Productivity in American Whaling: The New Bedford Fleet in the Nineteenth Century

Lance Davis, Robert E. Gallman, Teresa Hutchins

NBER Working Paper No. 2477
Issued in December 1987
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

From the end of the War of 1812 until the Civil War the New Bedford whaling fleet grew spectacularly; thereafter it declined, equally spectacularly. By the end of the century New Bedford's day was over. During the 88 years of this period, the technical configuration of the fleet, the hunting grounds visited, and the types of whales pursued all changed dramatically, and more than once. The literature on whaling suggests that the collapse of the industry was due, in part, to declining productivity, occasioned by the disappearance of the whales (because of over-hunting) and the deterioration of the quality of labor. The shifts in the composition of the fleet are viewed, chiefly, as the result of efforts by whalemen to overcome their problems. In this paper, productivity data (superlative indexes), by voyage, are employed in multiple regression analysis to trace the relationships between the changes in the composition of the fleet and productivity. The propositions that declining labor quality and whale stocks had important consequences for productivity are subjected to test, while the impacts of technical changes on productivity are measured.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w2477


  • in Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 738-759, December 1987.
  • in Business History Review, vol 62, no. 4
  • in "Markets in History", ed David Galenson, Cambridge University Press
  • in "Quantitative Economic History", N.F.R.Crafts, N.H.Dimsdale, and S. Engerman(eds.) (Oxford:Oxford University Press ,1991), pp.142-164.

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