For centuries, tallow—rendered fat from cattle and sheep—was the substance of choice for candlemaking. But after colonial whalers began hunting sperm whales on the open seas, spermaceti—a wax found in the headmatter of sperm whales—proved to be a better alternative. Spermaceti candles had a higher melting point, burned slowly, gave off little smoke, emitted a sweet odor, and burned particularly bright.
Commercial spermaceti candle manufacturing first came to Nantucket in 1770, when William Rotch built the first refinery on the island at the head of Straight Wharf. Rotch was born in 1734 on Nantucket into a family of whale oil merchants, and possessed the keen business sense and Quaker morals to expand the family enterprise into the candle industry. Rotch would climb to prominence by cutting out the middle man and controlling everything from whaling vessel products, straight through the refinery process. However, the advent of the Revolutionary War brought great financial hardship, and in 1785, Rotch left the island to establish his whaling operations in Europe.
With William Rotch overseas, entrepreneurs like Richard Mitchell, Jr., filled the void. Mitchell, who was also a Nantucketer born into a prominent family, owned more than double the number of vessels of his nearest competitor and held numerous claims to land. One of these holdings, located at the corner of what are now Broad and South Beach streets, became the site of his own refinery.
By 1832, just 50 years after Rotch opened his refinery, there were 43 oil and candle works on Nantucket. With a workforce of 250, the island produced 1.4 million gallons of sperm oil and 1.2 million pounds of candles annually. There are accounts of candles being shipped as far as New Zealand. Thomas Jefferson recommended that Colonists visiting elegant Parisian homes bring the candles as gifts.
However everything changed with the island’s Great Fire of 1846. On July 13, a fire broke out at a hat shop on Main Street that quickly engulfed much of downtown and left hundreds homeless. An article published by Fredrick Elijah Coffin described the night: “One of the peculiar incidents of that wild night was a rare sight of the harbor on fire. Many barrels of whale oil on the wharves had burst, and their contents flowed out over the water of the harbor and there, taking fire, presented the grand spectacle of the sea on fire.” The heart of Nantucket that once housed refineries, oil sheds, shops, and homes now lay smoldering, and the refinery that had passed through generations of Mitchells was destroyed.
Aid to the island poured in from communities around Massachusetts almost immediately, and residents were able to rebuild. This quick recovery allowed Richard Mitchell & Sons, a whale oil concern made up of Richard Mitchell and his heirs, to begin construction of the new refinery on the same property where the original building once stood. After just two years, Richard Mitchell & Sons went bankrupt and sold the refinery to two of Nantucket’s wealthiest merchants, Nathaniel Barney and William Hadwen, in 1849.
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