Large scale whaling dates back to at least the 17th century when both the Dutch and the English maintained large whaling fleets. By the 18th century these whalers were moving further abroad as whale numbers close to home dropped. By the 19th century America dominated the world industry, and whaling had spread through the Atlantic and Pacific.
Up to this point, whalers were restricted to the slower whales: humpback, sperm, bowhead, and gray. This was because the universal hunting method involved the use of harpoons from open boats. However in the mid-19th century, marking the advent of the modern whaling industry, a gun that launched harpoons containing an explosive charge was developed, allowing the faster blue, sei, and fin whales to be hunted as well.
Part of the modern whaling industry was the factory ship - an enormous self-sufficient vessel onto which a captured whale is loaded and immediately processed. To appreciate the size of these vessel consider a blue whale, the largest living creature. It can be flensed, dismembered, butchered, and pressure-cooked to produce oils and various meals in about 45 minutes on a factory ship.
So why all this trouble to kill a whale? The simple answer: oil. One large right whale can provide 25 tons of oil.
The oil from whales can be divided into two catergories: whale and sperm. Whale oil comes from baleen whales and is edible. Sperm oil comes from sperm whales and is inedible.
Although the oil is the reason for hunting them, every other bit of the whale - from flesh to bone - found a use.
The products made from various bits of whale include:
The Trouble with Whaling
Demand for whale products exceeded availability, making whaling a lucrative trade. Whalers, unfortunately, put profit in front of all other concerns (including sustainablity of their industry) and many whale species were hunted to or near-to extinction.
Historically, concern about the plummetting whale populations became an issue in during the mid-20th century, and in 1946 the International Whaling Commission was formed to protect the future of whales. The success of the IWC is borne out by the fact there are still whales in the oceans today. Commericial whaling has now stopped, banned in an "indenfinite moratorium" set in 1986.
Replacing whale products.
New materials with the same properties were required. All these changes occurred over the last two centuries for everything except whalemeat (it is still considered a delicacy in Norway and Japan). All the products that once were derived from the oil of a whale are now made from alternative sources, such as petroleum and vegetable oils.
The first product to go was lamp oil, replaced by petroleum. In fact the first important use of petroleum was as an illuminating fuel to replace whale oils. Petroleum was first drilled for specifically in 1859.
Candles date back to at least 3000 BC, usually being made of wax (from bees for example). Far-longer burning candles were achieved in the 19th century by using stearic acid obtained from stearin (a major component of natural fats). The two other major source materials were: spermaceti, from the head cavity of a sperm whale; and paraffin wax, from petroleum (once it was discovered). Candles made from spermaceti were once so common that the International Candle (a measure of light source intensity) was originally defined as a one-sixth-pound candle of sperm wax, burning at the rate of 120 grains per hour.
Whale oil, as well as other sources of animal fat, was used to make margarine as late as the 1950's. Europe especially used whale oil for margarine manufacture. However dwindling whale numbers, as well as health concerns over the use of monosaturated fats saw a shift in the late 1950's to polyunsaturated fats and oils, such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oils.
And if you happen to buy a corset today (they are still available - though you have to look hard), it is probably made of nylon and polyethylene coated wire.