Actually the material was baleen, the hard material in the mouths of filter feeding whales. It was tough and flexible, the plastic of the era. Collar stays, buggy whips and early typewriter springs were also made from baleenl. Sperm whales have teeth which could be fashioned like ivory into chess pieces, piano keys and walking stick handles. They could also be carved with elaborate scrimshaw designs. Their oil was prized for the bright flame and low smoke.
The Saturday weekly edition of May 8, 1880 of the San Luis Obispo Tribune owned by J.K. Tuley and G.B.Staniford carried this story that clearly describes the bloody business of whaling. [note: paragraph breaks were added for readability, the story had no headline]
CAPT. CLARK, of the San Simeon Whaling Station, was in town on Tuesday. The Captain gave us an account of the tussel which his whalers had with a large Wright whale some weeks ago, an account of which was published at the time.
The whale was sighted in the afternoon five or six miles off shore and two boats went in pursuit.
The monster was attacked with harpoon and bomb-lance and the trouble began.
One boat accidentally got afoul of the whale’s flukes and was broken in two and swamped, the inmates taking to the water.
As soon as this mishap occurred, the men in the other boat cut loose from the whale and went to the assistance of their unfortunate brethren, and the whale improved the opportunity and disappeared.
Twenty-five bomb-lances were discharged into the whale’s sides.
These bombs are twenty inches in length and about an inch in diameter. The are made of hollow cast-iron and they are charged with powder. They are loaded into a gun, and when the latter is discharged a fuse in the bomb is ignited, The bomb is driven into the whale’s body and then explodes, with what effect may be imagined.
These bombs cost about four dollars each. The whale referred to carried off one hundred dollars worth, not to mention the harpoons and lines, and loss of boat.
Capt. Clark says that the Wright whales are not often seen in this latitude, this being the ninth he has seen since the establishment of the station, seventeen years ago.
He estimated that he would have been about four thousand dollars better off if they had succeeded in capturing the whale, calculating that it would have yielded 150 barrels of oil, and sixteen hundred pounds of bone, the latter being worth $1.80 per pound and the oil 37 cents a gallon.
Capt. Clark says that he has taken seventeen whales during the season just closed, which is considered very good. The season lasts from December to April.
The average yield per whale was about thirty-five barrels. There are a number of whaling stations along the coast, that at San Simeon being one of the most important.
The station at Whaler’s Point, outside San Luis Bay, has taken five whales this season.
During the last two or three years oil has been very low, and the business has not been very profitable. This year, however, prices are remunerative.
This puts the take for the year 1880 at 22 whales from just these two whaling stations in San Luis County.
Hunting has not passed from the memory of the whales though most nations banned the practice in 1986.
In 2007 a 50-ton bowhead whale killed off the Alaskan coast was discovered to have a century old projectile embedded in its neck. The arrow shaped implement was found when the whale was being carved up with a chain saw by Native Americans after a hunt.