In the 19th century, New London, Connecticut was one of the busiest whaling hubs in the entire world, outranked only by Nantucket and New Bedford, Massachusetts. Whale oil was a crucial and versatile resource that played a huge role in powering the Industrial Revolution, serving as both fuel for lamps and as a lubricant for factory machinery. Whale bones, used to give ladies’ corsets their shapes, also commanded a high price throughout the 1800s.
In 1850, when Connecticut’s whaling industry was approaching its peak, over $1 million worth of whale oil and bones passed through the port of New London in a single year. In the later decades of the 19th century, however, the whaling industry encountered a rapid decline as decades of over-hunting had made whales harder to find, and their byproducts more expensive. Other industries successfully sought cheaper alternatives to expensive whale oil and bone: Lamps were increasingly lit using petroleum byproducts (namely kerosene) and electricity, and fashion designers turned to alternate products like steel and wooden strips to line their corsets.
Thanks to these economic pressures, by the first decades of the 20th century only a handful of Connecticut whaling vessels were still in active operation. On September 24, 1908, seasoned captain James Buddington and his crew sailed the whaling schooner Margaret out of New London. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they were embarking on the last commercial whaling voyage in Connecticut history. The Margaret’s return to port seven months later, in April 1909, marked the end of 124 years of commercial whaling in Connecticut.
Elizabeth J. Normen, “Why the Sperm Whale is Our State Animal,” Connecticut Explored