Nantucket: Quakers & whalers
A distinct and singular world 30 miles south of the peninsula, Nantucket has its own aesthetic and customs. A tour of the downtown with Linda Steelman, senior interpreter from the Nantucket Historical Association, shows how truly different it is, beginning with the architecture—the brick storefronts, the “friendship stairs” leading to raised front doors, the grand Greek Revival mansions, and the three-story captains’ houses. And of course, those cobblestone streets and rippling sidewalks.
The island’s vernacular architecture is intertwined with its history, most notably its whaling heritage and Quaker underpinnings. To present this story with up-close experiences inside the distinctive buildings, the historical association offers a Historic Downtown Walking Tour twice daily from May to the end of October.
The heyday of Nantucket’s whaling era, the middle of the 19th century, sets the stage for the tour. At that time, the whaling industry saturated all aspects of island life. It affected the diversity of the people who inhabited the island, the evolution of the buildings, and the explosive growth of associated businesses such as refineries, coopers, outfitters, and candle factories. The island’s imported Quaker beliefs informed the ways in which islanders conducted their business, studied, and socialized.
With eight to nine stops on the tour, including several properties owned and maintained by the historical association, participants get to visit buildings such as the Quaker Meeting House and the William Hadwen House. Hadwen was a 19th-century entrepreneur who invested in the lucrative whaling industry. His mansion is both a testament to his wise business investments and a window into high Nantucket living in the 19th century.
The tour meanders down Center Street, or “Petticoat Row” as it was commonly known, named for the many women business owners on the street. It was rare for a woman to own a business in the 19th century; the high number of women-owned business on Nantucket is attributed to the Quaker emphasis on education and equality.
“In the 18th century, a Quaker woman could travel unescorted. She would have a little passport so she could leave the island and travel to a Quaker meeting in Boston,” explains Steelman. “This was really shocking and quite forward thinking, and it made for a very independent woman on island, which is a part of her heritage even today. The head of our government is a woman. We have a lot of women business owners. I’ve never lived in a place where that has been more palpable.”
Steelman, who has been working as an interpreter at the historical society for 17 years, recounts her Nantucket anecdotes with a twinkle in her eye. Her curiosity is infectious. “When a lot of tourists come to Nantucket, they get off the boat and they shop and they like the charm,” she says. “But it’s going on a walking tour where you really start digging into the sand, getting the real gems and bringing up all that richness that makes Nantucket so unique.”
DID YOU KNOW?
- The bell in Falmouth’s First Congregational Church was made by Paul Revere and dates to 1796. It still tolls today.
- The oldest house in Brewster is the Dillingham House, a saltbox built in 1660.
- Saltbox houses were always built facing south so that the long roof protected the house from the brutal winter winds from the north.
- The entire island of Nantucket is a National Historic Landmark and is the largest historic district in the country.
- You can date an antique barn by the location of its door. In the 18th century, barn doors were built on the long sides of the barn. In the 19th century, they were built on the short sides.
- Nantucket’s schools were first integrated in 1847, more than 100 years before the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
- Absalom Boston, a black resident of the New Guinea neighborhood on Nantucket, was the first black captain of an all-black whaleship, The Industry, from 1819 to 1821.
- There are 121 buildings in Barnstable County listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Nantucket has over 800 homes built between 1750 and 1850.
- On Nantucket, additions on houses are affectionately called “warts.”
- Wing Island, the site of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, is named for John Wing, a Quaker and one of Brewster’s first colonial residents, who settled there in 1659.
Amanda Wastrom is a curator, artist, and writer living in East Sandwich.
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