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The Glow of Antiquity

The rich history of candlemaking is a seasonal attraction in the Nantucket Historical Association‘s Hadwen & Barney Oil & Candle Factory.

The rich history of candlemaking is a seasonal attraction in the Nantucket Historical Association‘s Hadwen & Barney Oil & Candle Factory.

Photos courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

The immaculate brick and hardwood interior of the Nantucket Historical Association’s Hadwen & Barney Oil & Candle Factory is a beautifully preserved reminder of the island’s vital role in America’s candlemaking history. Standing under a mammoth lever press that dominates the room, it’s easy to imagine the odor of whale oil and the greasy, smoky faces of the workers who once transformed raw oil into a product that helped build an island.

In contrast to the gritty island workers, the spermaceti candles created in the factory were elegant and distinguished, and once graced the homes of prominent Nantucket whaling captains and Parisian aristocrats alike.

“While the romance of candlemaking hardly matches the mythology of the whale hunt, it is critical to recall that the overarching goal of that whaling trade was to secure the raw materials for lighting the private chambers, city streetlamps, public halls, and lighthouses of Europe and colonial America,” says Ben Simons, chief curator of the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA). Today, the Broad Street building houses thousands of artifacts from the factory’s heyday: the original whale oil lever press, spermaceti candles, whale oil casks, lighting devices, candle molds, stenciling, and photographic records among them, all of which illuminate a seldom-considered aspect of the island’s history.

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.

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