Whaling Museum Audio Tour

En español

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1 Welcome and Introduction to the Whaling Museum
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Welcome to the Nantucket Whaling Museum. On this audio tour you will discover Nantucket’s success story through time. The island of Nantucket, thirty miles at sea, is famous for once having been the whaling capital of the world, then transforming itself into the equally celebrated summer destination that we enjoy today.

The Nantucket Historical Association, founded in 1894, 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.

2 Timeline
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The timeline will introduce you to the island’s earliest inhabitants and lead you through the first settlers who tried an agrarian economy, eventually turned to whaling and ultimately revolutionized island life.

More Timeline stops
Native American History
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The name “Nantucket” derives from the Wampanoag word Natokete, or “faraway place.” According to Wampanoag legend, Nantucket was formed by the great chief Maushop. One night as he rested on Cape Cod, he awoke with sand in his moccasins. He kicked one off, and it flew into the ocean and became Martha’s Vineyard. Maushop tried to sleep again, but the other moccasin was also filled with sand, so he kicked it out even further into the ocean, creating the island of Nantucket.

Nantucket has 86 Native place names, with 31 of these still in common use today.

Human habitation on Nantucket traces back approximately 12,000 years, predating the time when this land—made of glacial deposits–became an island due to rising sea levels. The original inhabitants were hunter-gatherers who came to the island seasonally for hunting, fishing and some agriculture, returning to the mainland for the winter. Eventually some settled on the island permanently. We think there were about 3,000 Wampanoag people living here when the English settlers arrived in 1659.

The English presence dramatically altered the life of the Native people as the English gradually took control of greater portions of the island. Some Native people prospered through trade with the English and through Native control of whaling rights. Others suffered from diseases the English unwittingly introduced and English exploitation of the Native people for labor. In the first century of coexistence, the Wampanoag population decreased dramatically, as many Native inhabitants left the island. An epidemic in 1763 killed 222 of the 358 Native people remaining on Nantucket.

English Settlers
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The first English settlers arrived on Nantucket in 1659. They came here for economic opportunities and planned to be farmers, raising crops and sheep. However, Nantucket has sandy soil and lots of wind, which made it a poor place for commercial farming. Learning from their Wampanoag neighbors, the English increasingly turned to whaling, seeking to take advantage of the right whales that migrated past the island seasonally. Legend says one settler, gazing at the sea from the south shore, prophetically said, “There is the green pasture where our grandchildren will go for their bread.”

In 1659, a group of 20 men from Massachusetts and New Hampshire purchased the English land rights to the island from Thomas Mayhew, a Puritan businessman then living in Watertown, Massachusetts. These men then negotiated land rights from the Wampanoag sachems, or tribal leaders, on the island, and established a small community on the island’s north shore.

Among the English settlers was Tristram Coffin, who came to America from Devonshire, England, in 1642. Coffin was appointed the first magistrate of the island and wielded a great deal of local political influence. He and his wife, Dionis, had five sons who perpetuated the Coffin family name. The Tristram Coffin medal displayed here, created in 1827, imagines what he might have looked like.

Mary Gardner Coffin
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Mary Gardner, born in 1670, and her husband, Jethro Coffin, born in 1663, were part of the second generation of English settlers on Nantucket. Mary and Jethro’s marriage helped settle a long-running power struggle between the first purchasers and craftsmen who made up the original settlement. The building now called the Oldest House, which you can visit on Sunset Hill, was a wedding gift to Mary and Jethro from their parents in 1686.

The portrait of Mary is the oldest portrait in our collection and the oldest known portrait of a Nantucket person. It was painted off-island by an unidentified artist who scholars call the Pollard Limner. Notice that Mary had one brown eye and one blue eye.

Quakerism on Nantucket
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The English settlers came to Nantucket in part to avoid Puritan social and political control on the mainland. They were sympathetic to dissenting spiritual doctrines but were not in a hurry to establish formal religious organizations on the island. The roots of the Religious Society of Friends on Nantucket trace to the conversion of respected community elder Mary Starbuck and her family, following visits to the island by the travelling preachers Thomas Chalkley in 1698, John Richardson in 1702, and Thomas Story in 1704. The first regular weekly Friends meetings on island met in the house of Mary’s son Nathaniel in 1704. The Nantucket Monthly Meeting, started in 1708, met in her living room, and her sons were instrumental in the construction of the first purpose-built Friends meeting house on island in 1711. By the time this meeting house opened in 1714, the meeting numbered perhaps 200 members, out of an English population of about 700. The religion spread rapidly through the English population because it offered unity to a politically and economically uncertain community. Quaker thought dominated island life from the 1730s to the 1830s. Quakers preached nonviolence in human affairs, but believed the earth and its creatures were gifts from God for man to exploit. In this way, the violence of the whale fishery was seen as completely compatible with a pious Quaker life.

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The early English settlers on Nantucket found that agriculture and sheep-herding produced poor results. They sought other avenues for profit. With Wampanoag participation, the English turned to whaling, particularly deep-sea whaling that harvested right-whale and sperm-whale oil from the ocean. For more than a century, whale hunting dominated Nantucket’s economy, bringing the island fame and prosperity and vitally linking it to the far corners of the globe.

Whaling Crews
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Nantucket whaling crews comprised a mix of local and off-island men, mostly Americans and Native Americans but supplemented by Europeans, Azoreans, Cape Verdeans, and Pacific Islanders. The master was nearly always a white man from Nantucket and the mates were often, but not exclusively, islanders. Because seasoned merchant mariners avoided the tedious and grizzly life of whaling, the fishery hired many landsmen and provided meaningful economic opportunities for otherwise marginalized workers, particularly Black men, Native Americans, and poor whites.

Captain Absalom Boston was a leading figure in Nantucket’s African American community in the first half of the 19th century. He was a third-generation islander, and he and his family figured in a number of important milestones toward local racial equality. When Absalom’s daughter, Phebe Ann, was denied admission to Nantucket High School, Boston began litigation that spurred the desegregation of local schools in 1846. Boston was the first Black whaling captain and commanded an all-Black crew on the ship Industry in 1822.

Gold Rush
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The rush of men to California during the Gold Rush of 1849 was one of a number of developments that contributed to the decline of whaling from Nantucket. The others were investment in the town of New Bedford as a mainland whaling port after the American Revolution, the development of railroads beginning in the 1830s, and the Civil War. The Great Fire of 1846, which destroyed the commercial heart of Nantucket, also dealt a heavy blow to the island’s economy.

3 Williams Forsyth Gallery
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The Williams Forsyth Gallery hosts the exhibition, Island People: Portraits and Stories from Nantucket, drawing from the NHA’s extensive portrait collection including significant new acquisitions, along with Spirits Within Us, a holographic experience presenting living portraits of several extraordinary Nantucket women.

More Williams Forsyth Gallery stops
Island People: Portraits and Stories from Nantucket
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This exhibition draws from the NHA’s collection of hundreds of painted portraits to highlight both famous and lesser-known Nantucketers whose life stories intersect with the themes and currents of the island’s history. The bare picture frames juxtaposed with the portraits around the room represent the many island people for whom we have no likenesses. Maybe they could not afford portraits, or their portraits have been lost. Or perhaps they expressed their values in other ways, in other art forms, during their lifetimes. Their stories remain important nevertheless.

New Acquisitions
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The past year has been an exciting one at the NHA for new additions to the NHA collections. A significant addition is Cranberry Pickers by Eastman Johnson, the primary artist of national importance associated with Nantucket in the late 19th century. This beautifully finished piece is one of two dozen works the artist made to prepare for his monumental canvas, Cranberry Harvest, now at the Timkin Museum in San Diego.

Also displayed are important works by Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, Nantucket’s most notable female artist from the turn of the 20th century.

Spirits Within Us: A Holographic Experience
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Life on remote, windswept Nantucket has always fostered extraordinary women. Intelligent, educated, passionate, and brave, they took on difficult issues involving anti-slavery, women’s rights, suffrage, and times of war. Despite obstacles, they each assumed roles and attitudes that were not common for women of their time.

This immersive exhibition brings just a few representatives of this remarkable group back to life to meet our visitors. They’ll tell you in their own words about their remarkable lives and the people they knew who inspired them.

4 Portrait Wall
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The paintings on this wall reflect the heyday of Nantucket whaling and the industry that fueled the Nantucket economy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

More Portrait Wall stops
Timothy Folger
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Timothy Folger was a Nantucket merchant captain and whaler, and a cousin of Benjamin Franklin. In the 1760s, when Franklin was Deputy Postmaster General for the British Colonies in America, he was asked why English mail packets took two weeks longer to sail from Britain to the Colonies than they took to go the other way. Franklin consulted with his cousin Folger, who had personal knowledge of the fast-moving Atlantic Ocean current that helped speed eastbound ships to Europe, and Folger provided Franklin with an explanation and description. Franklin forwarded Folger’s observations to the British government, and they became the basis for the first maps of the Gulf Stream.

Susan Veeder
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Susan Veeder sailed with her husband, Captain Charles Veeder, aboard the ship Nauticon from 1848 to 1853. Going around Cape Horn, she visited many places in South America, the South Pacific, and even the Bering Sea and Arctic. Traveling with Susan and her husband were two of their sons. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the voyage was the birth and subsequent death of the Veeder’s fourth child, a girl. For Susan, her time at sea was a voyage of discovery. Her illustrated journal, preserved in the museum’s collection, depicts sights and adventures that most American women of her time would never have had the opportunity to experience.

Visit Spirits Within Us: A Holographic Experience in the Williams Forsyth Gallery to hear Susan tell her story in her own words.

Captain George Washington Gardner Jr.
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Nantucket whaling captain George Washington Gardner Jr. was the son of the island captain who first opened the so-called Offshore Ground in the remote equatorial Pacific to whaling in 1818. Young Gardner made two voyages as a boy and teenager in his father’s ships before taking command of the Mariner of Nantucket in 1836 at age 27. He subsequently commanded the Nantucket and the Narraganset before retiring from the sea and becoming a railroad agent in New York State. The NHA holds logbooks from all three of Gardner’s whaling voyages, as well as logs related to his father’s ships.

Spermo Paintings
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The 296-ton whaling ship Spermo made a single whaling voyage from Nantucket between 1820 and 1823. These two canvases by J. Fisher depict events from the Spermo’s voyage. Although we have no information about J. Fisher, he was clearly knowledgeable about whaling and painting. The canvases reveal an eye for detail and are among the earliest oil paintings illustrating American whaling.

5 Whale Skeleton
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This room is Gosnell Hall, and here we present how and why Nantucketers went whaling during the age of sail.

The Native population practiced a type of whaling called drift whaling. Occasionally, a dead or diseased whale would wash ashore and be harvested by the local population to provide food for their diet and materials for carving implements

Nantucket’s fortunes were built on the sperm whale. For a century, the island’s whalers specialized in hunting this specific species for the high-quality oil and clean-burning spermaceti that could be harvested from its body. Since the end of whaling from the island, the sperm whale has become a symbol of the island’s seafaring heritage and economic success. It is no surprise, then, that when a forty-ton sperm whale died on Low Beach on New Year’s Eve 1997, there was an immediate popular surge of enthusiasm to keep the creature’s skeleton on island and add it to the Nantucket Whaling Museum. The acquisition of the skeleton prompted the building of a new Whaling Museum in 2005.

Notice the head of the sperm whale makes up almost a third of its body. There are teeth only on the lower jaw, teeth that are using for grabbing prey and swallowing it whole. Sperm whales are pelagic whales that dive and hunt at great depths. The upper jaw supports the whale’s head case, a reservoir of between 300 and 500 gallons of spermaceti oil and wax. The skull protects the creature’s large brain—the largest of any animal.  Unlike most whale species which have two blowholes, sperm whales have one, and when they blow, their spout is at a 45 degree angle slightly out of the left side of the head.

Notice the two small bones that hang from the vertebrae. Millions of years ago, the ancestors of today’s whales lived on land and had four legs. As these animals moved into the sea and evolved, they lost their rear legs. Those tiny bones are vestigial leg bones, no longer needed in the ocean.

Learn more about sperm whales and the whale skeleton on the touchscreen display under the whale.

6 Whale Hunt
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When a whaleship departed from Nantucket it was an emotional time. Most whaling voyages lasted from 2-4 years, frequently rounding Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, and sometimes circumnavigating the world. When whales were spotted, the whaleboats were launched in pursuit. The men would race to their assigned whaleboat with a harpooner in the bow, four men to handle the oars, and a boatheader in the stern to steer the boat. As the whaleboat approached a whale, the harpooner would brace his thigh in the clumsy cleat to give himself stability to throw his harpoon. The harpoon did not kill the whale, but allowed the whaleboat crew to attach to the whale. A harpooned whale might take off swimming as fast as he could, dragging the whaleboat behind, perhaps at 10-15 miles per hour. Some of the men hung on to the side of the boat; others bailed water as the boat sped through the waves. This was the most exciting part of the whale hunt and also the most dangerous. This was called a Nantucket sleigh ride!

Watch a brief video looping behind the jawbone depicting what a sleighride might have been like.

And explore the voyages of the whaleship Edward Cary on the touchscreen display next to the jawbone.

More Whale Hunt stops
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This collection of whaling tools suggests the gory and backbreaking work to harvest oil from the largest mammals on earth. Cutting-in spades, blubber knives, boarding and mincing knives, were all used to cut up the blubber. Nantucket blacksmiths made thousands of similar tools to supply the island’s whaleships.

Jaw Bone
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In 1865, Captain William Cash of the whaleship Islander took on board this eighteen-foot sperm whale jaw bone. Showman P.T. Barnum visited Nantucket in 1866, saw the specimen, and tried to acquire it for his New York museum. Cash refused, eventually selling the jaw bone to the Nantucket Atheneum, an impressive artifact that eventually came to the NHA.

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Once a whale was captured, the work of rendering, or trying out the oil from the blubber began right on the deck of the ship. Strips of blubber were removed from the whale and boiled into oil in large cast iron trypots. The trypots were enclosed in a brick furnace on the deck of the ship. Boiling blubber into oil was an arduous and foul-smelling process that could take several days. The rendered oil was pumped into barrels and casks and stored below deck.

7 Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory
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Welcome to the Hadwen and Barney Oil & Candle Factory. Whale oil was the basis of Nantucket’s economy until the 1850s, and in buildings like this one, the oil harvested from whales at sea was refined into commercial oil for sale, and spermaceti wax from sperm whales made into candles. An earlier factory on this site burned down in the Great Fire of 1846 and was replaced by this building. In the mid-1840s there were about twenty-four candle factories on the island, producing over 850,000 pounds of candles and over one million gallons of oil every year. These products were shipped to mainland ports for sale and were distributed all over the United States and the world.

Explore the touchscreen display to learn more about the complete process of refining whale oil into the products that made Nantucket the whaling capital of the world.

More Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory stops
Bottles of Spermaceti Oil
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When a whale ship came into port, often after 2 or 3 years at sea, candle factory owners would buy up the casks of oil and bring the oil to a factory like this, one of twenty-four on the island in 1845, to refine the oil and make candles. The oil would first be boiled to remove impurities, then put back in casks and stored outside until the weather turned cold, and the oil began to thicken, or granulate as you see here.

Black cake and candle molds
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After all the sperm oil was extracted and refined, the remaining material was a hard, waxy substance called “black cake”. At this time the factory converted from refining oil to candle making. The black cake was boiled, bleached, and poured into candle molds, producing highly valued candles that did not smoke or smell and lasted a long time.

8 Cataract Fire Engine
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The town experienced a devastating fire in 1846. Cataract was one of the fire engines that attempted, unsuccessfully, to extinguish the fire. Cataract is typical of New England fire appliances from the first half of the 19th century. Drawn to the scene by its company of men and operated entirely by hand, it features a two-cylinder single-acting pump inside a copper-lined wooden tub which was filled with water by bucket brigade or suction hose. Its long wood pumping handles, stored on either side, were swung into position when needed. The crane neck at the front permitted the front wheels to be rotated in a tight arc, allowing the engine to turn for easy positioning.

Visit the mini-theater display next to the Cataract to learn more about the history of fires on Nantucket. The button-selectable movies include The Great Fire of 1846, the dramatic story of the devastation of much of Nantucket Town and waterfront; and Notable Nantucket Fires, the stories of eight of the most destructive fires on Nantucket from 1836 to 1999.

These and all NHA films can also be seen on the NHA YouTube channel, youtube.com/nantuckethistory.

9 Candle Factory Theater
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In the Candle Factory Theater, enjoy two signature NHA productions.

Nantucket, a film by documentary filmmaker Ric Burns, captures the unparalleled beauty of Nantucket and chronicles the vibrancy of the island’s history, from its original Wampanoag Native American and early Quaker cultures to its international significance as the whaling capital of the world and eventual rebirth as an art and resort colony. The film is 27 minutes long and plays every hour on the half-hour.

The Bones of History, an award-winning documentary by filmmaker John Stanton, tells the story of the events surrounding the sperm whale that washed up on the eastern end of Nantucket in 1998. The whale’s skeleton now hangs as the centerpiece in Gosnell Hall. This film is 17 minutes long and plays every hour on the hour.

These and all NHA films can also be seen on the NHA YouTube channel, youtube.com/nantuckethistory.

10 20th Century Whaling
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Nantucket’s whaling economy collapsed in the late 1850s. New Bedford whaling eclipsed Nantucket as early as the 1830s. With the laying of the transcontinental railroad, the capital of whaling moved later to San Francisco. Vessels could hunt whales in the western Arctic and get products to the East Coast markets quicker by rail than by sea.

Norwegian whaling was on the ascendancy starting in the late 19th century. Commercial whaling expanded dramatically in the 20th century, but it was not an American story. European, Soviet and Asian fleets turned their attention to whales for meat rather than oil and baleen.

Whaling became increasingly efficient. No longer restricted by wind and sail, nor the speed by which men could row a boat, the new catcher boats were steel-hulled, propeller-driven, and mounted with artillery pieces on their bows. Steam-powered ships could pursue whales which had been too fast to catch during the age of sail. Cannons fired massive harpoon projectiles, some with exploding heads, which could kill a whale with a single shot. Spotter planes could vector in a fleet of catcher boats to destroy whole pods at an alarming rate.

In 1967, the American Cetacean Society became the first group dedicated to end commercial whaling. It was followed by large national organizations like Greenpeace. These actions culminated in the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 in the United States and an international ban on commercial whaling in 1986.

The touchscreen display presents short videos that promote the understanding and protection of whales in the 21st century.

11 Discovery Center
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Families will delight in the imaginary interactive experience of the Discovery Center. Fun activities include story time, drawing and coloring, imaginary play in the Curiosity Shop and tea room, and daily hands-on-history with a different craft each day.

Enjoy a selection of family-friendly videos for young and old alike in the mini-theater. These and all NHA films can also be seen on the NHA YouTube channel, youtube.com/nantuckethistory.

And before you leave, put YOURSELF into history and send a souvenir e-postcard to friends and family in the photo booth.

12 Neptune’s Grotto
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Neptune’s grotto is a magical collection of objects found in and around the sea, displayed in a way that we hope will delight visitors. All museums have curiosities in their collections—items that reflect the travels and varied interests of people in the past. We hope the cases here will echo islanders’ adventures on the world’s oceans.

More Neptune’s Grotto stops
Coco de Mer (Coconut of the Sea)
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Coco de Mer, or Coconut of the Sea, is a large seed belongs to a gigantic female palm tree found only in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. Only rotten nuts that are hollow float, so the enormous palms never spread to new shores. When early sailors found these nuts floating on the water, they thought they came from a tree growing beneath the sea.

Narwhal Skull and Tusk
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Often called the unicorn of the sea, narwhals are beautiful creatures with a long tusk protruding from their heads. The tusk is actually an enlarged tooth that can grow as long as 10 feet. Narwhals can be found in the Arctic Ocean and around the coastlines of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Indigenous people of the Arctic have always hunted narwhals which provide a substantial amount of protein for their diets. They also hunted narwhals for their long, spiraled ivory tooth.

13 Lever Press
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You are looking at a lever press, believed to be the only one left in the world used for whale-oil processing. Factory workers shoveled chilled, granulated sperm oil into burlap or hemp bags and loaded the press, with bags placed side by side, a board on top, more bags, until there were approximately 50 bags. Then the beam was lowered, squeezing the oil from the bags, filling the trough which had a hole in the front corner. The oil would flow into a cistern in the basement below. The first pressing, the winter pressing, produced the highest quality and quantity of oil, and was sold for the highest price. Winter oil was valued for its stable viscosity, and was unaffected by heat or cold. Winter oil was used in lighthouses and streetlamps in cold climates. Next, the process was repeated, reboiling the oil, putting it outside and bringing it in for the spring pressing, which produced oil of lesser quality and quantity, but was still good for lighting and lubrication. The final pressing was in the summer, and at that point there was very little oil to be extracted, so workers used a screw press. What was left after the summer pressing was a hard, waxy substance called “black cake”. Now the factory converted to candle making. The black cake was boiled, bleached, and poured into candle molds, producing highly valued candles that did not smoke or smell and lasted a long time, candles that sold all over the world.

Watch a virtual demonstration of the lever press in action on the small display overlooking the press.

14 Auxiliary Industries
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Looking at Nantucket’s harbor today, it is hard to imagine what it looked like during the whaling era. Sooty factories, warehouses and workshops surrounded the harbor, providing the industries that supported whaling. The vast majority of the whaling ships were built off-island, but much of the outfitting was done locally. The smaller whaleboats were more likely to have been built on Nantucket, but not the large whaleships. Masts and spars spawned an industry of skilled carpenters. Cooperages manufactured wooden barrels, buckets and casks. In the 1830s there were 22 cooperages turning out thousands of wooden containers. Ships need miles of rope. Ten ropewalks turned tons of hemp into rope of a variety of widths and lengths from fishing lines to huge, twisted ropes strong enough to hold heavy anchors, or to bind several tons of whale carcasses to the sides of ships. Blacksmiths worked in hot, fiery forges to turn out harpoons, lances, knives and other implements needed to hunt and dismember whales. Each ship needed twenty to thirty sails, totaling over an acre of sailcloth. Sail making was highly skilled work requiring a three-year apprenticeship.

15 Decline of Whaling
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Beginning in the 1840’s a number of occurrences began the decline of Nantucket’s dominance in the whaling industry.

As ships stayed out longer and got bigger and heavier, they began to have difficulty getting over the sandbar that blocked the entrance to Nantucket Harbor. In turn, New Bedford provided a deeper water port and connection to broader markets due to the development of the railroads.

In 1846, a fire that began at Geary’s hat shop on Main Street destroyed the town’s central business district and hastened the decline of the whaling industry. The blaze spread out of control, particularly along the oil-soaked wharves. By sunrise the next day, wharves, whaleships and over 300 buildings across thirty-three acres in the commercial core of Town had been destroyed, and 800 islanders were homeless.

The California Gold Rush took many men away from the island and with a declining population there were fewer men to man the whaleships.

During the Civil War 339 Nantucket men enlisted. Seventy-four never returned. As a naval blockade, the U.S Navy sank aging whaleships at the entrance to the harbors of Charleston and Savannah. These ships were dubbed “the Stone Fleet”. By the end of the Civil War, whaling on Nantucket had virtually ended.

16 Camels
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For centuries, a sandbar blocked the entrance to the harbor, hindering passage of heavily laden vessels. Shipping merchant, Peter Ewer, decided to solve the problem. He hired carpenters to make this working model, based on a Dutch invention called “ship camels”. The full-size camels were 135 feet in length. The camel hulls were filled with water and submerged and connected under the ship. As the water was pumped out of the camels, they rose and lifted the ship out of the water. A steamship would then tow the ship over the sandbar and into the harbor.

17 Whale Hunting Around the World
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Whaling has been an important subsistence and economic activity in multiple regions throughout human history. The first known encounters between men and whales are shown as petroglyphs in Korea in 6000 BCE. The oldest written mention of whaling comes from a Japanese book written in the 7th century.

In 1059, the Basques were among the first people to catch whales commercially. They dominated the trade for five centuries and were the masters of their day. By the early 17th century, Holland entered the trade in earnest, adopting new techniques and soon dominated the industry. Other countries that followed included Britain, France, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia. Nantucket’s ascendancy began in the 18th century. After the decline of Nantucket whaling, New Bedford with its deep water harbor and access to a railroad, became the next whaling center, followed by San Francisco when the trans-continental railroad was completed.

18 Nantucket and the Water
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Nantucket has always been on the water that surrounds us. Islanders depend upon the water for work, recreation and their connection to the broader world. Ferryboats, past and present, connect Nantucket to points far and near.

In the early 1900s, there were about forty dories fishing from Sconset. These were one-man dories, about 13 feet long. Each fisherman had a fish house on the beach where he dressed and salted his catch; cod, haddock or bluefish. The fish would be kept under salt for several days and then shipped to Boston, Providence and New Bedford. Fishing by boat has always been an important Nantucket activity, providing year-round sport to residents and fine seafood to restaurants, both on island and off. From scalloping in the fall and winter months, to summer charter fishing for bluefish and sea bass, anglers delight in the fishing experiences around the island. Surf casting, clam digging and pond fishing are also popular pastimes among island anglers.

19 New Voices
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This touchscreen display presents oral history excerpts from nine new arrivals to Nantucket illustrated with their own family photos, now part of the NHA Archival Collection. Their stories reflect how they came to Nantucket and their heritage, families, and roles on Nantucket, emphasizing how diverse the Nantucket community has become.

These and all NHA films can also be seen on the NHA YouTube channel, youtube.com/nantuckethistory.

20 Nantucket Connecting the World
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Nantucket ships traveled all over the world in pursuit of whales, with the crew bringing back souvenirs from their travels. Ship owners also engaged in trade with Europe, Africa, the Pacific, and Arctic and of course, China. Fine American homes were decorated with items purchased in China. Nantucket cargo ships and whalers would bring furs, turtle shells, lumber and specialty food items from the northwest coast of North American and the islands of the Pacific to trade with China.

More Nantucket Connecting the World stops
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The wax figure of the Dauphin of France was brought to Nantucket from France about 1786 by Captain Jonathon Coffin. He purchased the doll at a convent, and it was represented to him as having been made from a cast of Louis Charles, Dauphin of France, and second son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. While it does portray the Dauphin, it was not made from a cast.

Cave Canem
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Beginning in the 16th century, it became fashionable for affluent young men and some women to visit the cultural capitals of Europe as part of their classical education. In 1841, Paul Mitchell Jr. withdrew from his family’s whaling business and embarked on a two-year European tour with his friend, the painter William Swain. Mitchell purchased this decorative panel in Naples. It reproduces a floor mosaic from a house in Pompeii that was burned by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Chinese Export Cider Jug and Tea Box from Ship Mars
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This cider jug and tea box were brought back from China by Uriah Swain on the ship Mars. Swain’s son-in-law, James Cary, was aboard and returned to Canton as master of the Rose in 1806. On his way back from that voyage, he tried a new route past Japan and observed an enormous population of whales. Unable to capitalize on the discovery until after the War of 1812, two Nantucket captains returned in 1820 to open what became known as the Japan Grounds, one of the richest sources of sperm whales. See Cary’s nephew William’s account of being wrecked in Fiji in the Pacific part of this room.

Chinese export porcelain bowl from HMS Bounty
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In February 1808, the Boston sealer Topaz, commanded by Captain Mayhew Folger of Nantucket, stopped at Pitcairn Island and accidentally discovered what had become of the mutineers of the infamous HMS Bounty. Captain Folger received this Chinese export porcelain bowl from John Adams, the only mutineer left. It most likely belonged to one of the Bounty’s officers, perhaps Captain Bligh himself.

Lei Niho Palaoa
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Originally, these objects were Royal Hawaiian pendants and carried significant chiefly power and personal prestige. Before contact with outside cultures, only a person of royal birth would have been allowed to wear such a necklace without harm. After 1819, beliefs about the protection of one’s supernatural power diminished, resulting with the production of necklaces for the foreign market. This necklace made of human hair, olona plant fiber and a walrus tooth ivory pendant, was acquired by Dr. Benjamin Sharp while on a Hawaiian expedition.

21 Essex Gallery
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The whaleship Essex, commanded by George Pollard Jr, left Nantucket in 1819. While hunting whales in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the ship was rammed and sunk by an eighty-ton sperm whale. Thousands of miles from land, the twenty crew members took to three small, open whaleboats. For roughly ninety days, as they tried to sail to the coast of South America, the men endured unimaginable hardships, including fierce storms, thirst, starvation, death and cannibalism. At the end there were eight survivors. The true story of the Essex disaster was part of Herman Melville’s inspiration for the great American novel, Moby Dick, and is the subject of the award-winning history book In the Heart of the Sea, by Nantucketer Nathaniel Philbrick.

First mate Owen Chase, whose portrait here is on loan to the museum from his descendants, was one of the survivors. Chase, an able, if somewhat opinionated whaleman, was working his way up to become a captain. During the voyage of the Essex there were several disagreements between Captain Pollard and his First Mate. At the time of the ramming, Chase was aboard the Essex making repairs to his whaleboat. Captain Pollard shouted, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” Chase responded, “We have been stove by a whale!”

Upon his return to the island, Chase wrote a book about the disaster of the Essex. Chase sited his need to provide for his family as his motivation for publication. Shortly after his return, he sailed away on a New Bedford whaler. He later commanded five successful whaling voyages from New Bedford and Nantucket, retiring to his house on Orange Street in 1840. In his later years, he suffered frequent nightmares, debilitating headaches, and hallucinations. He hoarded food and water, and ultimately he went insane.

One of the Essex survivors was a young man named Benjamin Lawrence. During his unbearable time in the whaleboat, Lawrence collected stray rope fibers and twisted them into the tiny piece of spun-yarn or twine here on display. He vowed that if he ever made it back to Nantucket safely, this would be a reminder of the terrible ordeal that the men suffered. It is the sole surviving artifact from the wreck of the Essex.

On the touchscreen display, follow the voyages of six whaling vessels and their crews who hunted whales on the world’s oceans during 1819 and 1820. Follow their journeys through logbook and journal excerpts. And follow the final journey of the Essex and its survivors.

22 Fresnel Lens
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The Sankaty Head lighthouse was built in 1849 on the Siasconset bluff at the eastern end of the island. The original Fresnel lens and clockwork from the lighthouse are displayed here. The brilliant light thrown out by this lens was visible up to twenty-four miles away and was referred to by mariners as “the blazing star”. Frenchman Auguste Jean Fresnel developed the prismatic lens system you see here, where a central piece of glass called a bull’s eye is surrounded by concentric rings of glass projecting beyond one another. The design allowed five times more light to be transmitted than earlier reflector systems.

23 Town Clock
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This clock was given to the town in 1881 by William Hadwen Starbuck of New York. For 76 years the clock measured the time from the Unitarian Church tower and struck the hours. In 1957 the mechanism you see here was retired and replaced by an electric movement.

The bell hung here is from the coasting schooner Uriah B. Fiske. When the Fiske wrecked on Nantucket in 1881, its bell was salvaged and installed in the new Polpis School House. The bell came to the NHA in 1928.

Famously, the so-called Portuguese bell that sounds the hours from the Unitarian Church tower also strikes 52 times three times a day. Why 52 strikes? When the bell was installed the town decreed that it should be rung for 3 minutes at 7am, noon, and 9pm every day, equaling 52 strikes.

24 Scrimshaw and Decorative Arts Gallery
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Scrimshaw is the art of engraving images on whale teeth, baleen and bone. This folk art was practiced by men aboard whaleships during the 19th century. During long voyages, often 2-5 years, whalers would often turn to scrimshaw as a way of passing the time when they were not busy pursuing whales. They produced decorative objects and utilitarian devices. These were often enhanced, decorated and combined with other materials like wood, mother-of-pearl, and abalone shell. This shipboard art was a unique product and is cherished as an expression of appreciation for nautical prowess.

Nantucket has had a dynamic heritage of decorative arts and crafts reaching into the 20th century and extending far beyond its geographical boundaries.

More Scrimshaw and Decorative Arts Gallery stops
Burdett Tooth
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Edward Burdett is the earliest known American engraver of sperm whale teeth, working in the 1820s. Born on Nantucket, Burdett went whaling at the age of seventeen on the Nantucket ship Foster. He rose through the ranks on successive voyages. His last voyage was fatal when Burdett became entangled in a harpoon line and was dragged overboard.

Susan’s Teeth
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Frederick Myrick is the earliest identified scrimshander to sign and date his work; as a result, his pieces have become highly prized by collectors and museums. Myrick has shown exquisite detail of the ship Susan. On the back side he has inscribed. “Death to the living, long life to the killers, Success to sailor’s wives and greasy luck to whalers.”

Archer dressing case
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Captain James Archer made this spectacular dressing case for his third wife, Mary, during a whaling voyage aboard the bark Afton out of New Bedford between 1853 and 1856. The voyage yielded only 336 barrels of sperm oil and 67 barrels of whale oil, suggesting the reason why Archer had so much free time to make this gift. The case is said to be assembled from 1,900 individual pieces of wood, metal and ivory.

Jagging Wheels
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Jagging wheels (or pie crimpers) were used to cut and decorate pastry dough, both for fruit pies and meat pies. Each jagging wheel is unique, often carved with fantastical shapes including unicorns, snakes and sea monsters. The simplest form is shaped like a lollipop and is often referred to as a “Nantucket” crimper. Some include forks for pricking the dough. Jagging wheels were a fine and useful gift to bring home from a whaling voyage.

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Usually made of whalebone or baleen, busks were used as stays in women’s corsets. The busks are flexible and when inserted into corset pockets, they bend to produce a fashionable hour glass figure. Corset busks were not to be given casually. In the Victorian era, scrimshaw busks were customarily intended for a wife or fiancée, only women with whom the sailor had a degree of intimacy. Many are inscribed with hymn texts, serious poetry, images of flowers, and especially hearts of all kinds as a token of love.

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One of the most difficult items to make, in terms of time and labor expended, is the swift, an ingenious, expandable yarn winder. A skein of yarn would be placed over the swift which expands and contracts to hold the yarn in place. The device spins as the yarn is wound. There is even a cup on top to place the ball of yarn. With dozens of moving parts, no two swifts are exactly alike, but all were a practical gift to bring to a wife, mother or sister.

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More than serving as aids to mobility, canes were fashion accessories for men and women. The NHA has over 150 scrimshaw canes with components of whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen, and other ornamental materials. Women’s canes tend to be smaller, shorter and lighter. Just as busks were produced for women back home, canes were made on shipboard in staggering numbers for fathers, grandfathers and gentlemen friends. Some are gracefully carved and beautifully balanced, with proficient sculptures of birds, animals, human hands, or serpents on the grips. The shaft could be wood or a solid piece of pan or jaw bone, decoratively carved, fluted or spiraled.

Walter Folger Clock
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This tall-case clock was made by Walter Folger Jr. between 1788 and 1790. Folger was a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, and clock and instrument maker, in addition to working as a lawyer and serving a term in Congress. His most famous work is this astronomical clock. The clock is designed to tell the minutes and hours of the day; the day of the month; the year; the motion and declination of the sun; the motion, phases and declination of the moon; and the progression of the sun through the zodiac.

Lightship Baskets
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The island’s distinctive “Lightship baskets” originated in the second quarter of the 19th century. They were first made on land. When Nantucket men who knew basket making started working aboard the South Shoal Lightship in the 1860s, they brought their craft with them, and spent the long, tedious hours on station making baskets that they then sold ashore. In this way, Nantucket baskets became associated with the lightships, and started to be called lightship baskets. In the 1950s, an immigrant from the Philippines named Jose Reyes developed the lidded Nantucket lightship basket purse, which has grown into a summer fashion icon on island. To learn more about lightship baskets please visit the extensive exhibit at the Hadwen House.

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Sport hunting for shorebirds was a key part of Nantucket’s resort economy in the late 19th century, and many carved decoys were made and used on island to entice birds into the range of sportsmen’s guns. The names of individual decoy carvers have been obscured over time, but their skillful work reflects intimate knowledge of the birds they hunted. Featured in this large case are decoys representing the critically endangered Eskimo curlew, which hasn’t been seen for nearly 60 years due to overhunting and habitat loss. Examples of the Golden plover are also included, notable for their exquisite craftsmanship and depiction of the bird’s bright breeding plumage.

Child’s Windsor Chair
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Few child-sized Windsor chairs survive. This example is a masterpiece of the kind. Its braced fan-back design is elegantly proportioned and precisely scaled down from adult versions. It is hand-made from a mix of hard and soft woods and displays what is likely the original paint. It is very similar to the work of island house carpenter and chairmaker Charles Chase but lacks his customary stamped name under the seat.

25 Andrea Doria
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At 11:10 pm on May 7, 1915, 45 miles south of Nantucket, the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria bound for New York City and the eastbound Swedish liner Stockholm collided in a heavy Atlantic fog. 1,650 passengers and crew were rescued, while 46 died. The Andrea Doria was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful ocean liners of the era with three outdoor swimming pools and a dazzling array of paintings, tapestries and murals.

26 McCausland Gallery
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This year, the McCausland Gallery features Summer on Nantucket: A History of the Island Resort through November 1, 2023.

Containing more than 200 artifacts, hundreds of photographs. and numerous video segments from the NHA collection, this exhibition tells the story of Nantucket as a summer destination, from the opening of the first tourist hotels in the 1840s to the multi-billion-dollar real-estate, construction, and rental economy of today.

The exhibit begins with “Impressions of Summer,” a feast of paintings, trade signs, souvenirs, and other items capturing the flavor of Nantucket in high season. “The Resort Economy” traces the island’s transition from a whaling port to a vacation spot. “Must See, Must Do” explores beach and water recreation, entertainment and dining, and changing tourist activities across more than a century. “Where to Stay?” demonstrates how summer-home options have changed as more of the island has been developed. “Who’s Here?” features new acquisitions from the NHA’s costume and textile collections showing island summer fashions.

“It’s Not All Roses” recognizes the hard work seasonal employees and year-round residents put into making summer happen for everyone and explores some of the downsides to the island’s popularity and success: crowding, traffic, housing insecurity, and economic inequality. The exhibit concludes with “Winter,” a look at the continuation of island life after the crowds depart.

27 Nantucket Today
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As whaling declined, Nantucketers had to reinvent their economy. They began promoting the island as a beautiful, healthful summer resort in the 1860s. Twice-daily steamship service from New Bedford started in 1874. A narrow-gauge railway was built in 1881 to connect the ferry dock with the South Shore and ’Sconset, part of an effort to promote real estate development and get summer visitors to the beaches. Actors, artists and writers from Boston, New York, and elsewhere began to summer on the island.

In addition to the beautiful beaches and moors, Nantucket boasts many surviving 18th and 19th century buildings, and has been called the “finest example of an early New England seaport.” The entire island has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

This rooftop view is similar to the views that Nantucketers enjoy from the roof walks. Sometimes erroneously called “Widow’s Walks,” these are rooftop platforms originally built to provide access to put out chimney fires.

Follow the compass on the deck. Looking east you will see the channel that rounds Brant Point, the entry point for ferry traffic. Visitors coming to the island by ferry will enjoy a spectacular view of the town. A Nantucket tradition says that as you leave the island and pass Brant Point Lighthouse, you should throw two pennies overboard to ensure a return visit!

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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