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This article first appeared In the Summer 1998 Issue of Historic Nantucket.

Whaling Tools in the Nantucket Whaling Museum

By Robert E. Hellman


The fine assemblage of whaling harpoons and other implements mounted on the walls of the "whaleboat room" in the Nantucket Whaling Museum is primarily the collection of Edward F. Sanderson. One of the first collectors to appreciate the significance of the memorabilia of an industry soon to be history, Sanderson undoubtedly acquired some of his pieces by scouring the shops and wharves of New Bedford during the first quarter of the twentieth century. At that time whaling tools and whaling gear were still available in fair quantities and at modest prices, by today's standards. According to a New Bedford newspaper, in a 1912 auction an "ordinary whaling harpoon" was bought for $7.00, considered a premium price; a long-handled whale-oil bailer was purchased for $5.50; a companion piece "a whaling skimmer on a long handle" brought as much as $10.50; and a boarding knife was bought for $5.00. Mr. Sanderson may have missed that particular auction but he must have attended many more.

Edward F. Sanderson (1874-1955) was a Congregational minister who lived in New York City and summered on Nantucket where in the 1920s he purchased Moors End at 19 Pleasant Street. He was largely responsible for the NHA's acquisition of the 1847 Hadwen and Barney candle factory, which the whaling museum has occupied since its inception in 1930. He donated his entire whaling collection to the museum, one of the most extensive private assemblages of whaling memorabilia in the country at that time. The previous remarks about bargain prices notwithstanding, Sanderson's acquisitions were said to represent an investment in excess of $50,000 (in 1920s dollars).

As part of the NHA's continuing efforts to assess its extensive holdings, I have been examining and recataloguing the whaling "craft" ("whalecraft" was the term used by the early whalemen to describe the products made for them by blacksmiths) and gear in Sanderson Hall. In the course of this work a number of especially interesting pieces have been observed and are discussed herein.

A Rare Whaling Gun

Nineteenth-century American whalemen pursued their quarry in thirty-foot whaleboats and generally used hand-thrust harpoons and lances for fastening to the whale and killing it. The late 1840s in America saw the development of shoulder-fired whaling guns, which were used to fire modified harpoons and explosive missiles called bomb lances. The latter were used successfully to kill whales that had already been harpooned by hand-darted irons. The former, although manufactured in different designs throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, were for the most part rather ineffective devices.

The earliest American whaling shoulder gun that we know of was made about 1847 by Oliver Allen of Norwich, Connecticut. His associate was Christopher C. Brand, who slightly modified Allen's design. Allen took off for the California gold fields in 1849 and eventually settled in Petaluma, where he was known as an ingenious inventor. Brand continued producing the now popular gun with virtually no further changes until the last decade of the nineteenth century. He was briefly associated with Charles Tracy, also of Norwich, and until 1856 the firm was known as Tracy and Brand. And after Brand's retirement or death in 1876, the enterprise was continued by his son Junius A. Brand, who produced his father's gun until 1890. The Brand shoulder gun was simple in design, a muzzle-loader made almost entirely of cast iron, and relatively cheap . the going price in 1854 being $45.00. It was sold throughout the English-speaking whaling world.

The Brand shoulder gun was advertised almost continuously in the Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants. Transcript, a trade newspaper for the whaling industry published weekly in New Bedford from 1843 to 1914. During 1852, '53, and '54 the second paragraph of the Tracy and Brand ad contains this interesting statement: "They also manufacture a Gun for shooting Harpoons to be mounted on a boat, which is very highly approved. This Gun is about the size of the English Harpoon Guns and is superior to them in its strength, simplicity, and convenience in loading and firing." The Tracy and Brand whaleboat-mounted swivel gun may have been made only for three years; it disappears from their ads after 1854. Perhaps it was unable to compete with the English version made in Birmingham by William Greener.

To my knowledge, there are no known examples of the Tracy and Brand swivel gun in any American museums . except for a single gun from the Sanderson Collection on display in the Nantucket Whaling Museum. The gun is unsigned . but Brand never signed or marked his guns in any way. So far as I know, it has never been illustrated, but details of its construction are so similar to those of their shoulder gun as to make the attribution virtually certain. It is made of cast iron, the barrel is part octagonal and part round, it has a pistol grip, and it is complete with its original swivel mounting. The NHA is fortunate to have this extremely rare artifact, which could conceivably have been used on a Nantucket vessel.

Lewis Temple's Toggle Iron

Since the beginning of its recorded history, the whale fishery of the Western World used some form of the "double flued" harpoon to fasten to its prey. This was an arrow-headed iron that made a large entry wound. As likely as not, this type of harpoon would "draw" or leave through the same opening it created on fastening, allowing the whale to get away. The problem vexed the whalemen sorely but they were a conservative lot and did not easily try new methods.

Sometime during the first quarter of the nineteenth century some American blacksmiths offered "single flued" harpoons, which were basically the old arrow-headed device with one of its two barbs removed. The theory of the new iron was that being asymmetrical in shape it would tend to twist when back pressure was brought to bear and the single barb might bite into some undisturbed flesh and hold. In some arenas this improved device was given a modest and reasonably successful try.

Before 1850 a dramatically different and exciting alternative was offered to the American whale fishery. It was based on an age-old principle used by Eskimo marine-mammal fishermen whereby a harpoon head made of bone or ivory was made to toggle around the loop in the whale line itself. It made a small entry wound and pressures brought to bear upon the harpoon line caused it to turn ninety degrees to the entry wound and almost assuredly hold. This, in fact, is the same principle employed in the modern swordfish harpoon. Tradition has it that the first man to devise a toggle-type whaling iron was an African-American blacksmith from New Bedford named Lewis Temple. No one knows exactly when or on what vessel this style of harpoon made its debut, but the year of its appearance is said to be 1848. What is certain, however, was that it was an almost instant success and that it replaced the old-fashioned fixed-head harpoons almost entirely. A look at the inventory for the New Bedford whaling bark Sunbeam illustrates the new harpoon's dominance but it does appear that whaling vessels continued to take along a small handful of double- and single-flued harpoons just for old time's sake. In 1878 Sunbeam carried four single-flued harpoons, seven double-flued irons, and a hundred and sixty-two toggle irons.

Lewis Temple's original toggle irons were mostly quite long, close to forty inches; the head was made of
a single cast-iron barb about eight inches long that rotated between two flattened cheeks that were applied to the end of the harpoon's shank. The head toggled around a sturdy pivot pin held within the cheeks. The toggle head was generally held in position for darting by a small wooden "shear pin,. which was placed in a hole drilled through both cheeks and head and which broke when tension was brought to bear upon the head."Temple's gig," as it was called, became the rage, and since it was never patented, it was duplicated by all harpoon makers.

Toggle irons made by Lewis Temple himself are extremely rare. Temple sustained debilitating and ultimately fatal injuries from a fall in 1853 and he died in 1854 at the age of fifty-four. He made toggle irons for only about five or six years, which would account for their extreme rarity. In the Sanderson Collection and on display in the whaling museum is an exceptional early example of Temple's toggle harpoon. It is forty inches long, has no drilling for a breakable wood pin, and was held in position for darting by a small rope grommet that was cut by the blade when under tension, thus allowing it to turn. This feature clearly marks the NHA iron as one of Temple's prototypes. No other Lewis Temple toggle iron is known that does not use a shear pin. It has the maker's initials "L.T". clearly stamped into the head. It is also chisel marked "S" MTCM. on the head, the letter "S" standing for ship and spelling out the name of the New Bedford whaler Metacom, minus the vowels. The ship Metacom sailed from New Bedford in 1848 on a whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps the voyage was the one that changed whaling techniques for all time, and perhaps the NHA's iron was one of those seminal harpoons. We shall probably never be able to document all the circumstances of its provenance, but the NHA has a very exciting piece of whaling history in this artifact.

Eben Pierce's Darting Gun

The darting gun is a gun mounted on the "business" end of an ordinary whaling harpoon wooden pole. The gun has one or two lugs for holding a specialized harpoon that has a spiked end rather than a socket. Within the barrel of the gun is a bomb lance, which is fired from the muzzle by means of a long trigger rod that activates the firing mechanism at the same time that the harpoon is darted. The darting gun harpoon has an iron loop just forward of the spike to which the main attachment line is spliced. Upon darting, the bomb lance is projected into the whale's body as the harpoon is fastened. The whale takes off on the "Nantucket sleigh ride," hopefully to be stopped in short order after the bomb lance explodes. The gun and pole fall into the water and are retrieved by a light line attached to the pole. This ingenious and, some may say, diabolical device was invented and patented in 1865 by an active New Bedford whaling master named Eben Pierce. Pierce, a resident of Hallowell, Maine, was master of the New Bedford whaling bark James Allen in 1865. Pierce patented five further improvements on his invention over the next nineteen years, and at least four other makers produced and patented versions of the darting gun, but Eben's was the first and is the best known. The Whaling Museum has a number of examples of Pierce's later guns and some of his competitors. But the prototypes are of primary interest for this discussion.

The advent of the darting gun produced better yields for whalemen, particularly in the Arctic where it was important to kill a harpooned whale quickly before it could disappear among the ice floes. (As a matter of fact, a later style of Pierce's gun is still being made in Pennsylvania for the Inuit of Alaska.) In an 1868 letter from San Francisco whaling agent Abraham W. Pierce (possibly a relative of Eben's) to the well-known New Bedford whaleship owners Swift and Allen, he writes about the experiences of their whaleship Fanny under the command of Capt. James Hunting. He writes: .Capt H . . . would have had more oil had not he had the worst sounding whales it was ever his fortune to get fast to. Capt H thinks had he had 4 of Ebens guns he would have had a 1000 bbls sure but the only one he got burst owing to bad metal.

In the Sanderson collection are two very early and unusual Pierce darting guns. One of these has a single harpoon-mounting lug near the muzzle and a guide sleeve for the trigger rod on the opposite side of the muzzle; unfortunately, the trigger rod is missing. The gun is unmarked, which is unusual for guns made by Eben, who generally signed his pieces and indicated the patent date. The gun may predate the patent, which would account for the anonymity. It is a muzzle-loader with a screw-off barrel and it is detonated by a large iron hammer activated by a leaf spring. The hammer strikes percussion caps on two individual nipples. The double nipple is reminiscent of the early English swivel guns that were used as a kind of insurance policy; should one cap fail to ignite there was a backup. A sliding sleeve of metal fits over the lock case and is rendered watertight at the rear by a "gaske" made of light line that lies within a cylindrical groove at the forward end of the gun's mounting socket.

The second gun is similar but has no harpoon lug, no forward trigger guide, and no signs that it ever had them. This situation so far has defied explanation. The barrel has a sighting nub near the muzzle, as on a shoulder gun an amusing anomaly since it is completely useless. This gun is marked on the breech housing "PATENT 1865" and on the opposite side "E.G. PIERC". This, too, is unusual, as on no other of his signed pieces is there a middle initial, nor does one appear in the patent documents. Like the first gun, this one has double nipples. Once again the Nantucket Whaling Museum is privileged to possess two landmark pieces of American whaling memorabilia.

The Hull Collection

On the east wall of Sanderson Hall there is a large assemblage of British whaling harpoons, which for many years has been labeled "Hull Collection". I have been unable to glean anything about the source of this collection, but Mr. Sanderson is said to have bought it in England where he procured what is probably the best collection of British Arctic harpoons on this side of the pond.

The city of Kingston-upon-Hull, situated near the mouth of the Humber River in northeastern England, was the center of Arctic whaling from England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Activities were primarily confined to the Davis Straits to the west of Greenland and the Greenland Sea to the east. Hull suffered extensively from the German blitz during World War II and many whaling artifacts were lost. Fortunately, Mr. Sanderson did his collecting of articles, primarily from Hull vessels, in the 1920s or earlier.

A British whaling harpoon generally tells a better story of its adventures than does an American iron. The British regularly marked their irons with the names of the makers, dates of manufacture (dates are virtually unknown on American harpoons), and usually the full names and ports of the whaling vessels. The NHA's Hull Collection consists of sixteen hand-thrust harpoons and seven harpoons for the "Greener" gun, one swivel gun, as well as miscellaneous lances and processing tools. Most are marked with the names of vessels whose history can be followed in several published accounts. These Arctic harpoons of the British whale fishery are all very large-headed and double-flued with small extra return barbs called .stop withers.. They are generally about six inches across the head. Their markings range from the ship Greenville Bay of Shields, England, dated 1816, to the Ocean Nymph in 1866. The last was a whaler built in 1862 in Quebec, Canada, and registered in London, England, to the Hudson's Bay Company.

Among the harpoons in the Hull Collection are five examples from the whaleship Truelove, without a doubt the most interesting vessel in the Hull fleet. She was built in Philadelphia in 1764, and was engaged as an American privateer during the Revolutionary War. She was captured by a British cruiser, brought to England as a prize of war, converted to a whaler, and entered into the Hull fishery in 1784. After a record seventy-two seasons in the Arctic whale fishery she was retired from whaling in 1868. Still a sound vessel, she became a cargo carrier, and in 1873 the Truelove sailed once again into Philadelphia with a cargo of minerals consigned to the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Co. She created quite a stir when it was discovered that this was the same ship built there 109 years earlier. The year following Truelove's last whaling voyage, 1869, marked the final one for Hull whaling, and coincidentally the year that whaling ceased in Nantucket.




Robert E. Hellman, a Nantucket-based antiques collector and dealer, has been working on cataloguing the NHA's collection of whaling Implements since January 1998. His research has been fascinating and illuminating, and the NHA staff feels privileged to have him as a volunteer.