Forget beeswax. The prized ingredient in Samuel Rodman’s candle works was spermaceti, the waxy head matter of toothed whales, especially sperm whales. For the whales, spermaceti most likely aids in communication through echolocation, but in the candle making industry craftsmen refined it into a commercialized product. The resulting reliable, sweet-smelling candles were the best product on the market when Rodman’s candle works operated between about 1815 and 1852, and his candles were sought by the upper classes.
The bright, clean-burning flames in mansion windows on the hill above New Bedford’s harbor and in wealthy homes across the country depended on healthy ocean ecosystems. Sperm whales are at the top of the ocean food chain. They rely on the availability and health of organisms of all sizes from squid to smaller ocean dwellers like krill and phytoplankton. But the whalers were even higher on the food chain, and sperm whales offered a profitable way for ship owners and captains to capture the energy of the ocean, through the labor of average seamen.
Whales were the cornerstone of a commercialized economy consisting of their parts—spermaceti, whale oil, baleen, and more—that generated great wealth in New Bedford and made the city one of the most affluent in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. The sailors aboard the whaleships earned wages based on a fraction of the profit, forcing them to remain at sea for up to three years, and often earning little more than pennies a day for their labor.
Candle works transformed spermaceti and whale oil into a 19th century industry. Whaleship owners began investing in candle works after the Revolutionary War, and by the 1850s there were twenty-one candle works in New Bedford including Samuel Rodman’s. Although consumers valued spermaceti candles for their scent and light, they were the most expensive. Candle works also produced cheaper grades of candles by refining oil rendered from the blubber of sperm whales and other species like humpback whales. Through trial and error, candle makers developed a streamlined process that required specialized knowledge and equipment and an understanding of the properties of different types of whale oils.
By the 1870s, a number of factors—depletion of whale populations, the discovery of petroleum, the Civil War, and the loss of many whale ships in the Arctic ice in 1871 and 1876—led to a rapid decline of the whaling industry. Whaling has left a lasting legacy in the world’s oceans. While many whale species have recovered, others, like the North Atlantic Right Whale, remain on the brink of extinction. Beginning with the Wamsutta Mill in the late 1840s, several whaling merchants wisely began to invest in the city’s new textile mills, helping to lead New Bedford into its next phase of economic development.