During the First World War, whale oil was used to make glycerin for explosives. The irony here is leviathan: huge numbers of whales were killed so that parts of them could be used to slaughter huge numbers of humans.
Other fats could be used for glycerin, but the British didn’t want to use these other edible oils because of the politics of war-time scarcity. Of course, whale oil was also eaten in the UK and across Europe, transformed into margarine. In the U.S., meanwhile, a federal effort to get Americans to eat whale during WWI was unsuccessful. Of course, by 1900, the heyday of the American whaling industry was over, out like the old sperm whale candles. But whale oils were still used in watches, sewing machines, and industrial lubricants (spermaceti oil was particular prized by the U.S. military). The British and the Norwegians dominated the early 20th century whaling industry. Factory ships took to the seas in the 1920s, peak years for slaughter. The Depression put a damper on things, but as the ’30s progressed, the killing expanded as Germany and Japan entered Antarctic waters.
Whales were turned into fertilizer, pet food, animal feed (for chickens, mink, and silver foxes), soap, and cosmetics. The things made out of whalebone (baleen), like corset stays, horsewhips, and back-scratchers, would eventually be phased out by fashion and petroleum’s child, plastic. At the end of the Second World War, as large parts of Europe and Asia were threatened with starvation, international organizations looked greedily to whales to provide fats and meat for the hungry.(One counter-attack: Disney’s Willie the singing whale of 1946, a Bambi of the ocean, who just wants to sing opera, but is blasted by a harpoon. I generally can’t stand Disney product, but in this case it seems to have formed a generation that grew up to “save the whales.”)
We Americans don’t have a tradition of eating whale. (I wrote about this in my other venue.) We just liked them because money could be made from them. Whale products are now illegal in the U.S., but since there was no tradition of killing whales for food outside of aboriginal populations (who were made an exception to the rule) in North America, the ban was no hardship for the great majority of us. Those are the easiest bans of all. The nations that do go against the world-trend of not eating whale — Norway, Iceland, Faroes, Japan, etc. — maintain their defiance.
I have of late been reading D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century. It is a big book, deeply researched, about the personalities, politics, and bureaucracies of whale research and science’s often entirely too close relationship with industry. I thought reading this would be a chore, but it is in fact hard to put down.
One particularly intriguing section details how American mammalogists took a leaf from the ornithologists who’d fought to save birds from being eradicated by hunters, the fashion industry, and even the state, which paid bounties on pest species. There was an interesting sense of pessimism amongst mammalogists in the Teens and Twenties. Looking back on the great extinctions of the end of the Pleistocene, they thought mammals were on their way out. (A century later, they’d be sickened at the devastation since). Disturbing statistics from the Antarctic whale fishery only added to the gloom.
Burnett’s earlier book, Trying Levianthan, is about a curious 1818 New York legal decision that firmly declared whales to be fish. The case was fought over taxes, but it was part of a larger debate between the new field of taxonomy and common sense, which is sometimes profoundly overrated. The jury came in on the side of biblical truth, evidence be damned, and as late as 1851, Melville’s Ishmael was sure as Jonah that whales were fish, too. Did I say “as late as”? 75 years later, the Jonasistas were going strong at the Scopes trial in Tennessee, which is usually remembered as the “monkey trial” but also very much concerned with the evolution of whales, the emergence of mammals, and the return of some of them to the sea.