale exploitation and a primary reason for the endangered species status of certain whales today.