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Why was sperm whale so prized by 19th century whalers?

During New England’s whaling industry, the most highly prized oil was spermaceti, sometimes referred to as “head oil,” as it was obtained from the head of the sperm whale. Technically, spermaceti is not an oil but a type of liquid wax that retains its lubricating qualities at extreme temperatures. As the Industrial Revolution spread, more and more machinery required lubrication, and spermaceti became extremely valuable. Spermaceti also burned both bright and clean, with little smoke or odor, and made candles of the highest quality. Oil extracted from the blubber of the sperm whale (sometimes called “body oil”) was used for similar purposes, but was of lower quality.

Oil from other types of whales was sometimes called “brown oil” due to its color. While considerably less valuable than spermaceti, whaling captains would hunt other types of whales—especially right whales, bowheads and humpbacks—if they couldn’t find sperm whales, thus leading to the phrase “brown oil is better than no oil.”

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