spermaceti

Spermaceti is an inflammable substance which occurs as a spongy, oily mass in the head of a species of whale (Physeter macrocephalus or cachalot). It is contained in a large triangular cavity ten or twelve feet long, and four or five feet deep, placed above the fore part of the skull; and an ordinary sized whale will yield upwards of twelve large barrels, or nearly a ton, of this substance in a crude state. While the animal is living, this substance is fluid; and when the whale is killed, a hole is made in the outer and upper part of the head, and the liquid is baled out in buckets; it solidifies to the consistence of fat on cooling. The sperm oil is separated from this by dripping, and pressure in bags : what passes through is the oil, and the residue is the crude spermaceti, which is packed up and brought to England by the South Sea whalers to be refined. The mode of refining it in manufactories is as follows. The crude substance is put into bags of hair or woollen stuff. and subjected to a press till it becomes hard and brittle, and till no more oil can be obtained from it. It is then broken to pieces, and thrown into a vessel with boiling water, when it melts, and the impurities, which rise to the surface or sink to the bottom, are skimmed off and separated by straining. The spermaceti, after becoming solid on cooling, is again thrown into a boiler with water, to which a weak ley of potash has been added, to free it from the remainder of the oil. This process is repeated several times if necessary; after which the spermaceti is poured into coolers, where it concretes into a hard white mass, which, when broken, exhibits the beautiful flaky crystalline appearance seen in the shops.

576. Pure spermaceti has very little taste or smell. It is of an almost silvery white, friable, semitransparent and unctuous. It is softer and more brilliant than white wax, and it is distinguished from every other species of concrete oil by its superior transparency, high lustre, and crystalline texture. It melts at 112°, and at a higher temperature it evaporates with little alteration. By the assistance of a wick, it burns with a clear white flame, superior to that of tallow, and without any disagreeable odour. By long exposure to the air it acquires a yellow tinge, and becomes rancid; but it may again be purified by being washed in a warm ley of potash. It is extensively employed, with wax and olive oil, in making ointment for medical purposes. It possesses also the property of softening the skin; and hence it is used by ladies for pastes, washes, &c.; but its chief use at present is in making candles. Some have sold for spermaceti a preparation of oil taken from the tail of the whale instead of that from the head; but this kind soon turns yellow: a small quantity of spermaceti, indeed, is found in all the whale tribe, and is distributed all over their bodies, as also in their fat. The fat of all fishes contains a small quantity of it.

Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parkes.
An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy...
London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1852.
Page 127.

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