“Grand Ball Given by the Whales,” Vanity Fair, April 20, 1861

The first successful commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859.  The rapid adoption of kerosene quickly undercut the use of whale oil for illumination. In this political cartoon in Vanity Fair  from April 1861, just one week after the start of the Civil War, whales celebrate the discovery of oil and the possibility of diminished demand for whale oil. 

What kinds of cultural and economic challenges might have accompanied the transition from whale oil to petroleum-based kerosene? Who were the “winners” and the “losers” in this energy shift?

How might the development of oil in a northern state (Pennsylvania) mattered, both economically and symbolically, after the war cut off southern cotton-producing regions?


“Grand Ball Given by the Whales.” Drawing. April 20, 1861. Vanity Fair.

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