Decorative Arts

Explore the Decorative Arts collection of the NHA from fine furniture, tall clocks, and ceramics to an eclectic display of curiously carved artifacts.

The Old Polpis House, ca. 1899, James Walter Folger (1851–1918).
Wood, 63/4 x 10 in.
Purchase of the NHA, 1901.4.1.

Curiously Carved:
In this exhibit we present a selection of curiously carved items from our broad Nantucket folk-art collection. The American whaleman’s tradition of fashioning items both useful and decorative from the bones and teeth of whales is represented by the assembly of canes, and by a grouping of ivory and bone novelties nearby. The wood hunting decoys are a few examples from hundreds made and used on island over the centuries. And the sailor-boy whirligigs demonstrate the development of Nantucket’s tourist economy—where happy souvenirs have been part of the vacation experience since the late nineteenth century.

Ceramics from the Collection:
The history of decorated ceramics is a story of imitation of faraway cultures. Designs, materials and techniques were borrowed, traded and stolen back and forth between China, Holland, England, France, Turkey, Mesopotamia and elsewhere throughout several thousand years. Industrial espionage got its start in a pottery studio. While these canvases may be small, they tell big stories.

Guardian lion candlesticks Porcelain, 5 x 5 ¾ x 3 in. Gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association, 1992.45.1a–b
Center table, 1852
Shadrach Gifford (1803–72).
Veneered pine, 51 x 41 x 24 in.
Purchase of the NHA, 1909.43.1.

Furniture on Nantucket is almost always from somewhere else. But it reflects the tastes of those who lived here. A few pieces — on display in this exhibit — were made here, by Nantucketers. Craftsman Heman Ellis; inventor, instrument maker and Ben Franklin’s cousin Walter Folger, Jr.; House carpenter and chair maker Charles Chase; second-generation chair builder Frederick Slade; John Lefford are some of the Nantucket makers represented. Others, such as the author of the Tuckernuck School desk, we shall probably never know.

Art of Main Street: 
The owners of Nantucket’s whaleships, oil refineries, and candle houses amassed considerable wealth in the first half of the nineteenth century. They used this wealth, in part, to construct grand houses such as Hadwen House and to sit for portraits on display in this exhibit. Many of them are by William Swain (1803–1847), who was the most prolific and sought-after portrait painter on Nantucket in the 1830s and 1840s.

Elisa M. Coffin and Children, 1844
William Swain (1803–47)
Oil on canvas
Gift of Henry R. Breck, 1982.31.1


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.

We use cookies to deliver our online services. Details and instructions on how to disable those cookies are set out in our Privacy Policy. By clicking I Accept, you consent to our use of cookies unless you have disabled them.

> >