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Sold: Sperm Whale Oil

Rare antique advertising box for “Sperm Sewing Machine Oil” with bottles, c. 1880s. Graphic and dramatic label depicting a whaling ship and crew killing a sperm whale. Finger-joined wooden box with slide top including two sperm oil bottles, one with original label and the other with embossed side. The bottle label reads: “Nye’s Finest Machine and Household Utility Oil – Cleans, Lubricates & Prevents Rust.” The oil was manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts, one the historic whaling centers in the U.S.

Sperm whale oil is very light and fine, does not congeal, dry out, or corrode metals, and it has a low freezing point. As a result, it was used to lubricate fine machinery such as clocks, watches, and sewing machines from colonial times into the 20th century. Sperm oil was particularly prized as an illuminant in oil lamps, as it burned more brightly and cleanly than any other available oil and gave off no foul odor. It was also instrumental in lubricating the technology of the Industrial Revolution, used in steam locomotives and factory looms.

Sperm whaling was notoriously dangerous, and harpooning attempts from whaleboat crews often enraged bull whales who would attack whaleboats. A properly harpooned whale, however, would succumb to exhaustion attempting escape underwater to then resurface rendered helpless. After killing a sperm whale, the whalers would pull the carcass alongside the ship, cut off the head and haul it on deck, whereupon they would cut a hole in it and bail out the matter inside with a bucket. The primary source of sperm oil was the spermaceti organ and the junk, the organs that serve to focus and modulate the animal’s vocalizations. A sperm whale’s spermaceti organ may contain as much as 1,900 litres of substance.

The hunting led to the near extinction of sperm whales until bans on whale oil use were instituted in 1972. By the twenty-first century, the pre-hunting estimate of 1,110,000 sperm whales had been reduced by nearly seventy percent.

A remarkable piece of nineteenth century whaling ephemera and a vivid material reminder of the toll of the modern industrial economy on the natural world.

 

Measurements

Box:

8.25 inches tall

8.25 inches wide

8.25 long

Bottle:

4.5 inches tall

1.5 inches wide

Condition

The box is in excellent condition with minor stains on the paper label. The label on the bottle is is chipped and discolored, but in very good condition. Displays well.

 

Shipping

Free in the continental United States. If an international buyer, please contact me for a shipping estimate by clicking here.

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