Item WC8 - Whaling “Bone” Spade. Old but Scarce Fair Condition

In 18th and 19th Century whaling the main products were blubber (the source whale oil) and the baleen from mysticete whales (mostly Right and Bowhead whales). The baleen in one of these whales hangs in two rows of plates from the upper jaws, and fraying of the keratinaceous material from the inner edges of each plate produces a fibrous filter that entraps krill from the water forced through the filter. In Right and Bowhead whales the krill is composed of small zooplankton (copepods) each the size of a grain of rice, or smaller. Consequently the baleen plates in these whales are more numerous and longer than in other mysticete whales. A right whale may have 400 plates on each side, up to 9 feet long, while a Bowhead whale's plates can be as long as 15 feet. Baleen is from keratin, the same protein that makes up our hair and fingernails, as well as the horn of cows and other ungulates. It has properties of elasticity, flexibility, and can be formed by heating it until softens and then subjected to pressure in a mold. It, basically was the “plastic” of the 18th and 19th centuries. It's many uses in the late 19th century caused its value to escalate so much that the it was worth up to $5 per pound to the whalers. And with a large whale having as much as 2000 pounds of it in the mouth, the value of the baleen far exceeded that of the oil from the blubber of the same animal. Baleen (the whalemen called it “whalebone” or just “bone”) was harvested by cutting though the bases of the two upper jaws behind the mouth as the dead whale tethered to the boat floated beside it. The entire upper front of the head was then winched aboard.

In the 18th Century, Scottish, English, and Dutch whalers carried home the unrendered blubber and the ranks of baleen, to be processed ashore at the end of the season.  In the spirit of enlightenment I'm including a couple of period figures (likely taken from "Diderot's Encyclopedia" in the latter half of the 18th century showing the process of handling baleen in a shore based setting (a cooper's shop), and some of the tools and techniques used to fashion useful articles from baleen.  Note the maul and wedge being used to separate the plates of baleen.



When top of the head was aboard a Yankee whaler,the slabs of baleen had to be separated one from another by cutting and and prying them apart (the upper ends are embedded in the upper jaws bones, and they were cemented together). This was carried out using special tools called “bone” spades. Very much like normal blubber spades, they differed in having wider blades (edge lengths up to 6”), much longer shafts and sometimes had thinner blades with sharpened edges that could be inserted between the closely packed baleen slabs and levered through the cement and jaw bone that held them together. Also many bone spades had flattened (rather than round) shanks that gave them maximum rigidity when levering them into the tough tissue holding the slabs together at their upper ends. The example of a boat spade offered here shows these characteristics well. The blade has an edge length of 5 inches and it is 9 inches long to its junction with the flattened shank. That junction is hand forged, and extra iron was added to maintain its integrity when under heavy duty.  Very similar spades, so called "throat" spades were used to carve deep channels through the head so that chains could be rove though them to lift the head into the ship.  These spades sometimes had flattened shanks, but were longer and more flexible. 

This example is shorter than The edges of the blade (although well pitted and rusted) are thinner and more sharp than in a number spade used solely for cutting blubber. This one has a closed socket (usual in blubber spades), with a piece of the original wooden handle still residing in the socket. The total length of the tool, from edge to top of socket is 27 ½ inches. Bones spades are not often seen in the marketplace for blubber spades and other old whaling tools. The New Bedford Whaling Museum lists about 50 blubber spades in its collection, with only about 5 of them having flat long shanks. This is the first that I can remember seeing at an auction. Fair


      Price -   $300.00

Price - To order, email

RETURN to forsale list.