Sunday, July 29, 2018

spermaceti makes a whale of a good candle, but maybe not so good for the whale

From Alice Morse Earle’s “Customs and Fashions in Old New England” (1893):
… In 1686 Governor Andros petitioned for a commission for a voyage after “Sperma-Coeti Whales,” but not till the middle of the following century did spermaceti become of common enough use to bring forth such notices as this, in the Boston Independent Advertiser of January, 1749:
“Sperma-Ceti Candles, exceeding all others for Beauty Sweetness of Scent when Extinguished. Duration being more than Double with Tallow Candles of Equal Size. Dimensions of Flame near 4 Times more. Emitting a Soft easy Light, bringing the object close to the Sight, rather than causing the Eye to trace after them, as all Tallow Candles do, from a Constant Dimnes which they produce. One of these Candles serves the use and purpose of 3 Tallow Candles, and upon the Whole are much pleasanter and cheaper.”
Observation: Every type of candle I have read about is touted as burning brighter, longer, sweeter, pleasanter than some other type, or maybe all other types, of candles. But not all are touted as being cheaper.

From Wikipedia’s entry on spermaceti (2018):
After killing a sperm whale, the whalers would pull the carcass alongside the ship, cut off the head and pull it on deck, whereupon they would cut a hole in it and bail out the matter inside with a bucket. The harvested matter, raw spermaceti, was stored in casks to be processed back on land. A large whale could yield as much as 500 gallons. The spermaceti was boiled and strained of impurities to prevent it from going rancid. On land, the casks were allowed to chill during the winter, causing the spermaceti to congeal into a spongy and viscous mass. The congealed matter was then loaded into wool sacks and placed in a press to squeeze out the liquid. This liquid was bottled and sold as "winter-strained sperm oil". This was the most valuable product: an oil that remained liquid in freezing winter temperatures.

Later, during the warmer seasons, the leftover solid was allowed to partially melt, and the liquid was strained off to leave a fully solid wax. This wax, brown in color, was then bleached and sold as "spermaceti wax".[12][13] Spermaceti wax is white and translucent. It melts at about 50°C (122°F) and congeals at 45°C (113°F).[14]

Also: Time to read “Moby Dick.”

From The New York Times, July 14, 1974:
Candle Crunch
Sometimes the rules of economics just don’t apply. Take the current situation in spermaceti candles.

Mrs. Clifford Allen, the owner of The Candle Shop in Nantucket Island, Mass., believes she is the last manufacturer of this product, which is disappearing because of controversial but widespread bans on the taking of whales.

Yet she sells these scarce white candles, which she hand-dips in spermaceti—a waxy substance obtained from the head of the sperm whale—$1.50 for a 12-inch pair, the same as she charges for ordinary bayberry candles. “It’s a work of love, a hobby,” Mrs. Allen explained.

Her production of spermaceti candles—they last longer and burn brighter than other candles—goes to other shops in Massachusetts, but now Federal law prevents her from selling to shops or individuals outside the state.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits the importation of whale products and prohibits whaling in the United States. Before it was passed, Mrs. Allen’s business sold between 20,000 and 30,000 pairs of candles a year.

Mrs. Allen has had a supply of spermaceti for 20 years, and may run out as soon as this fall. “People are now buying them by the dozen,” she noted.

Nonetheless, the price remains fixed. According to Mrs. Allen, “I don’t intend to try to make a fortune just because there’s an embargo.”
Observation: The productiveness of some people knocks me flat. Hand-dipping on average 50,000 spermaceti candles a year; selling them; making other types of candles (those “ordinary bayberry candles”); running a shop; all as a hobby!

And a realization: In July of 1974 I was on Cape Cod within a ferry ride of The Candle Shop and possibly owning a pair of spermaceti candles, if only I could have fathomed my future, for surely I would love to have a pair of spermaceti candles right now, just as surely as I would hate to see a whale’s head chopped off, the light dipped out of it.