Sound Substitutions: Spermaceti

This series describes ingredients in 19th century formularies that are inaccessible, expensive, or dangerous, and their modern substitutions.


What should I use in place of spermaceti?

Jojoba oil. For authenticity of color, use the unrefined “golden” kind.

Jojoba oil has a composition similar to spermaceti: wax esters with a little trigylceride content.

Background

Spermaceti is found in the largest quantities in the heads of sperm whales, but it is also found in some other species. It is a liquid wax.

Sperm whale oil does not gum up or corrode, and it remains stable at extreme temperatures. As a consequence, it used to be in almost everything that required lubrication or preservation of machine parts. It was an ingredient in transmission fluids and Rust-Oleum. Watchmakers and users of sewing machines employed it for the tiny gears of their crafts. It was popular as a clean-burning fuel for the home. It appeared in medicines. And, most relevantly to this blog, it appears in a number of 19th century cosmetic formulas for the skin and hair.

Though it was used in certain products in living memory, no one is alive today who remembers the far-flung ubiquity of bottled spermaceti. The whaling business peaked in the mid-1800s, when mineral oil products began to depress demand. In the 20th century, jojoba oil was discovered to be superior in every application that would usually demand spermaceti.

Here is some hundred-year-old footage of a whaling ship. Here is a video segment on How it’s Made about the growth, harvest, and processing of jojoba oil.

–Darley

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