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When Whaling Was King

John Steele Gordon writes great historical non-fiction; his last book was Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power. Among many other things, he discusses how it was the Erie Canal that really turned New York City into the center of American capitalism, bringing crops and goods from the Midwest to be shipped to Europe and elsewhere.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Gordon reviewed a book on another fascinating economic-history subject: the business of whaling. If you drive around coastal New England and see all the whaling captains’ mansions, you get a reminder that whaling was once very big business; otherwise, it’s easy to forget. At the time, Gordon writes, whales “were cornucopias of useful products,” producing oil for heating, lighting, and lubricants, while other parts were used to make dyes, clothing parts, and household and farm supplies. The whale was our oil patch, factory, and forest rolled into one. But … talk about a depletable resource!

The book, Leviathan by Eric Jay Dolin, sounds very good. It describes how the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 disrupted American whaling, which eventually came roaring back and ultimately dominated the global industry:

In 1846, of the 900 whaling ships in operation around the world, 735 of them had sailed from the U.S. That was one-fifth of the country’s merchant tonnage. Whaling employed 70,000 people and in 1853, its best year, hauled in 8,000 whales that produced 103,000 barrels of sperm oil, 260,000 barrels of whale oil and 5.7 million pounds of baleen.

Do you think that, 150 years from now, people will be reading this kind of history book about the oil industry?

And: will people still be writing histories at all?