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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.

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

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.

Hadwen and Barney, a silversmith and teacher respectively, married into the whaling business. Hadwen first came to the island in 1820 to attend Barney and Eliza Starbuck’s wedding. There he met Eunice Starbuck, Eliza’s sister, who would later become his wife. The Starbuck sisters’ father was Joseph Starbuck, a whaling tycoon and descendant of one of the island’s earliest European settlers.

The two couples would grow to be inseparable and even shared a double house on Main Street. Initially, Hadwen and Barney operated a tryworks, a furnace used to render whale oil from blubber, in the backyard of their Main Street home before moving their business into the refinery.

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 process of refining spermaceti into candles was labor intensive and time consuming. “The refining consisted of a seasonal repeated process of chilling, pressing, and heating,” says freelance exhibit designer, researcher, and author Mark Foster of Somerville. Three distinct raw materials were used at the refinery: whale oil, sperm oil, and spermaceti (for more information see the sidebar on the opposite page). Sperm oil and spermaceti were kept separate aboard the ships—oil needed to be refined onboard—and were mixed together at the refinery. While whale ships ferried oil shipments to the island all year round, the refining process began in autumn when the oil was quickly boiled and stored to cool and thicken during the winter.

There were certain “pressing” days during the winter, spring, and summer, when the mixture was removed from storage, heated inside enormous kettles, and pressed in bags to release the oil. The leftovers were returned to storage until the next pressing. In the summer, after the final pressing, the mixture was treated with potash to remove water and impurities. Soon after, the clear spermaceti solution hardened into thick, brilliant-white solids ready for the candle maker.

A mix of skilled laborers and transient workers crafted the candles in assembly-line fashion. Candle makers added a small amount of beeswax to counteract the spermaceti’s tendency to become brittle. Next, the refined spermaceti was melted one last time so it could be poured into candle molds. Now ready for market, these bright and beautiful candles were shipped around the world.

In 1859, vast oil reserves were discovered in Pennsylvania, and kerosene replaced sperm oil as an inexpensive lamp fuel almost overnight. Then, just two years later, the disruption in trade and whaling caused by the outbreak of the Civil War served as the final blow to Hadwen and Barney’s operation. By 1870, there were no candlemaking refineries operating on the island.

As Nantucket blossomed into a tourist destination, the factory served at various times as a storage unit, an office space, and an antique shop before being acquired by Edward F. Sanderson. Sanderson held the building for the Nantucket Historical Association until they could raise the funds to purchase the property in 1929.

Nantucket’s Hadwen & Barney Oil & Candle Factory is probably the best preserved candlemaking refinery still standing. Today, the factory serves as “a way for everyone to experience the past,” Simons notes. All that’s missing is a slick of whale oil underfoot and the bright illuminating light of Nantucket candles.

For further information, go to the Nantucket Historical Association’s website at

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