This post celebrates the birthday of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, who was born on 1 August 1819. When he wrote his book, in 1851, whales were an important commodity, for example for fuelling lamps (an astonishing 300,000 whales were caught between 1835 and 1872 alone). While I am against whaling, there is a fascinating book-historical dynamic to this 19th-century tradition: the captains of whaling vessels kept detailed logbooks, the pages of which are sometimes decorated with charming images. They are doodles, really, entertaining rather than functional. The sample above, taken from digital material made available by the Providence Public Library, shows a pod of inky whales swimming across the page of a daily log (top), a tiny bottle illustrating a post on the consumption of alcohol on board (middle), and a row of whales next to the catch of different vessels (bottom). The images present a peculiar contrast between artistic charm and the bloody events that sparked their creation.
Want to know more about these great little books? Here are some digitized items which you can help to transcribe; here are a whole lot of digitized microfilms of whaling logbooks. Here are PDFs of the famous Nicholson collection of logbooks.