The Glow of Antiquity
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 nha.org.
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