of the earliest uses of whale oil was for burning in lamps to light
houses. Originally the smell associated with whale
oil went largely unnoticed but as sweeter oils became available
whale oil began to lose its popularity. By the middle 1800s the
homes of the wealthy upper classes were generally lit by smokeless
and odourless candles made from high quality oil from sperm whales.
Eventually whale oil was replaced by mineral oils, coal gas and
ultimately , electricity.
the late 1700s the British textile industry had begun to expand
rapidly and rather more utilitarian whale oil lamps were widely
used to light the interiors of the dark satanic mills where wool
and cotton were spun and woven. Thanks to the whales the working
classes could toil long hours and even through the night. This example
of a mill lamp, dating to around 1800, comes from the village of
New Lanark which was founded, in 1785, as a cotton-manufacturing
centre, harnessing the natural energy of the Falls of Clyde.
industrialization of Britain, international trading and associated
urbanization increased the demand for whale oil in a variety of
ways; early lighthouses
around the coasts of Britain burned whale oil, mills and mines required
lubricants for machinery and buildings required varnish, paint and
putty. However, the biggest demand came when whale oil was adopted
for street lighting.
city of Hull, an early whaling port, had street lights by 1713 and
by 1750 London was, arguably, the best lit city in the world, with
over 5000 street lights.
of the streetlights, particularly in the more select areas of cities,
were carried on very fine lamp standards. This example, dating to
1817-25, is still to be found in Ann Street, Edinburgh. Ann Street
was originally planned as one of three parallel streets to be built
in a new Georgian development on the Stockbridge estate of Sir Henry
cast iron standard, mounted on the railings, originally carried
a lamp burning whale oil. The pineapple finials at either side of
the gate are a traditional sign of welcome.
Falls of Clyde: New Lanark Mills
of Scottish Lighthouses
Cranberry glass whale oil lamp
©SCRAN/University of Strathclyde
Whale oil lamp used in New Lanark 1800
Lamp standard, Ann Street, Edinburgh