Monday, April 29, 2013

Saving the Whales—Nineteenth Century Style ~ Ellen O'Connell

Recently I came across a statement that in 1870 sixty percent of railroad shipments in the United States were kerosene. At the time I didn’t bookmark the reference, but it piqued my curiosity. Whether that percentage was by weight or by dollar value, it’s impressive and led me to research the subject.

Until 1846 when Abraham Gesner came up with a way to refine kerosene from coal (“coal oil”), the most desirable fuel for lighting around the world was whale oil, and the whaling industry went full bore from the mid-1700s until the late Nineteenth Century. The wealthy could afford to light their homes with whale oil. Governmental authorities used it for lighthouses and street lamps, but at $1.77 a gallon (1856 peak price), the homes of working men would have still been using tallow, and even without the total lack of availability, the mountain men and early settlers in the West would have elected for “cain’t see” to “cain’t see,” firelight, and candles. (Have you ever tried to read or do much by candle light? I have during power outages. Maybe one would get used to it over time, but I didn’t get much done.)

So as sperm whales became increasingly scarce after more than a century of steady slaughter, and the price of whale oil increased because of scarcity, kerosene came to the rescue. Techniques to refine kerosene from petroleum (as opposed to coal) drove the early American petroleum industry. An estimated 30 kerosene refineries operated in the U.S. in 1860. The American whaling fleet decreased from a high of more than 700 ships to less than 40 in 1876 because kerosene supplanted whale oil for lighting, and not only for the wealthy.

Estimates of sperm whales killed for their oil run as high as a million. The whales continued to be hunted for other reasons, but never again at that level. The species is listed as endangered today under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 and is also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, although the sperm whale is doing better than any of the other large whale species.

Kerosene not only saved the whales, but made a better life possible for the many people we write about in our historical western romances. For men and women taking advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act, kerosene would have been available to light their homes, shipped all over the country on the railroads that were built during those years.

Modern urban folks probably never encounter kerosene. Being a country girl, I always have a few gallons around. During my horse showing years, we cleaned and lubricated clipper blades in a 50-50 mixture of kerosene and motor oil. (Show horses have their whiskers and any feathering hair on the legs trimmed off. Even non-show riding horses usually have a “bridle path” trimmed in the mane right behind the ears so the crown piece of the bridle or halter can rest there without long mane hair tangling around. No, not a cowboy thing, at least not a Nineteenth Century cowboy thing.)

These days I keep kerosene around because I have a kerosene heater to drag out when the power goes out in the winter, not a frequent occurrence here in Colorado, but it happens every couple of years. The smell is distinctive, and last year’s price was over $10 a gallon.  I’m always delighted when the power comes back on.


Ciara Gold said...

My father-in-law tells that his "ma" would dose them with a spoonful of Kerosene and honey for a cough. Ack.

Thanks for the interesting post.

Ellen O'Connell said...

It's one of those things that's actually toxic, but used in doses that small probably did no harm. Whether it did any good...?

It was used for a long time as the standard treatment for head lice. Soak head in kerosene, wrap in rags. (Stay far away from any source of fire.)

Jacquie Rogers said...

We have several kerosene lamps because when the power goes out here, it stays out for a few days. No, I'm not enamored with the light but it's a whole lot better than candles. But one thing that makes me laugh is books where they light the lantern, then the scene proceeds as if it were daylight. Nope.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Yes, Jacquie, I think most of us can know the facts via research but not have enough appreciation for the reality of living with heat that comes only from a stove or light from candles or lanterns. Electricity really did change the world.