Filed Under Industry

Samuel Rodman Candle Works

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.

Video

Video: State of the Planet's Oceans: New Bedford, Massachusetts - A Cautionary Tale, Narrated by Matt Damon New Bedford is perhaps unique as a former national leader in three different industries: whaling and the refining of whale products, textile manufacturing, and commercial fishing. Each of these industries contributed to disastrous environmental impacts. In this video, narrator Matt Damon wonders if the collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery is part of a larger pattern in the oceans that can be reversed. Source: Journey to Planet Earth, Public Broadcasting Service. Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45xEoNuG5tw. Creator: Public Broadcasting Service

Images

New Bedford Harbor, by John W. Hill, ca. 1850. This engraving depicts New Bedford at the height of the whaling industry, about 1850. The shore along the harbor is dominated by warehouses and whale oil refineries. Just two years earlier, New Bedford's first textile manufactory, Wamsutta Mills, rose along the banks of the Acushnet River in the area at the far right of this image. Creator: John W. Hill Date: 1850
Plan of the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1850 (detail) “Rodman & Leonard Sperm Oil Manu.” appears in the center of this detail from an 1850 plan of New Bedford. Source:
“New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1850 (Raster Image) - Digital Maps and Geospatial Data | Princeton University.” Accessed February 18, 2022. https://maps.princeton.edu/catalog/harvard-matwn-3764-n4-1850-s5.
Creator: Collins & Clark  Date: 1850
Wheel hoist at George Delano & Sons Oil Works, photographed in 1973. Rodman Candle Works would have contained equipment like this wheel hoist in the New Bedford candle works of George Delano and Sons Oil Works. Hoists like this were used to lift heavy casks of oil so their contents could be refined into candles. Source:

Mark Foster, “New Bedford: Whale Oil Refining Capital,” The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, New Bedford Theme Issue, Vol. 40, Nos. 1 & 2 (2014), pp. 51 – 70.

Creator: Ralph Langenbach Date: 1973
Rodman Candleworks, ca. 1970 By the 1960s, Rodman Candle Works was vacant and slated for demolition. Source: National park Service Date: Ca. 1970
Rodman Candleworks, present day The Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE) and the Architectural Conservation Trust saved the building, and it was restored in 1979. Source: Creator: Steven L. Markos, 2018 Date: 2018

Location

72 North Water Street, New Bedford, Ma

Metadata

Julianne Fontana, “Samuel Rodman Candle Works,” Rhode Tour, accessed January 30, 2023, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/139.