Whaling, the U.S. Economy, and Presidential Autographs

Founded on a strong seafaring tradition and an advanced shipbuilding industry in New England, whaling established itself as an American industry in the late colonial period. The Revolution, War of 1812, and Napoleon Wars in Europe wrecked havoc with American trade, but with those conflicts in the past whaling began to grow in the 1820s. By the 1840s, around the time Herman Melville was completing Moby Dick, whaling was a booming worldwide business and the United States was the global behemoth. In 1846 the U.S. owned 640 whaling ships, more than the rest of the world put together and tripled. The U.S. whaling industry grew by a factor of fourteen between 1816 and 1850, and American whaling ships, mainly from New England, roamed the seas in the South Atlantic, in the Pacific from the Bering Straits down to Hawaii and the Philippines, and even in the Indian Ocean. Far flung places, hitherto seldom visited, became routine stops for American whalers. Whaling journeys often took years, and there was a real romance attached to serving on a whaling ship and seeing the world. Demand for whale products came from all over the world. Sperm oil could lubricate fancy new machinery. Basic whale oil could light up a room, and whale oil lamps were a very common form of lighting. Whale cartilage could hold together a corset or umbrella. At its height, the whaling industry was the fifth largest sector of the U.S. economy.

The seed of whale oil’s decline was planted in 1846, at the height of the whaling boom. That year kerosene was discovered, and its flame burned more brightly than whale oil. At first it was too expensive, but when it was found that kerosene could be extracted from petroleum its price became affordable, and at the same time it triggered a worldwide race for oil. In the 1870s the whaling industry started to decline as whale resources decreased and petroleum production increased. Capitalists began to funnel their cash into other domestic industries, notably railroads, oil, and steel. When New Bedford’s whaling elite opened the city’s first cotton mill and petroleum-refining plant, the handwriting was on the wall. By the late 1890s, the industry was virtually on life support.

With U.S. ships heading to such remote waters, it was imperative that they carry passports. These proved the ships were American (against any claims to the contrary, thus discouraging their seizure), entitled them to aid from U.S. ambassadors and consuls overseas, and requested that foreign governments provide them all assistance. The passports that ships carried were in those simpler days signed by the serving presidents of the United States and secretaries of State. Initially all ship’s passports had those signatures; around the time of Andrew Jackson presidents began signing fewer, and by the Pierce administration virtually all the passports signed by presidents were for whaling ships. Some ship’s passports survived and have reached the market, but because of the romance attached to American whaling, the whaling ship’s passports have always been the most coveted.

So the common span (there are exceptions) of whaling ship’s passports is from the late 1820s (the John Quincy Adams administration) until the late 1870s (the Hayes administration), in decreasing quantities as the years move forward. Recently were were surprised to find a collection of whaling ship’s passports with just that time span, and we acquired it. So in the past months we have had whaling documents for ten of the presidents, which is a first for us, and still have some of them. They form a treasured link to the maritime America of the Moby Dick era.

If you would like to see them, how they look and how they read, we encourage you doing so. At present you will find those of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, U.S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes.

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