Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sperm Oil for Sale in Ypsilanti

Ypsilanti lamps were once lit with the oil of sperm whales, possibly harvested in the deep Pacific Ocean by the Nantucketers depicted in Moby Dick. Melville said of them, "“What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quohogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it.. . . And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders.”

Those Nantucketers' whale oil likely came to Ypsilanti on the Michigan Central railroad, just 5 years old at the time of these 1844 Ypsilanti Sentinel advertisements. What did those Ypsilantian whale-oil lamps look like? Likely, lots of things. Harvested in the Pacific, brought back around the Horn, up north in the Atlantic, then across the infant country to Ypsilanti--never was there a longer journey to the illumination by which 19th-century Ypsilantians read a book, of an evening: whale-light.

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