Whale oil sample

Object Number: 1991.2.076

This oil sample was taken from the tanks of the transport ship Orwell at Husvik in April 1953. Each shipment of oil was tested in the laboratory at the whaling station and graded according to the free fatty acid content. The label indicates the amount of free fatty acid and is signed by the first mate and the whaling station chemist.

Whale oil was undoubtedly the prized commodity as it had many different uses and so was in high demand from manufacturers. While whale oil was the most profitable product and there were also many other products that could be made from different parts of the whale. The whaling stations on South Georgia produced whale oil, seal oil, whale meat meal, whale bone meal and meat extract.

Until the end of the 19th Century the most common uses for whale oil were lamp oil and machine lubricant. However, in the final decades of the 1800s production of whale oil slumped as the whales in the northern hemisphere had been overexploited and lamp oil was made from cheaper petroleum derivatives.

As a result of this overexploitation in the north, whaling expanded into the southern hemisphere with the pioneering whaling station at Grytviken being founded in 1904 by Carl Anton Larsen. Whale oil had remained in use as lubrication and for ‘batching’ jute fibres (a treatment which allowed jute to be woven mechanically), and so there was still a demand for the product. This coincided with the development of the hydrogenation process, which could turn liquid whale oil into a solid fat, as well as eliminating its fishy odour. With this development whale oil became a more versatile raw material and therefore more valuable.

A worldwide shortage of vegetable oils in the early 1900s, worsened by the First World War, meant whale oil was widely adopted to produce soap and margarine. It was also used to make varnishes, paints and printing inks. Glycerine, a bi-product of hydrogenation, was used to make explosives and became a major product during the First World War. Whale oil prices increased four-fold during this time. Whale oil remained in wide use until the decline of the industry in the 1960s due to overexploitation of whale stocks in the Antarctic area.