The Eye of the Universe

Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2020 /

Writer: Chris White

Engraved panbone, ca. 1830
Unknown English artist
Whale bone and ink; 39 5/8 x 14 1/2 x 6 in. 
Acquired in trade from David Gray, 1956.3.1. 

Imagine a world in which the wealth of the richest towns and cities revolves around the pursuit and hunting of giant, living creatures. Ships set forth on voyages lasting for three or four years in hopes of making lucrative turns on the investments of stockholders who anxiously monitor storms, reports of wrecks, and forecasts pertaining to the migrations of the giant animals, many of which are over 50 feet in length and can weigh over 50 tons. Imagine that a frightened or wounded creature could turn and stove in the side of a ship and send 30 souls to their deaths; or it could capsize a smaller hunting vessel at the flip of its massive tail. Suppose that demand for the various products derived from these living resources is high, permeating all levels of global society. The culture that would arise from this industry would be far-reaching and multi-faceted. Tales of heroism and barbarism would profligate; myths of individual, almost supernatural creatures, would blossom and pollinate the imaginations of average people, and scenes of the voyages and of the hunt would ordain the walls and screens of homes both simple and grand. Successful captains would occupy positions of status, yet would also be looked upon with fear and awe. Townsfolk would whisper gossip about the scars on hunters’ faces, or make commentary about their tattoos or amputated appendages. Entire class systems would develop around the hunters and their moneyed investors, subsets of people set apart from ordinary folk, distilled in adventure, steeped in exotic mystery. Architecture and design would evolve as the hunters and captains returned with new ideas from distant lands, with items foreign and appealing to the eye, with souvenirs grotesque and disturbing.

It’s easy to imagine such a world in the context of a science fiction story. One could see a television series devoted to such a culture, one that takes the human race into its next “giant leap” forward. As companies such as Space X launch rockets towards Mars, and as the International Space Station becomes something that society seems to take for granted, the concept of a new industry built upon the backs of hunters and explorers voyaging for years at a time seems only slightly futuristic—a reality that one could envision taking shape within the next 50 years, even. And this makes all the more unfathomable the actuality that this very type of society has already existed, to butcher the famous opening crawl of Star Wars: “Not such a long, long time ago, in our very own galaxy.” 

Oval Lightship Basket Purse with Whales, 1957
Jose Formoso Reyes (1902-80) and Aletha Macy (1901-71)
Cane, rattan, walnut, ivory, brass, 61/2” x 11 ½” x 8 ½” 
Bequest of Eleanor Ham, 1979.22.34. 

Perhaps even more mind-boggling than the notion that the world turned around the hunting of living behemoths is the fact that the initial epicenter of this exotic galaxy was an island of only 105 square miles, just off the coast of Cape Cod—Nantucket. For a while New Bedford would grow to become the largest whaling city in this bygone era, the industry and its culture began on this sandspit. Whaling, as an industry, and as a cultural phenomenon, long ago joined the city-state of Atlantis somewhere beneath the waves, but thanks to the commitment of generations of townspeople, the village of Nantucket has been able to preserve remnants of this lost world; at the forefront of these efforts has been the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA), which has worked since 1894 to this end. The NHA owns and/or maintains 24 properties on the island, including the Quaker Meeting House, the Old Mill, and the “Oldest House,” which was built circa 1686 and named for Jethro Coffin. In its 126 years, the NHA has accrued a comprehensive collection of well over 15,000 artifacts. It also operates a research library for scholars and historians who seek deeper understanding of not only the island and its past but of the early years of the United States as a whole. The cornerstone of the Nantucket Historical Society, however, is the Whaling Museum

The Whaling Museum began in the Greek Revival-style industrial building that had been at the center of an oil-processing and candle-producing factory. Originally built in 1847, the firm of Hadwen & Barney purchased the property on Broad St. near New North Wharf (now Steamboat Wharf) in 1848. When the whaling industry failed in 1869, the building remained as a warehouse until the NHA purchased it in 1929 to store whaling artifacts from the donated collection of Minister Edward F. Sanderson. In 1971, with a gift from Admiral William Mayhew Folger, the NHA finished construction of a second, neighboring building at the corner of Broad and North Water streets, named the Peter Foulger Museum. In a major renovation, the NHA combined the two buildings in 2005-2006 to create today’s modern facility, officially titled The Whaling Museum/Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory.   

In terms of Whaling, “All roads lead back to Nantucket,” says NHA Gosnell Executive Director James Russell. “The Whaling industry essentially began here, in 1690, and many inventions began here, from innovations in watercraft to tryworks for rendering oil to insurance practices and syndicates. Whaling was a prototype for venture capital structures today, and the first cartel was the result of a group called Nantucket Spermaceti Trust that was involved in the production of oil candles.” Nantucket’s impacts upon the early US republic are significant, as well. For instance, the island’s Rotch family owned two of the ships involved in the Boston Tea Party, the Beaver and the Dartmouth, and Russell explains that Nantucketers had close connections with founding fathers. Ben Franklin and his cousin Tim Folger were instrumental in charting the Gulf Stream, which, pardon the pun, streamlined trade and travel between the Colonies and Europe. “This early history is an area that I find of great interest,” says Russell. “The further back you go, there’s a dearth of materials and artifacts; the Nantucket Historical Association is strong in this regard, both in the museum and in our research library.”

Pie crimper (jagging wheel) 
Said to have been made by Obed Sandsbury (1817–1902) of Nantucket on a whaling voyage, 1840–44. NHA Purchase, 1910.20.1.

Having served for 10 years as the director of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Russell was a natural choice to come aboard as Gosnell Executive Director of the NHA in the fall of 2017. He continues to work “very collegially” with his former organization, which he recognizes has “a bigger story and deeper connection to whaling; we have no desire to compete or try to replicate that on Nantucket.” Instead, he sees the NHA as a whole, a historical project akin to colonial Williamsburg. “It’s like a string of pearls,” he says, “where one goes from one property to the next.” Although the Whaling Museum is smaller than its sibling on the far side of Buzzards Bay, the flagship of the Nantucket Historical Association offers a collection both impressive and extensive. Since the renovation, the building encompasses a block in the center of town and features a “fully re-articulated sperm whale in Gosnold Hall.” The skeleton is 46 feet in length and was recovered after the tragic death of a whale that washed up on the shore of the island’s Siasconset Beach on New Year’s Day, 1998. For a sense of scale, the museum displays a 28 foot whale boat, an iconic double-ended craft from New Bedford, beneath the skeleton. The museum is accredited by the American Museum Association and is fully climate controlled. Russell says, “Many thousands of artifacts are on view” across a number of exhibitions. 

Captain Absalom F. Boston, ca. 1835
Unknown Prior-
Hamblin School artist. 
Oil on board, 141/2 x 105/8 in. 
Gift of Sampson D. Pompey, 1906.56.1.

One of the island’s signature products is tangential to the Whaling industry but on full display in the museum: Nantucket Lightship Baskets. In a brief summary of this artistic medium’s history, Russell explains, “Because the waters around Nantucket are so shoaly, there were a number of lightships to aid navigation. Chaps on the ships would literally weave away the time by crafting baskets. Later, the practice moved onto the island itself, where it has remained a cottage industry for over 100 years.” While the baskets today are mostly seen as works of art or decoration, they do have utilitarian roots. “Like many products, they served a practical purpose,” says Russell. The Whaling Museum is home to the largest, most extensive collection of baskets on the island, but the nearby Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum, Russell notes, “Also has a fine collection of over 60 baskets.” The Whaling Museum maintains a few hundred pieces, some of which are 120-130 years old and are of various styles and forms. While Russell says the specific construction materials varied within a range of pliable items such as grasses and fine wood, artisans generally weave the baskets using wooden molds. Some examples are quite small and “beautifully intricate,” while other baskets are much larger and “more durable.” Many feature ornate ivory carvings attached to the handles or elsewhere. Russell says, “We are constantly asking how to best steward our collection in order to showcase only the very best.” 

While many artifacts in the Whaling Museum served as tools or other items for practical use, one collection, and perhaps the most iconic representation of the whaling era, generally had a different purpose. “Scrimshaw really is an exception,” says Russell, who explains that its chief function was artistic. “I find it particularly interesting that these naive, untrained people aboard whaling vessels produced such incredible works of art, often using just a knife and soot. It shows that wherever people are, regardless of background, there’s a creative urge; creativity finds a way to express itself.” The Whaling museum has a variety of scrimshaw types in its collection, from narrative pieces that tell stories of the hunt to more pictorial illustrations, often based on images from magazines. Different parts of whale ivory also categorize scrimshaw types; sailors commonly used teeth, “pan” bones cut from the jaw, and other flat bones. “They would use sharkskin as sandpaper to prepare the surfaces,” says Russell. “Sometimes it would take weeks, even months to cut, shape, and complete a work. Scrimshaw pieces were labors of love, and the sailors sent them home to their wives and other loved ones.” Although most works of scrimshaw art are purely decorative, a few subcategories did serve some purpose. The artisans often created jagging wheels—tools for crimping the edges of pie crusts—and intricate swifts for winding yarn. “There’s a great deal of fancy and creativity in these items; they’re quite ornate,” notes Russell. “I’m in awe at the detail; it’s absolutely incredible. We have magnifying glasses at the museum so that visitors can see, and it’s possible to identify the specific vessels in many of the pieces.” 

Bronze Bust sculpture of Lucretia Coffin Mott, by Victoria Guerina. NHA Purchase, 2020.7.1 and portrait of Lucretia Coffin Mott by Heather Vance Haddon, 2019.  Both are seen here on display in the Whaling Museum’s featured exhibit, The Road from Abolition to Suffrage. 

Normally, the Nantucket Historical Association offers 12 of its locations to the public, but the pandemic has impacted the ability to receive guests. Still, the Whaling Museum remains open, and the NHA has eliminated all visitor fees for the year-round community. Current exhibits include “An Island Seen” about the group of women artists who built the Artists Association of Nantucket, “The Tragedy of the Essex,” and “The Road From Abolition to Suffrage,” which runs through the end of 2020. This exhibit showcases the contributions that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and/ or People of Color) made within the whaling industry, including that of Captain Absalom Boston, the island’s first Black whaling captain, and the first man to captain an all-Black crew. The exhibit also tells the history of Native American sailors and of those from the Azores and Cape Verde, along with Nantucket’s Quaker-based abolitionist movement and the efforts of Nantucket women such as Lucretia Mott, who opposed slavery and led early suffrage efforts as a pioneering feminist in the USA. 

Russell concludes, “It’s more important than ever to keep the museum open this year. We’re happy to provide a safe, indoor experience for families and school children, especially as it gets colder and darker with the approach of winter.” 

For more information, visit nha.org!

The Nantucket Whaling Museum was also featured on our Best of Cape Cod & the Islands! Check it out here.

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.