Winter 2009 | Volume 58, Issue 6
In the early- to middle 1800s, whale oil made New Bedford, Massachusetts, “the richest city in the world.” In Moby-Dick, his great whaling novel, Herman Melville described the port as “a land of oil,” a place with “patrician-like houses” and “opulent” parks and gardens.
Now historians hope that a huge trove of banking records, discovered in September by a local salvage firm in the attic of a former Merchants National Bank building, will cast light on the complex financial underpinnings that once made the city wealthy. “We estimate that there are 1,800 volumes,” says Michael Dyer, the librarian and maritime historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which purchased the records. “There are nine pallets and some of them are stacked four feet high.” The ledgers cover the period from the bank’s founding in 1825 to around 1927 and include cash books, deposit books, stock indexes, depositors’ balances, letter books, bills receivable—all threads of a vast financial web once centered on the lucrative industry in whale products, which included everything from oil for lamps and baleen for corsets.
Dyer expects the ledgers will illuminate the myriad transactions that supported the whaling industry, in which single individuals or companies might handle many different aspects of the trade. “In many cases, the same people that owned the vessels, also invested in the rope walks; they were ships’ chandlers, and grocers, and had their counting houses in buildings that had coopers on the ground floor and a sail loft on the top floor,” Dyer says. “They managed and owned the oil refineries and the distribution networks.” Oil from whales killed off the coast of Peru might be sold to a firm in Albany, shipped on the Erie Canal to the Midwest, or bought by the federal government for use in lighthouses.
Students from Simmons College and the University of Rhode Island will help catalog the collection, and the museum has asked Robert E. Wright, a financial historian at New York University’s Stern School of Business, to evaluate the records within the broad context of American economic history.
Dyer already expects the records to fill gaps in the history of the decline of Seth Russell & Sons, which Dyer calls “one of the more fascinating stories in American whaling history.” Once a prosperous concern with its own fleet of vessels, the New Bedford company began to fall on hard times in the 1830s. “Their creditors, largely fellow local New Bedford merchants, began to demand payment and on October 1, 1836, the ‘depositor's balance’ book of the Merchants Bank indicates that Seth Russell’s balance of $109.25, which he had maintained in the bank since early 1835, disappeared from the record—as did his name entirely,” Dyer says. “This small event is of great importance, because none of the records of Seth Russell & Sons have survived.”
The whaling elite who owned the palatial mansions Melville described may be long gone, but now economic historians can follow their paper trails. “Melville said that all those great mansions were harpooned and dragged up from the bottom of the sea, and that’s true,” Dyer says. “But somebody had to pay for that. Now we’re going to know how it worked.”