What is a “Widow’s Walk”?

This postcard from the early 20th century depicts Bloom Street and is captioned: “An old time home showing “the widow’s walk”, Nantucket Island, Mass.” There is no evidence that “widow’s walks” were ever used for sailors’ wives to look out and see if their husbands’ ships were coming back to shore. In fact, some Nantucket women wittily acknowledged the taste of freedom that their husbands’ careers provided them. The lyrics to a famous 1855 tune called “The Nantucket Girl’s Song” go:

“Then I’ll haste to wed a sailor, and send him off to sea, For a life of independence is the pleasant life for me… But when he says Goodbye my love, I’m off across the sea, First I’ll cry for his departure, then laugh because I’m free…”

While most Nantucket couples certainly missed each other, widow’s walks were probably built for the purpose of putting out fires. Rooftop fires were fairly common because a fire was likely to start in the chimney. The widow’s walk would have given fire fighters (or house owners) fast access to the roof and a chance to pour sand down the chimney before the flames blazed out of control. On Nantucket, widow’s walks were also an excellent tool for astronomers. The study of astronomy was particularly popular on Nantucket since sailors could use the stars to figure out their location in the world when all they could see around them was ocean. Astronomers on island would help sailors calibrate their chronometers, a tool sailors used at sea to determine their longitude with the help of the stars.

Photo: PC-Bloom-5. The postcard’s publisher: “Tichnor Quality Views” Reg. U.S. Pat. Off. Made only by Tichnor Bros., Inc., Boston, Mass.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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