Spermaceti

In which we unveil the whale in the room, the wax in the whale, and the greatest novel of all time.

From Alice Morse Earle’s “Customs and Fashions in Old New England” (1893):
… In 1686 Governor Andros petitioned for a commission for a voyage after “Sperma-Coeti Whales,” but not till the middle of the following century did spermaceti become of common enough use to bring forth such notices as this, in the Boston Independent Advertiser of January, 1749:

“Sperma-Ceti Candles, exceeding all others for Beauty Sweetness of Scent when Extinguished. Duration being more than Double with Tallow Candles of Equal Size. Dimensions of Flame near 4 Times more. Emitting a Soft easy Light, bringing the object close to the Sight, rather than causing the Eye to trace after them, as all Tallow Candles do, from a Constant Dimnes which they produce. One of these Candles serves the use and purpose of 3 Tallow Candles, and upon the Whole are much pleasanter and cheaper.”
Apparently no matter which century you are in, if you are trying to sell candles, just tout them as burning brighter, longer, sweeter than any other candle, and if you can pan those other candles, well, do it. It’s the formula I used when first selling beeswax candles, though little did I know I was joining this time-honored tradition.

But—what is “sperma-ceti”? And if it makes such a great candle, why is it no longer in use?

Spermaceti is a waxy substance found in a large cavity within the head of a sperm whale, a huge ocean mammal that Warth describes as being “ … 60 to 80 feet in length, with an enormous head, 30 feet in circumference, in which there is a large hollow on the upper surface of the skull. This is filled with a peculiar fatty tissue. The oil contained in cells in this cavity, when refined, yields spermaceti … When the spongy mass is removed from the head, the oil is allowed to separate by draining … ”

Warth goes on with a couple of pages of technical description, but to truly understand spermaceti—what it is and how it is obtained—one must read “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale,” written in 1851 by Herman Melville. This realization—that one must read Moby Dick—came to me a little late in my study of wax, which was perhaps for the best, as Moby Dick is a long, engrossing, word- and punctuation-rich book full of life, death, ecstasy, boredom, and the most enlightening description of a gruesome industry that I have ever read. The book illustrates an occupation and point in time now long forgotten, but of course in many ways it is no different from any occupation at any point in time.

So here we go, and although we start on land in “your insular city of the Manhattoes,” eventually we are in the middle of an ocean, somewhere out there in the world, hunting whales (including one particular whale), and eventually we have killed a whale (though not that particular whale), or, should I say, an eclectic group of men in wooden boats with harpoons has killed a whale, and it’s nearly 200 years ago, forget your modern-day conveniences and ailments, we’re just out there, asea, on our own, and the whale has been killed and hauled through the salted waters, lashed and bound alongside the main sailing ship. The whale has been butchered, and “[w]hile some were occupied with this latter duty, others were employed in dragging away the larger tubs” of that oily, waxy substance taken from the deep bowl within the whale’s head. One head cavity can hold up to 500 gallons of the stuff that Melville, in Chapter 94, calls “sperm,” and in this chapter it is the task of our narrator, Ishmael, to sink his hands in and squeeze.
As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma—literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.
And there then is spermaceti.
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Now imagine using that to make a candle. Now imagine using that to sell a candle. Surely with spermaceti we can cure not only asthma, but all the world’s ills.

For hundreds of years we hunted and slaughtered sperm whales and other whales not just for spermaceti but for sperm oil and every other thing any whale harbored within that we could use, from blubber to bones. Then, of course, there weren’t so many whales anymore. Some thought we should stop killing them before they were all gone. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act effectively put an end to the U.S. whaling industry, and in 1974 The New York Times reported on one of the last manufacturers of spermaceti candles.
“Candle Crunch”
Sometimes the rules of economics just don’t apply. Take the current situation in spermaceti candles.

Mrs. Clifford Allen, the owner of The Candle Shop in Nantucket Island, Mass., believes she is the last manufacturer of this product, which is disappearing because of controversial but widespread bans on the taking of whales.

Yet she sells these scarce white candles, which she hand-dips in spermaceti—a waxy substance obtained from the head of the sperm whale—$1.50 for a 12-inch pair, the same as she charges for ordinary bayberry candles. “It’s a work of love, a hobby,” Mrs. Allen explained.

Her production of spermaceti candles—they last longer and burn brighter than other candles—goes to other shops in Massachusetts, but now Federal law prevents her from selling to shops or individuals outside the state.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits the importation of whale products and prohibits whaling in the United States. Before it was passed, Mrs. Allen’s business sold between 20,000 and 30,000 pairs of candles a year.

Mrs. Allen has had a supply of spermaceti for 20 years, and may run out as soon as this fall. “People are now buying them by the dozen,” she noted.

Nonetheless, the price remains fixed. According to Mrs. Allen, “I don’t intend to try to make a fortune just because there’s an embargo.”
At the time of this article, I was 16 years old, staying in a campground on Cape Cod with a friend and her family, just a short drive and mere ferry ride away from Nantucket, The Candle Shop, Mrs. Clifford Allen, and some glorious spermaceti candles for a buck-fifty a pair.


In visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick


References
The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes
Moby Dick; or, The Whale, Melville, H., 1851.
Spermaceti, Wikipedia entry.
Candle Crunch, The New York Times, July 14, 1974.
Marine Mammal Protection Act

This page added 2/25/19. The day after the blizzard.