By Nomi Dayan
As we celebrate all things spooky, gory, and creepy this season, consider a few extra-repulsive experiences of 19th century whalers to give your Halloween festivities an extra kick.
1. Wash Your Clothes -- with Urine
There was no Tide at sea, and no Febreeze in those sea breezes. Not only were there no cleaning products for a whaling crew, there was was no toilet, either. These two problems came together into a (literal) solution: seamen regularly used a communal urine barrel for the purpose of using urine as a cleanser. The deck was scrubbed with urine, and grease-sodden whaling clothes were soaked in it. As disgusting as the process sounds – or smells - urine contains ammonia and has a long history as a cleansing agent. Even ancient Roman laundromats used publically-collected urine to clean clothes, and the laundry worker would use his or her feet as an agitator.
2. Eat Whale Brains
“That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp and eat him by his own light – this seems so outlandish a thing,” Melville muses in the Moby Dick chapter, “The Whale as a Dish.” In contrast to the Inuit and Japanese who have long histories of eating whale meat, most Americans never developed a cultural taste for whale. Nevertheless, every whaler would have encountered assorted body parts of whales on his plate at some point. The seafarer’s menu included fried, flour-coated pilot whale brains, sperm whale tongues, porpoise meatballs, right whale steaks, and doughnuts fried in whale oil, the latter of which was a crew reward for reaching 1,000 barrels of oil. Although these meals provided a break from worm-infested food on board, whalers generally did not regard whale meat as part of a ‘civilized’ diet, and the stigma-laden consumption was linked to poverty or barbarism.
3. Live With Roaches Climbing Up Your Legs
There were bugs of all kinds on whaleships, from weevils in flour to bedbugs in bed. While on the Tiger, John Perkins noted that when a cask of bread was opened, it was wormy, but “the worms taste no different from the bread.” But the indisputable king of insects on a whaleship was the cockroach. You could even hear them skittering among the ship planks, as one whaler described the rustling sound in 1841 as “a flush of quails among the dry leaves of the forest.” When William Davis woke in the middle of the night on a whaleship, he felt “the wretched sensation of an army of cockroaches climbing up [my] legs,” and when he checked a small amount of food he had stashed away from dinner, he found his tin plate “scraped clean by the same guerrillas. They leave no food alone.” Yet, it seems that with time, even the most picky individuals came round to accepting their insect roommates. J. Ross Browne wrote in 1846 that while a fly on his food would have bothered him before his whaling voyage, “it did not at all affect my appetite to see the mangled bodies of diverse well-fed cockroaches in my molasses; indeed, I sometimes thought they gave it a rich flavor.”
Nomi Dayan is the Executive Director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center.
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Written by staff, volunteers, and trustees of the Museum!