Whale Products

There were many manufactured goods made from whale bone, blubber, ambergris, and spermaceti. Melville was intrigued with the way in which the bloody business of whaling supported the production of parasols, corsets, perfume, soap, and other finery for middle- and upper-class men and women. The fact that ambergris, an intestinal secretion found in whale droppings, served as a fixative in perfume manufacturing was a particularly delicious irony for Ishmael. “Who would think, then,” he wonders, “that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale!”

In describing the wealth of New Bedford, Ishmael makes especially clear that the fierce and often barbaric combat at sea makes possible leisure, domesticity, and refinement back on land. “Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion,” he tells the reader, and you will see that the “houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” Marveling at the excesses of New Bedford life, he observes that its residents “have reservoirs of oil in every house, and every night recklessly burn their lengths in spermaceti candles.”

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