Dundee’s whaling and maritime trade provided a bounty of supplies with almost limitless applications. From standard fare such as locally caught fish, eels, and molluscs to the rarer bounties of whales, seals, penguins and walrus, Dundee was awash with sea-life from locations near and far.
With little wasted on these animals, in particular the giants of the sea, many practical applications saw new ideas and designs forming from the leftovers. Upcycled bones were used in carved items such as handles for utensils, umbrellas, and fancier items such as opera glasses as it was an ideal, cheaper substitute for ivory.
Whale blubber was turned into oil for burning in lamps, or to produce soap and candles, referenced in the street names Soapwork Lane and Candle Lane in Dundee. Whale baleen (their mouth’s filtration system, confusingly known as “whalebone”) was utilised extensively in homeware and fashion and is seen by many as “the plastic of the 19th century” due to its strength and flexibility.
Whilst used as part of dressmaking for the rich and noble during the 15th century and taken to ridiculous proportions with the hoop-skirt craze of the early 1700’s, the real demand for baleen came with the ever-increasing obsession with corsetry. By the late 1800’s, corsets were so available to the masses that demand for baleen coming into Dundee outstripped the total value of the whale oil.
So high was demand, that in 32 years, between 1870 and 1902, the cost of baleen rose from £500 per ton to £3000. Thankfully, advances in the textile and fashion industries, along with changing views and the availability of more man-made fibres as well as other sources of fuel meant that we finally moved away from the barbarous act of hunting and killing whales. Whilst this may have ended the whaling trade in Dundee, it was at the expense of saving the lives of these majestic beasts who had been hunted almost to the point of extinction.