The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 26, Number 1, January 1, 2023, Article 29


John Ferreri published an article on whaling vignettes on New England state banknotes in the September 2022 issue of NENA News from the New England Numismatic Association. With permission, we're publishing an excerpt here. Thank you, -Editor

Thar She Blows: The Whaling Industry of New England Illustrated on State Bank Notes

  Whale Sowamset Bank $100 note
Sowamset Bank $100
Image: Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This is an unusual vignette appearing on the above note and enlarged vignette, below. There are no reports of it being used on notes of any other bank. One can easily see the potential danger whalers had when trying to harpoon an animal as large as a Right Whale. A whaleboat was designed to be very narrow and usually had six crew members, five to row and one to steer. The foremost rower doubled as the lancer. This image is notable in that we can see the diversity of the crew. People came from many countries to New England to work in the whaling trade. Also notable is the view of the ice shelf in the background. Ice shelves are more numerous in the South Sea of the Pacific, and the whale ships would often spend a year or more hunting in that area. There were also whaling ports on the New England coast that exclusively outfitted their ships for long stays in the southern Pacific or South Sea. On Nantucket Island the Pacific Bank (appropriately named) catered to those ships and seamen who traveled to those far seas.

  Whale vignette Sowamset 2
Sowamset #2

Thar She Blows! is a traditional hail used by the ship's lookout from high above the deck of a whaling ship of the mid 1800s in the crow's nest, when first sighting their elusive prey. Whaling was a major industry in the New England states during the 19th century. The industrial revolution spawned new precision machinery that needed vast quantities of lubricants made from spermaceti, (naturally occurring oil found in the head of some whales) and other oil refined by rendering of the blubber tissue of the same animal. Such was industry's importance that New Bedford, Massachusetts became the largest whaling port in New England and for a brief period, the richest city in the world. Nantucket, Provincetown, and others along the coastline of New England were also quite busy produc- ing natural products from some of the largest animals the world has ever known. By 1860 the New England states could boast a fleet of over 500 whaling ships. Then, with the growing use of petroleum in the later 1800s and its use as a lubricant the whaling industry slowly diminished. Unable to compete in supplying lubricants for machinery, by the start of the 20th century the New England whaling industry slowly came to a stop.

During the heady 19th century, many seaside villages grew into towns and later cities, as commerce followed the population. Where there is commerce and a growing population there will be a need for banking services. Not surprisingly, many new banks were founded to service the local communities. At this same time, the U.S. government had not yet begun to issue paper money to compliment the coinage issues. As such, these banks were given permission by their home states to issue paper money if they wished. Some of these banks placed vignettes of whaling scenes on their banknotes so to demonstrate their connection with the industry now so prevalent in these areas. Various images of seaports, the seacoast, shipbuilding, whaling, as well as fishing started to be seen in the vignettes on many of the colorful banknote issues from banks in these seaside towns. A truly multi-ethnic industry, whaling ships employed people from Portugal, the Azores, and Cape Verde, Blacks from New England and the Caribbean, as well as Native Americans to name a few. This is evident on many of the highly detailed images on these banknotes. The whales most coveted in New England and Canadian waters were the Right Whales, so named because they were the right whales to hunt for baleen, oil and blubber. These Right or Baleen Whales are so called because of the hairy filter sieves that hung from their upper jaws that aided the filtering out of small fish and crustaceans (shrimp, krill, etc) taken in big gulps of sea water. This animal also had a double blow hole, the effect of which would be evident when they exhale, or blow, wet stale air appearing as a double spout of wet mist.

  Whale Nantucket Manufacturers and Mechanics Bank Three Dollar note
Manufacturers and Mechanics Bank (M&M Bank)

One of the largest whales is the Sperm Whale. Although not particularly plentiful this animal may be found in oceans throughout the world and in somewhat abundant numbers off the island of Nantucket. This is the type of whale that the story, Moby Dick was about. Moby Dick was a white Sperm Whale! The Sperm Whale was so called because of the resemblance of the oil in its head to seminal fluid.

The vignette of this note will show a whaleboat approaching very close to the side of the surfaced Sperm Whale while the crew member with the harpoon or lance is about to drive his weapon into the beast! The Nantucket Whale hunters developed a specialty for hunting Sperm Whales as is illustrated on this banknote!

  Image, courtesy of Heritage Auctions

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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