The Nantucket Whaling Museum, under the auspices of the Nantucket Historical Association, is brimming with artifacts from Nantucket’s whaling era. Housed in a series of stunning 19th century brick buildings on Broad Street it is not to be missed when visiting the island.
Nantucket’s whaling days lasted from 1770 to 1860, an era that came to be known as the island’s Golden Age, when sea captains and whale oil merchants made fortunes.
From the island’s harbor captains sailed to the far corners of the world hunting sperm whales. They were at sea for as long as three years, returning with their ships riding low in the water heavy with barrels of whale bones and spermaceti oil which was refined on the island and shipped out supplying the world with lamp oil and candles. The bones and teeth were used in making stays for men’s shirt collars and women’s corsets, combs, brushes and jewelry.
The museum started in 1929 when the Nantucket Historical Association acquired the Mitchell candle-spermaceti factory ca. 1847. The original Mitchell building ca. 1770 was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1846 that wiped out Nantucket’s business district and wharfs. The Mitchell factory was one of 20 candle-making businesses on the island. Inside the building is the world’s only known two story high beam press that was used in the candle making process.
The museum is a repository of intricately carved pieces of scrimshaw, whaling tools, lightship baskets, sailors’ valentines, family registers, maritime art, furniture and Native American artifacts.
On the walls of the galleries are original oil portraits of Nantucket sea captains. Two that stand out are of Absalom Boston, the first African American captain to sail a Nantucket whaler, the Industry, with an all-black crew, and, the only known John Singleton Copley portrait of an islander, Timothy Folger, a wealthy 18th century whale oil merchant. Folger was cousin to Benjamin Franklin, whose mother, Abiah Folger, also was a Nantucketer.
These paintings encircle the skeletal remains of what could have been an ancestor to the behemoths the sea captains hunted. Mounted in mid-air, is the skeleton of a 46-foot bull sperm whale that died on a Nantucket beach in January 1998.
After scientists dissected the whale its bones were buried in the sand. Months later they were dug up, put in cages and sunk in the harbor where sea scavengers assisted in the rest of the “cleaning up.” Once out of the water marine biologist Dan DenDanto finished the cleaning process and prepared the skeleton for viewing. DenDanto decided to display the whale in a diving position to give realism to the exhibit.
Surrounding the skeleton are tools of the island’s whaling trade; a 30-foot fully rigged wooden whaleboat, harpoons, lances and cutting-in tools.
It’s ironic that this particular species, a sperm whale, should die on a Nantucket beach in 1998, 228 years after the first sperm wall was harpooned off an island beach, the first step in making Nantucket the whaling capital of the world for nearly a century.
Images courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association