A sperm sewing machine oil bottle from Aarhus

Written by Tate Devantier-Thomas, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler

This is part of a blog series written by undergraduate students at James Cook University, who undertook research on objects in the Museum of Tropical Queensland’s maritime archaeology collection as part of the 2017 topic AR3008 Boats and Beaches.

The shipwreck

Aarhus, originally Thalassa, was built in Hamburg, Germany. Construction began in 1874 and was completed by 1875. The ship was a Danish registered iron barque with a length of 170ft, a breadth of 23ft 6in, a depth of 17ft 6in and a tonnage of 640. The ship was in use as a cargo vessel for all of its life, owned by J Hansen Christiansen Norby Frank at the time of the crash, with one other documented owned beforehand. The ship was captained by Mr Christian N. Gram at the time of the wreckage. The ship was en route to Sydney from New York carrying a cargo of kerosene and general goods at the time of its wreckage.

The ship was lost on 24 February 1894 when it stuck three times on Smith’s Rock during harsh conditions. The damage to the ship was so severe that it sunk within 10 minutes of its initial impact with Smith’s Rock. The 13 crew, along with the captain and his wife, survived the incident. Salvage attempts were made upon the wreckage but the dive conditions were not favourable preventing any major salvaging. The wreck and all associated artefacts were declared protected by the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act on 22 October 1981.

Extensive investigation into the wreckage of the ship was undertaken. The wreckage was partially due to captaining error accompanied by the slow response by the schooner crew who were required for safe traverse of the area of the wreck. Archaeologists relocated the wreckage in 1978 but the first attempt to record and document it were only undertaken in 1983 by the Queensland Museum, the Maritime Archaeological Association of Queensland and the Underwater Research Group of Queensland (Coleman).

The artefact

Whaling was an intensely interesting industry of the 19th century with constant shifts and changes within the industry and also the use of its products. Products of all kinds were created from whale oil with a huge array of quality appearing with the peak of the industry. Sperm whale oil, also known as spermaceti, was one of the more lucrative oils produced throughout the whaling industry. Sperm whale oil was used not only for lubricant of machinery but was also used in lamp lights. The dilution and mixing of the oils was a specialist task with different techniques and technologies arising to create better and more effective oils for the jobs they were designed for. The whale oil industry saw a slight decline with the rise of kerosene lamps; whale oil was used less as a lamp oil but the use as lubricants and other forms of oil saw little change.

The manufacture of MA3757.1 in particular is a mystery, no maker’s mark or label of any kind allows for easy identification of the oils place or company of production. Most sperm sewing machine bottles do not have maker’s marks even though most of the oil was being made by specialists (Davis et al. 2014). Some bottles with similar lettering on the front do appear but these bottles differ in design slightly. There are two possible oil companies who made the oil recovered from Aarhus, those being Powers, Irving & co. or the Donnell Mfg. co. These may be the possible producers of the oil in question but it is unlikely as the bottles still present from these companies are shorter and wider than the one from Aarhus.

MA3757 landscape bThe bottle’s story appears fairly short and quite unimpressive, travelling from New York for 122 days to be left at the bottom of the ocean. The story of the bottle may be short but it is also cloudy, it appears the bottle was not a trade good, as most artefacts uncovered from Aarhus were; the cargo manifest shows no mention of any sewing machine oils leaving one to speculate about their reason for being upon the ship. The manifest mentioned a number of sewing machines so one may presume the oil was sold with the machines, yet there are only two bottles uncovered and the manifest shows 20 sewing machines. It is more likely the oil was on-board for a different purpose. It may have been property of the ship, or it may have been the property of Mrs Gram, the wife of the ship’s captain. Either way, MA3757.1 and its twin bottle had seen no use and they remain that way to this day, intact, sealed and contents uncontaminated.MA3757.1 d

The loss of this bottle and its twin allowed for the preservation of the oils inside, with most of the bottles of oil like this being destroyed or the contents being used, the examples of uncontaminated oils are few and far between. The loss of this oil may allow for it to live on in its complete condition, rather than used and eventually abandoned. This objects’ past story is not very exciting or important, who owned it or where it travelled is almost completely meaningless. What is important about this objects’ story is not its past but its possible future, its role in showing the greater narrative of whaling trade and the shifts and changes before it was eventually disbanded. The story it may tell in technology of the time and the gaps it may fill with greater understandings of dilution and mixing of materials in the 19th century are the true story to focus on.

Statement of significance

The sheer number of the bottles found of similar types does little to improve the historical significance but where this bottle differs from others is in its incredibly accurate make. This exactness shows a change in bottle making technology from the other bottles which I have come across. The hard corners and sharp edges of the bottle are completely contrastive to the rounded and smooth edges of other bottle designs. The historical significance of this oil is also reliant upon the oil itself; large numbers of similarly designed bottles exist but most are empty of their original oil. The fact that the oil remains within the bottle and remains uncontaminated increases its historic and scientific importance. As these bottles of oil were specialist-made it is unlikely there would be a large quantity of information on the dilution and mixing of the oil for its best use. This bottle may allow for a greater understanding of the narrative of the whaling industry as a whole. Once partnered with other artefacts a larger story may be uncovered. As mentioned above, dilution technologies and techniques may be discerned from the oil contained within this bottle. This would be information hard to uncover due to the craft being a specialist operation. The data would not be given freely as the pool of specialists would have preferred to remain small and distinct from one another. As this bottle remains sealed the concoction of oils inside has remained uncontaminated by air and water. The low number of bottles present and the cargo manifest showing no mention of the bottles suggests it is highly likely the bottles were a personal effect of Mrs Gram and as such there is a small amount of historical display value (Maritime Archaeology Association Queensland 1989).

This sperm sewing machine oil bottle and other objects from the Queensland Museum’s maritime archaeology collection can be viewed on Collections Online.


Coleman, R N.A., ‘Smith’s Rock and the Wreck of the Aarhus’, European History, pp. 69-79.

Davis, L, Gallman, R, & Gleiter, K 2014, In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

Maritime Archaeology Association of Queensland 1989, ‘Aarhus Wreck sit, A report by the Maritime Archaeology Association of Queensland’, Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, vol.13, no.1, pp. 9-14.