Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 49, no. 1 (Winter 2000), p. 12-38
An Island in Time..
An Overview of the NHA's Collections with Accompanying Timeline
Nantucket's origins can be traced to the Archaic period more than 5,000 years ago when temperatures and sea levels rose, turning a ridge of hills into an island. Ocean currents shaped the land into a rough approximation of how the island looks today. Late Archaic Indians fished the surrounding waters with hooks and spears made from stones and pebbles found on the shore. They also fished in weirs placed in the island's inland estuaries. However, by the late Woodland period, between 400 and 1,000 years ago, the Native Americans were farming and hunting. They moved around the island seasonally, closer to the ocean in the summer and to low, protected areas in the winter. They were tall, healthy people — more than an inch taller and living three and a half to four years longer than their mainland counterparts.
As Europeans began to settle on the mainland, Nantucket became a place of refuge for regional Indians. The growing population also welcomed seasonal visitors — groups of Native Americans who traveled to the island to fish and, later, harvest the whales that regularly washed up on the island's shores. By the time the English arrived in 1659, "driftwhaling" was a well-established and competitive industry. There were close to 3,000 Native Americans living on Nantucket — a community of farmers, hunters, fishermen, and whalers.
1602 Bartholomew Gosnold sights and charts Nantucket Island.
1659 Island deeded to Tristram Coffin and eight others. Settlers led by Thomas Macy arrive on Nantucket
In 1659, Thomas Mayhew, a Puritan leader, purchased a portion of Nantucket directly from the Native American Indians who inhabited the island. Mayhew, in turn, sold the island to a group of nine English settlers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire who wanted to develop their own community outside the boundaries of Puritan control. Among the buyers were Thomas Macy, Mayhew s cousin, and Tristram Coffin, father of the Coffin family in America. This group of families became the "original proprietors" of Nantucket. Mayhew's compensation for the land — thirty pounds sterling and two beaver hats — is symbolically recorded in the seal of the Nantucket Historical Association, adopted in 1898. Thirty coins are depicted along with two hats. Also on the seal are a crossed arrow and harpoon, recognizing the island's history as both a hunting ground and a whaling center.
1661 First division of house lots to each of the original twenty proprietors.
1662 Recording of births and deaths begun, showing six deaths and seventy-four births in the first fifteen years. First wedding took place this year between Mary Coffin and Nathaniel Starbuck.
1665 Indian Deed
Prior to the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in 1659, it is estimated that as many as 3,000 Indians may have made Nantucket their home. As the European community expanded, the English purchased, or were given, various island territories. In 1665 Wanackmamack and Nickanoose, two sachems of the island, gave to Edward Starbuck "all that tract of land called by the Indians Cohuoightuet." Cohuoightuet or, as we know it, Coatue, is a barrier beach that borders Nantucket harbor to the north. The presence of the English would drastically change the lives of the Indians. Over the ensuing century, the Indian population would be weakened by disease, alcohol, and debt servitude — a form of slavery. A plague in 1763 killed 222 of the 358 remaining Indians on the island. Nantucket's "last Indian," Abram Quary, died in 1855.
1681 Death of Tristam Coffin
1686 James II of England restructures the colonies by creating the Federation of New England.
1686 Oldest House and Mary Gardner Coffin
This portrait, attributed to the Pollard Limner, depicts Mary Gardner Coffin (1670-1767). Mary Gardner was born on Nantucket and married Jethro Coffin, grandson of Tristram, in 1686. Their home, built later that year, is still standing on Nantucket. Now known as the Oldest House, it is owned and operated by the Nantucket Historical Association. The Coffin/Gardner marriage symbolized the end of an early conflict in Nantucket society involving their families that was known as the "half-share revolt." John Gardner and Tristram Coffin were key figures in Nantucket's early governance. Coffin represented the "full-share" men, or original founders of Nantucket, while Gardner was one of a group of tradesmen who came to work on the island but received only half-shares. Bitter debates between the full-share and half-share parties raged on Nantucket about land rights, who could hold public office, and the future directions for the island. A tentative compromise between the two factions was reached in 1678, but it was not until Coffin's death in 1681 and the eventual marriage of his grandson into the Gardner family that a full resolution of this conflict occurred.
1750-1850 The Whaling Industry at Home
Procuring the raw products of the whale on long ocean voyages — spermaceti, oil, and baleen — was only part of the island's primary industry. At home on the island, Nantucketers devoted their resources to outfitting ships and processing oil into candles. Both the raw products and by-products generated profits for captains and merchants, who then purchased many necessities and luxuries, such as food, cloth, furniture, and tools for their personal use and to stock island shops.
When John Cartwright (1752-1837), shown at left, died in 1837, his candlehouse and cooper's shop were valued at $2,000 and the newspaper eulogized him as "having passed through a long and active life without an imputation on his integrity, or a desire to be otherwise than useful to his fellow men." These traits suggest that Cartwright chose to live by Quaker tenets, although he was not formally a member of the Society of Friends. Having his silhouette cut instead of his portrait painted was considered "proper" by the Society, expressing a "plain and simple" aesthetic, without taking on worldly airs.
1787 Walter Folger Jr. clock
The Honorable Walter Folger Jr. was a self-taught mathematician, scientist, and astronomer, as well as a lawyer, inventor, and U.S. Congressman. Folger married Anna Ray in 1785 and the couple had ten children. In 1787, Folger finished construction of his "astronomical" tall-case clock and set it in motion. Pictured here, the clock tells not only the time of the day, but the motion and declination of the sun, the phases and motion of the moon, the day of the month, and the year.
1683-1738 Nathaniel Starbuck Jr. Account Book
Nathaniel Starbuck Jr. was a blacksmith. The account book, which spans the years 1683 to 1738, lists the work Starbuck performed for various Nantucketers, from shoeing horses to making locks, hinges, chains, and pitchforks. Starbuck's mother, Mary Coffin Starbuck, daughter of Tristram Coffin, also kept a ledger recording her accounts with the island's Native Americans, who purchased goods from her shop. The NHA library contains more than 475 account books that span three centuries and display the profits and expenditures of local businesses and households.
1692 Nantucket turned over to the Bay Colony of New York.
1700 By 1700, shore whaling, with crews of both English and Native Americans, was a thriving fishery.
1700-1900 Sheep Shearing
Due to Nantucket's sandy soil, the early settlers focused their agricultural efforts on raising livestock rather than crops. Raising sheep was particularly successful on the island and continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Margaretta S. Hinchman's (1876-1955) painting, illustrated here, depicts a popular annual island event — Shearing Days — when Nantucketers would gather for a work party, shearing thousands of island sheep and enjoying the company of friends and family.
Hinchman painted this scene for the second edition of her mother's book Early Settlers of Nantucket, published in 1901. The book traces the history of the island's first families. In 1956, this painting and two others used in the same book were bequeathed to the NHA by Hinchman, continuing a tradition started by Eastman Johnson and Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin of artists donating to the association works they painted on Nantucket.
1702 Quaker John Richardson visits the island and inspires Mary Coffin Starbuck. Already a business and civic leader, Starbuck endorsed Quakerism and helped cement it as the Island’s dominant religious and cultural foundation.
1708 Nantucket’s religious Society of Friends requests official recognition from the New England yearly meeting.
1712 First sperm whale taken offshore when an Island ship is blown out to sea in a gale.
1717 Fish Lot and Warehouse Lot divisions define new town centered around the great harbor to the east of the original settlement.
1723 Construction of Straight Wharf begun.
circa 1725 North Shore Meeting House, now known as Old North Vestry, was built at Capaum and was the Island’s first house of worship
1726 Shore whaling has its best year – 86 whales taken, 11 in a single day.
1746 The Old Mill built.
In 1723, Richard Macy, a grandson of the first permanent white settler, proved himself a visionary when he built Straight Wharf. Macy correctly anticipated a shift in waterfront activity to Nantucket's large inner harbor, and his wharf soon became central to island commerce. That same year Macy began to think about using the island's prevailing wind for grinding corn and grain, but there was a problem: he had never seen a windmill. Just as he was about to employ an off-island millwright, Macy claimed to have had a dream that showed him in detail how to build each part of the structure. Based on his dream, Macy successfully built the first windmill on one of the Popsquatchet hills, now known as Mill Hill. Of the four "smock" mills that were eventually erected in the Mill Hill area, only one still stands. The Old Mill was built in 1746 and functioned as a gristmill until 1892. In 1897 Miss Caroline French, of Boston, purchased it at auction for $850 and donated it to the Nantucket Historical Association. The NHA operates the still-functioning mill as a historic site in season.
1750-1760 Ships begin to be outfitted for long whaling voyages.
1750 Robert Wyer House built at 33 Orange Street, now an NHA property.
1751 First voyage in pursuit of sperm whales to the Carolinas and Bermuda, with Peleg Folger at the helm of the Grampus
1763 Epidemic, possibly Yellow fever, kills 222 of the remaining 358 Native Americans on the Island.
1770 Thomas Macy House built at 99 Main Street, now an NHA property.
The Fishing Lady of Boston Common
Stitched by Susan Colesworthy (1752-1811) in 1765, this needlework picture is part of a group of similarly designed pastoral embroideries called "The Fishing Lady Pictures." Pastoral canvaswork pictures were fashionable in England throughout the first quarter of the 1700s, becoming part of the curriculum at Boston boarding schools during the mid-eighteenth century. The Colesworthy family were neighbors of Paul Revere, and Susan's father, Gilbert, took part in the Boston Tea Party. Around 1773, Susan and some of her family moved to Nantucket where Susan, who never married, gave birth to her daughter Persis that year. A treasured family heirloom, the "Fishing Lady" needlework picture was passed down through generations until it was bequeathed to the NHA in 1937 by the association's first curator, Susan E. Brock (1852-1937).
Log of the Friendship
Kept by Reuben Hussey from April 12, 1770, to May 29, 1770, the log recounts a voyage of the ship Friendship from London to Quebec. Latitude, longitude, course, winds, and "remarks" are recorded for each day of the voyage. It was not only whalers that Nantucket sent to sea; merchant vessels, such as the Friendship, transported goods, including oil and candles, to various ports along the North American coast, to the West Indies, and to Europe. Trading vessels returned to the island with foodstuffs, rum, lumber, pitch and tar, and other commodities. In 1774 the Nantucket fleet comprised nearly 150 sail — both whalers and merchantmen.
1770-1790 New Guinea.
Land purchased on and around York and Pleasant Streets that would become known as “New Guinea” – a community of African Americans, Native Americans, and Cape Verdean Portuguese.
1772 Rotch & Sons, owners of two vessels involved in Boston Tea Party, built headquarters now known as Pacific Club Building.
1773 Long believers in abolition, the Quaker community ends slavery on-Island.
1775-1783 Nantucket and the American Revolution
During the eighteenth century, the whaling industry became Nantucket's primary economic resource. When the American colonies declared war on Britain in 1775, few Nantucketers supported the effort. Between the Quaker tenet of pacifism and the island's reliance on the British whale-oil market, there seemed little reason to upset the status quo. However, not all Nantucketers remained neutral, and as the war raged on pressure mounted from both sides for island residents to take a position. Kezia Coffin's (1723-98) reaction became symbolic of Nantucket's pro-British tilt for many mainland rebels. Coffin made herself a profitable business smuggling supplies to Nantucket during the Revolution, causing controversy on both sides of Nantucket Sound. Coffin's daughter, Kezia (Coffin) Fanning (1759-1820) is depicted in a late-nineteenth-century portrait, given to the NHA in 1952. Fanning kept a journal from 1775 through 1820, which serves as one of the best primary sources for information on Nantucket's late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century history. The painter of this portrait is unidentified, perhaps inspired by Fanning's journal entries, for it is unclear whether the painting is based on a life likeness, or merely conjecture.
1785-1800 Dunkirk, France
Between 1768 and 1772, whale oil accounted for fifty-three percent of all sterling earned by direct exports to Great Britain from the New England colonies, and most of that whale oil was gathered by Nantucket-based ships. Nantucketers maintained strong ties to the mother country during the colonial period, relying on the English market for whale oil to support their existence on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many British ships employed Nantucket captains and seamen. However, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 were devastating to Nantucket's whaling industry. Both wars cut off trade between Nantucket and Britain, creating serious economic hardships for islanders.
While Kezia Coffin supported British interests during the Revolution, William Rotch (1734-1828), a prominent Quaker and one of Nantucket's most powerful whale-oil merchants, shown at right, wanted no part of the war. At the beginning of the conflict, it was Rotch's ships, including the Beaver, that were attacked in Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party. Rotch's beliefs in pacifism and unrestricted international trade influenced his neutrality stance. After the American Revolution, and the resulting closure of the British whale-oil market, islanders needed to find a new outlet for their primary export. Rotch reached an agreement with the French to organize a whaling port in Dunkirk. Approximately twelve island families moved to France and created a duty-free market for whale oil through Nantucket, eventually allowing the island to regain leadership in the whaling industry. Other settlements established by migrating Nantucketers in search of a more favorable economic climate in the wake of the Revolution included Dartmouth, in Nova Scotia, and Milford Haven, Wales.
1784 Cook’s Voyages
Captain James Cook, the well-known English explorer and navigator, commanded three voyages to the Pacific in the 1760s and 1770s. (Cook was killed by natives in the Hawaiian Islands on the return voyage in 1779.) Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, published in London in 1784 and comprising four volumes, recounts the discoveries of Cook's third voyage. As Nantucket whalemen began rounding Cape Horn in the 1790s, the Pacific became a prime whaling ground. Whalers began penetrating the same territories explored by Cook, gathering provisions and water at the islands that dotted the Central Pacific Ocean, including the Friendly Islands, or Tonga. The volume displaying this plate, which was created by John Webber, the official artist of the voyage, is part of the NHA library's collection of rare books. The collection includes seventeenth- and eighteenth-century atlases, nineteenth-century accounts of Pacific and Arctic exploration, Bibles, Quaker texts, a substantial group of Melville first editions, and, of course, unusual books about whaling and Nantucket events and people.
1786 Four wharves, several warehouse, a sail loft, candle factory, a rope walk, and 150 dwellings, built in a style that has come to be known as “typical Nantucket house” style.
1786 Voyage of the United States marked Nantucket’s initiation into the China trade.
1789 French Revolution.
1792 Stephen Hussey Certificate
Nantucket's Customs House was established in 1791. In 1792, Stephen Hussey was appointed the first "Inspector of the Revenue for the Ports of Nantucket and Sherburne." The document is signed by both George Washington, president of the United States, and Thomas Jefferson. That Nantucket had its own Customs House is indicative of the significance of the port as a commercial center in the new republic. With declining trade, Nantucket's Customs House closed in 1913. It was housed in what is now called the Pacific Club Building.
1800-25 Quaker Aesthetics
The Religious Society of Friends, the dominant island religion during the eighteenth century, was based on the tenet that the. spirit of God exists in everyone and that individuals could worship God directly, without an intermediary. Those beliefs engendered an independent spirit and a simple aesthetic that continued to shape island culture, even as the society's influence began to wane. Quaker leaders urged Friends to "keep out of the vain fashions of the world [and] keep all in modesty and plainness."
The silk dress, desk, and silver pieces pictured here show good quality, but with simple lines and restrained decoration. As Nantucketers began to travel farther and farther around the world, achieving success from the whale fishery, many used their wealth to pursue a more comfortable lifestyle. The portraits of Obed (1762-1844) and Abigail (1764-1842) Macy reproduced here, suggest the conflict that financial success posed for island Quakers. Although the Macys are shown wearing traditional Quaker-style costume, Religious Society of Friends teachings proscribed having one's portrait painted at all. As the whaling industry brought wealth to Nantucket, islanders began to adopt their own sense of style, incorporating new colors and motifs into their traditional "plain and simple" Quaker lifestyle.
1800 James Chase Liverpool Pitcher
Brought to Nantucket by Captain James Chase (1738-1819), this colorful Liverpool pitcher depicts a whaling scene on one side. A veteran of the American navy, Chase later served as captain of the Nancy and as captain of the Harmony during a 1791-92 cruise to the west coast of Africa. Monogrammed, under the spout, for Chase and his wife Mary, the pitcher was passed down in the family for many generations, until it was presented to the NHA in 1998. Often pitchers like this one were gifts for family members and friends, but sometimes they were cherished by the purchaser, reminding him of past voyages. Used in the domestic setting, these items conveyed an understanding of the world beyond Nantucket.
Samplers and Family Records
Little is known of the everyday lives of Nantucket women in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But the samplers, quilts, and drawings they produced reveal some of the priorities of their domestic lives. Every eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American woman learned to sew, no matter where or how well she lived. On Nantucket, as elsewhere, girls were taught to sew by making a sampler. Stitching a sampler helped girls learn the stitches required to mark clothes and linens and reinforced their knowledge of letters and numbers.
Samplers were not merely practical teaching tools. Stitching letters, verses, and motifs and choosing colors of silk thread allowed girls an opportunity to explore their creative impulses. Private needlework schools existed on Nantucket throughout the nineteenth century, often offering classes in the visual arts, literature and the sciences, along with needlework. The similarities in layout, color, verse, and design elements, along with the date of 1800, which appears on the two samplers pictured here and on three others in the NHA's collection, suggest that they were all made during the same term at the same island school. The fruit baskets and floral motifs are elements of the Quaker style, while the sawtooth border, outer wavy floral vine border, and the "Nantucket tree" seen on Mary Brown's sampler are unique island elements.
Family records painted in watercolor were also common school exercises during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Spurred by the Revolutionary War, newly declared Americans pursued an interest in the country's history and in their own genealogy. The record shows birth dates and marriage ties, with death dates added in ink long after the watercolor was completed. The piece may have been drawn by Rebecca Folger to trace her marriage and family.
1800 The China Trade
In the wake of the Revolutionary War, Nantucket's whaling economy suffered a serious decline. With no other product to trade, islanders were forced to continue setting sail. Vulnerable to attack by both the British and the Americans, the island-based fleet was decimated by the end of the war. However, with independence came the ability to trade directly with foreign countries. In 1800, Captain Uriah Swain (1754-1810) took the ship Mars to China, initiating a direct economic relationship between Nantucket and the Far East. Trading in sealskins allowed the ship to load a cargo of tea and other Chinese goods and souvenirs. In 1803, the ship Rose, under the command of James Cary (1777-1812), became the first Nantucket-built vessel devoted to the China Trade. The NHA's collection includes several artifacts and manuscripts associated with Gary and his trading activities. The Foo dog candlesticks shown here were a gift for his wife, Betsey (1778-1862), and are marked with the couple's initials, "JBC." An account book, purchased by the NHA in 1995, covers the period from 1802 to 1816 and shows entries by both James and Betsey. James's entries from 1802 to 1812 track his mercantile business. Unfortunately, during a voyage in 1812, he died suddenly and was buried on the island of Whampoa, downriver from Canton. The account book entries from 1812 to 1816 were made by Betsey as she continued to sell calico, shoes, ribbons, and spices to other Nantucketers in order to support herself.
1803 First Nantucket ship built expressly for the China Trade, the Rose, crosses the bar.
1803 Peleg Folger Piecebook
This booklet was created by Peleg Folger around 1803, "on his entering 24 year[s] of age." Original verse is accompanied by delicate and colorful ink and watercolor illustrations of birds and flowers. One poem, entitled "On the Married State," appears to have been composed prior to 1803, as Folger married Ann Macy in 1801, at the age of twenty-two. "Grant me kind heaven a fond endearing mate, / Then would my pleasure be complete indeed," Folger entreats. The poem concludes:
Oh may it be my happy lot to find
A wife thus charming, faithful, and as kind
To Sympathize in trouble or in grief,
In whose Sweet converse I can find relief
With every tie that binds the Soul to prove,
Her duty friendship, and her friendship love
It can only be hoped that Folger's union with Ann Macy fulfilled his youthful expectations. Ann Macy bore five children before dying in 1821. Within six months, Folger had married her third cousin once removed, Nancy Coffin.
1803 Ship Brook Watson
The Brook Watson was built as a whaler and set sail from England in 1802 with Captain Benjamin Swift as master. After war broke out between Britain and France, the ship was reregistered in 1804 as an armed merchant vessel under the command of Nantucketer Obadiah Worth. The ship was the namesake of a man best known from another painting. At the age of fourteen, while he was swimming in the harbor at Havana, Watson's leg was bitten off by a shark, an incident captured on canvas by John Singleton Copley in his well-known work Brook Watson and the Shark. Despite his early misfortune, Watson assisted in the development of Lloyd’s of London, was a director of the Bank of England, and was made a baronet in 1803, when this ship portrait was painted by St. Jean.
1805 House at 8 Mill Street built for Island Sheriff. Now NHA property, 1800 House.
1805 The Old Gaol and the 1800 House
In October of 1805 the town chose to build a new jail at a cost of $2,090, comparable to that of a new whaleship. Known at the time as the "New Gaol," it was unusually well fortified. Today, it is called the "Old Gaol" and has been owned by the Nantucket Historical Association since 1946. The wooden structure, at the end of a short path off Vestal Street, represents colonial architecture but was built with massive oak timbers and iron bolts running the length of the walls, iron rods across the windows, and heavy wooden doors, also reinforced with iron.
Seeing the detrimental effects of hosting sailors from all over the world as Nantucket evolved into a bustling, international maritime center in the late seventeenth century, the townspeople built their first jail in 1696. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Vestal Street was dubbed "Prison Lane," and the new jail was built. The solid design proved successful, forcing prisoners to plan creative escapes. One crafty prisoner held a burning mattress out the window and ran away when the jail keeper unlocked his cell to investigate. Another, jailed in 1888 for breaking and entering, escaped using a key supplied by a woman who had rigged a block-and-tackle line to his window. That prisoner was eventually caught in New York City and returned to jail. One enterprising fifteen-year-old boy managed escape by knocking out bricks in the chimney and crawling up the flue. He, too, was caught and the chimney was rebuilt with a smaller flue. The jail's last inmate, in 1933, slashed the keeper's face with a piece of masonry from the fireplace and escaped. Believed to have been smuggled off the island since a massive manhunt was unsuccessful, he was apprehended five years later when he inquired (using an alias) about the belongings of the escaped prisoner. The jail was closed soon after.
The 1800 House, on Mill Street not far from the jail, was also built in 1805 and housed the island's high sheriff, who also served as jail keeper. The large, sturdy building is characteristic of the Quaker aesthetic and soon became a social center for the island. Frederick Melhado, then owner of Moors End, gave the building to the Nantucket Historical Association in 1951.
African American Community Absalom F. Boston (1785-1855)
When the schooner Industry set out from Nantucket in 1822 its captain and crew sailed into history. At the helm was Absalom F. Boston, a Nantucket native and the first known African-American to command an all-black crew aboard a whaling ship. Boston returned to Nantucket after the voyage to become a prominent member of Nantucket s African-American community. Becoming a prosperous innkeeper and property owner on the island, Boston was eventually involved with another historic event. In 1845 Absalom Boston and his daughter led a successful court case to desegregate the Nantucket school system. Although slavery was not abolished on Nantucket Island until 1773, an earlier court case involving Boston's uncle did much to officially end Nantucket slaveholding. At that time, in large part because of its strong Quaker community, Nantucket remained firm in its abolitionist position.
1809 Second Congregational Meeting House (Town Clock) built on Orange Street.
1818 Steamer Eagle first steamboat to come to Nantucket from the Mainland.
Scrimshaw is the art of engraving images on whale teeth and bone. This form of folk art was practiced by men aboard whaleships during the nineteenth century. During the long voyages, whalers would often turn to scrimshanding as a way to pass time and as an outlet for their creative energies. From the scrimshaw process the men would produce decorative objects, utilitarian devices, and jewelry. It is one of the earliest recognized American crafts and remains one of the most highly desired forms of folk art for collectors of Americana. Frederick Myrick (1818-?) Frederick Myrick was born on Nantucket in 1808. His high degree of skill and artistry is evident in both this example of his penmanship and his well-documented Susan's Teeth. At the age of 18, Myrick signed on for his second, and what is believed to be his last, whaling voyage. He sailed aboard the ship Susan from 1826 to 1829. It was during that trip to the Pacific that Myrick created his highly decorative examples of scrimshaw. Myrick documented his work with both the date and his signature. After his return to Nantucket, Myrick married Mary P. Folger. The couple had six children and eventually left whaling and Nantucket behind for western New York State.
Perhaps the best documented and most sought after examples of scrimshaw are the relatively few pieces produced aboard a specific whaleship in the 1820s. What is now referred to as the Susan’s Teeth is a series of carvings on sperm whale teeth completed aboard the whaleship Susan between 1827 and 1830. The group constitutes the earliest known dated teeth in a series produced by Frederick Myrick. At least fourteen and perhaps as many as twenty documented examples are known to exist and are now in the collections of numerous museums. The Susan’s Teeth are considered by many to be the finest series of signed scrimshaw folk art.
1820-45 Golden Age of Whaling
Built in 1844 by William Hadwen, a prosperous whale-oil merchant and candle maker, this magnificent home was erected during the height of the Nantucket whaling industry. It remains almost intact as a reminder of those days. Situated at 96 Main Street, the Hadwen House is one of the most elaborate examples of Greek Revival architecture in Nantucket. Its tetrastyle ionic portico is original to the house and is believed to have been built under the direction of Frederick Brown Coleman, an architect who worked on several important buildings in Nantucket, including the Atheneum, the Methodist Church, and the Unitarian Church. The Hadwen House has been operated by the Nantucket Historical Association since 1964 and the period gardens are maintained by the Nantucket Garden Club. It is open to the public for tours in season.
1820 The Essex, captained by George Pollard, is sunk by an enraged sperm whale.
1820-1850 Whaling Implements
The NHA's extensive collection of whaling tools and implements suggests the grueling work and effort required to harvest oil from the largest mammals on earth. Harpoons, like the one shown here, did not kill the whale, but attached rope "line" into the whale's blubber. The whale would fight the harpoon until it tired, sometimes twisting the iron into knots. Once the whale tired of fighting the harpoon, the seamen could kill it with lances. Cutting-in spades, blubber gaffs, boarding and mincing knives were used to remove the blubber, which was boiled in large caldrons on board to render the oil. Most of those implements are illustrated in this drawing, found in a log kept by Eldred E. Fysh, surgeon for the bark Coronet during an 1837-39 voyage to the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. The American dominance of the whaling industry is exemplified by this drawing, which although produced on a British vessel, refers to the tools and implements by American names, such as a "dollar-headed lance."
Nantucket blacksmiths made thousands of these tools to supply the whale-ships departing from the island. The double-flued harpoon illustrated here is marked "G.S." and has been attributed to George Swain, an island blacksmith. One of the most important innovations in whaling gear, the toggle harpoon, was developed by an African-American blacksmith, Lewis Temple, in 1848. Temple worked in New Bedford, which became an important whaling port after Nantucket's decline in the late 1840s. Toggle harpoons became popular because of their superior efficiency in securely fastening to the whale. While Temple's invention was extremely successful, he reaped little material gain from his harpoon. Temple never patented his modifications and they were duplicated by all of his contemporaries. In 1853, Temple sustained debilitating injuries from a fall, ultimately dying from the wounds in 1854 at the age of fifty-four.
1821 Nantucket’s first newspaper, the Inquirer, begins publishing.
1822 An all-black crew, with Absalom Boston as captain, departs Nantucket on the whaleship Industry.
1823 Methodist Church built on Centre Street.
1825 Washington National Journal reports that Nantucket has 60 whaling vessels, 40 in the Pacific, employing 2,000 people.
1825 The African School was erected at five corners.
1827 Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin’s Lancasterian School for descendants of Tristam Coffin opens on Fair Street.
1827 First public school opens.
1828 First attempt to dredge the channel to facilitate whaleships getting to the wharves.
1828 Nantucket Lightships and Lightship baskets
Recognizing that shoals were serious hazards to shipping on American waterways, Congress authorized the building of lightships in 1819. By 1820 the first "floating light" was placed at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. Nantucketers saw their first lightship in Nantucket Sound in 1828. By 1854 Nantucket had two lightship stations — one in Nantucket Sound at the Cross Rip Shoal and the other floating as far offshore as fifty miles on the South Shoal. The Nantucket South Shoal lightship is perhaps the most famous of all lightships. Painted bright red with "Nantucket" emblazoned on its side, the lightship marked one of the most dangerous shoals on the Atlantic seaboard, standing as sentry for vessels approaching New York along the North Atlantic sea-lanes. Floating, isolated for months at a time, the lightship frequently was manned by retired whalers— men who understood the sea and were used to long desolate stretches of time alone.
To pass time aboard the Nantucket South Shoal lightship, the men made baskets. During the summer months, they prepared wood and rattan for the manufacture of baskets through the winter. Weaving the rattan around a mold, kept onboard, the men made durable round or oval baskets. Sometimes five or eight baskets were designed to fit together into a nest. On their return to Nantucket, the men sold their baskets to eager customers who recognized their practical, useful nature. The one pictured below dates from c. 1865, and is one of the earliest lidded examples. The term "lightship basket" became a general name with the advent of summer visitors to Nantucket. The baskets, first used as utility items in Nantucket households, found a market with the tourists by the 1870s and 1880s. Today the baskets continue to be a popular island souvenir — a charming and beautiful reminder of the men who patrolled the dangerous waterways around Nantucket.
circa 1829 Lucy Macy Map
Lucy Macy (1812-75) drew this map of Nantucket while a student at the Coffin School when she was sixteen or seventeen years old. The NHA library possesses several other hand-drawn maps of Nantucket and the neighboring island of Tuckernuck — clearly the product of a class exercise — that date from the same period. This map reveals the island's most notable features, at least in the eyes of a young girl, circa 1829.
1833 Abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
1833 Old Town Building erected, the oldest municipal building on the Island. Now NHA property.
1835 Obed Macy’s classic History of Nantucket published. It had been ghostwritten by William Coffin, Jr.
1838 Quaker Meeting House built at 9 Fair Street. Now NHA property.
1840 Eliza Ann McCleave (1811-94)
In about 1840, Eliza Ann McCleave created a museum in her home at 109 Main Street, consisting of ethnographic specimens and souvenirs that her husband, whaling captain Robert McCleave (1809-78), and other seafaring friends brought home as gifts. These napkin rings, part of a set of twelve, were carved by a crewman on the ship Oliver Cracker during an 1854-1858 voyage under the command of Captain McCleave. When the vessel returned home, the sailor presented the set to Mrs. McCleave who exhibited them in her museum, as seen on the table in the photograph. Mrs. McCleave gave lectures to her visitors, sometimes in verse, providing an introduction to the foreign cultures represented. Although her museum may initially have been a way to occupy her leisure hours, she was eventually reported to use "the considerable funds of money received by her ... for the relief of those dependent upon her," including her son, while her husband was away on whaling voyages.
1841 Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass speaks at the Nantucket Atheneum.
1842 Peter Folger Ewer designs floating drydock, called the “camels,” for transporting ships anchored in the harbor to the docks. As ships grew larger, Nantucket’s shallow channel made the camels imperative for preserving whaling on Nantucket.
1842-1844 Log of the Washington
The Washington was out of New Bedford, but its captain, James G. Coffin, was of Nantucket. It was he who kept the log, from September of 1842 to October of 1844. The logbook contains unusually vivid illustrations of whaling activities, from hunting the whale with harpoon and lance to trying out, or boiling, whale blubber in large pots on the deck of the vessel, as is shown here in the background. For each whale taken the captain drew, or stamped, a small whale in the logbook next to the day's entry, a symbol that would serve as a visual aid when the logbook was scanned by the captain or the vessel's owners.
A logbook is an official account of a ship's voyage kept by either the captain or the first mate. Accounts of voyages kept by other crew members are referred to as journals. The library possesses 365 logbooks and journals, spanning 200 years, of merchant, whaling, and even recreational voyages.
1845 William Hadwen builds house at 96 Main Street. Now NHA property.
1846 Phebe Boston and Eunice Ross break the color line at Nantucket High School.
1846 The Great Fire
A fire that began at Geary's Store on Main Street on July 13, 1846, hastened the eventual fate of Nantucket's prosperous whaling industry. The blaze quickly spread out of control along Main Street's business section while two volunteer fire companies quarreled over how to fight it. The brick Pacific Bank on Main Street survived, although the Mitchell family's rooftop observatory went up in flames. At that point firelighters considered blowing up the Methodist Church next door. One account, perhaps apocryphal, has a defiant Maria Mitchell, astronomer and daughter of the Pacific Bank cashier William Mitchell, standing on the church porch refusing to allow the church's destruction. At the last minute the wind changed direction and the church was spared.
When the fire had finally burned itself out on July 14, over a million dollars in property was destroyed, one third of the island's buildings were gone, and 800 islanders were homeless. All along the waterfront the fire, violently fueled by burning whale oil and tar, leveled wharves, counting houses, ropewalks, sail lofts, warehouses, and cooper shops. Few buildings remained standing between Main and Broad Streets. Among those lost were the Nantucket Atheneum and all its collections, the newly built Trinity Church, and two of Nantucket's three newspaper offices.
In the days following the fire, assistance came from all over New England in the form of money and staples. The residents of Boston alone contributed fifteen thousand dollars. When the townspeople rebuilt, they kept preventive measures in mind. Streets were widened and buildings were spaced farther apart. Large brick buildings were built in strategic locations to serve as potential fire breaks. The town also built hose-cart houses around town that stored hand-pumped fire carts. The last remaining hose-cart house, built in 1886, stands on Gardner Street and now belongs to the Nantucket Historical Association. But the island's vibrant whaling industry never recovered and the subsequent loss in population due to the California gold rush and the Civil War led to the island's further decline.
Captured in this daguerreotype, at right, is a view of the north side of Nantucket's Main Street looking toward the intersection with Centre Street. The image is extremely rare for two reasons: first, it is probably the only extant photographic record of Nantucket prior to the Great Fire. The fire destroyed more than one-third of the town, including the original Atheneum, which was rebuilt only a year later at its present site. Second, due to the inherent technical difficulties of producing daguerreotypes out of doors, landscapes are scarce in relation to the bulk of photographs made in the 1840s. The daguerreotype was mainly a product of the photographer's portrait studio.
Although the frame buildings on the right side of the image were destroyed by the fire, in the black and white reproduction at top, one can see part of the Pacific National Bank at the top left and the columns of the United Methodist Church in the background, both of which survived. Another interesting detail is that the word "warehouse" is barely detectable on the far right, indicating that the photographer had an adjusting mirror on the camera. Without such intervention, the letters would appear backward, as daguerreotypes are in-camera positives and therefore laterally reversed.
1846 Thomas Macy Warehouse erected on Straight Wharf after the Great Fire. Now NHA property.
1847 Maria Mitchell makes a name for herself, and all women in science, by discovering a comet. Born on Nantucket in 1818, Maria Mitchell learned about the stars from her father, William Mitchell, an avid amateur astronomer as well as cashier at the Pacific Bank and a long-time educator. By the time she was eleven years old, Maria was assisting her father in his observations of the sky. As a young woman, she was passionate about astronomy, foregoing the island's vibrant social scene and dominant Quaker religion to pursue her interest. In 1847, at the age of thirty, she discovered a comet using a telescope her father had installed on the roof of the Pacific Bank. As a result, the King of Denmark presented her with a gold medal and she was the first, and only, woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences until 1943. When Vassar College opened in 1865, Maria Mitchell became the first female professor of astronomy in the United States. She taught at Vassar for twenty-three years, where she distinguished herself as a scientist and an advocate of women's rights.
1848-53 Journal of the Ship Nauticon
From September of 1848 to March of 1853, Susan Austin Veeder (1816-c. 1890) accompanied her husband, Charles A. Veeder (1809-?), on a whaling voyage. Journals kept by women are fairly rare; not many whaling wives went to sea with their husbands. Numerous colorful watercolors reveal Mrs. Veeder's impressions of foreign ports, seas, and islands. Mrs. Veeder also observed shipboard life, from the painting and provisioning of the vessel to the activities of whaling and gamming, as socializing with another vessel was called. In January of 1849, Mrs. Veeder delivered a daughter at the port of Talcahuano in Chile. Eleven months later, Mary Frances was dead: "She was a fine child to good to live, and at 11 Oclock AM she breathed her last." The Veeders had three other daughters at home on Nantucket and three sons, at least one of whom was on this voyage. The length of the voyage, nearly five years, indicates the scarcity of whales and the difficulty in catching them in over-fished whaling grounds. By the 1850s, Nantucket's whaling industry was in decline.
1849 The first Nantucket ship to sail for the goldfields of California was the Aurora, in January 1849.
1850-1870 The China Trade
The clipper ship Houqua, named for a successful Cantonese merchant, was built in New York City in 1844 by the famous shipping company A. A. Low Brothers. By 1854, when Nantucketer Henry Coleman took over command of the ship, the Houqua already had the enviable reputation of carrying tea and goods from China to America in record time. Coleman continued as captain until 1856. In 1855 Coleman brought his wife a lacquered sewing table from one of his trips aboard the Houqua. The eighteen internal compartments hold an array of needlework and sewing tools, including thread winders, tatting shuttles, needles, clamps, spools, and pin cushions. The table became a family heirloom and was passed down from mother to daughter for many generations. After Coleman's retirement, William Cartwright took over as captain of the Houqua and sailed it between San Francisco and Japan. 1864 Captain Cartwright sailed from Yokohama, Japan, for New York City, but the ship disappeared en route, leaving no evidence of its sinking.
1849 California Gold Rush
News of the gold rush reached Nantucketers on December 9, 1848, when the Weekly Mirror ran a story on President James Folk's State of the Union address in which he announced reports of the precious ore's discovery in California. On December 11 the Inquirer ran a similar report and a companion piece by California's Governor Mason, written from Monterey, in which he claims that "California is a perfect El Dorado, portions of which are reported to be almost paved with gold." With the whaling industry dwindling, the men of Nantucket latched on to the idea of going to California with gusto. Whaleships hastily converted into passenger vessels. In all, more than forty-two whale-ships were withdrawn from the industry for the specific purpose of travel to California. In addition, many men deserted their whaling vessels midway through-the voyage to seek gold. The impact on the industry was catastrophic.
For Nantucketers, though, it opened up a new world of opportunities and exploration. Traveling to California, the men carried the hopes and dreams of their community. Gold, mementos, and souvenirs returned to the island with every ship carrying mail. Tales of opportunities in San Francisco sparked the imagination of the islanders, ultimately carrying families westward to settle. Although many men returned to Nantucket no richer than when they left, California had left an impression, a vision of their growing country. The NHA has a varied collection of letters, journals, and souvenirs from the California gold rush, including this map of the harbor of San Francisco. Found in a journal kept by James M. Bunker while on board the Aurora, the map details the harbor's water depth, latitude, and longitude. The Aurora was the first whaleship to leave Nantucket for California, on January 9, 1849.
1850-1900 The Quaker Era Ends
Quakerism is a religious movement that had its roots in mid-seventeenth-century England. The earliest gatherings consisted of a group of "Friends" who believed that God's spirit, or the "Inner Light" was within each human. Therefore, the worship of God did not require an intermediary, such as a minister or priest. Because of their radical beliefs, the Quakers faced persecution in both England and Puritan New England. A number of Quakers found a haven on Nantucket where their religious views, in the eyes of others, were not a primary source of concern. The Religious Society of Friends grew rapidly in numbers during the eighteenth century. The Nantucket Quakers became the first religious group to formally organize on the island. Several meeting houses were built and repeatedly enlarged on the island. The Quakers were very active politically and many found prosperity in the island's whaling economy.
Throughout much of the eighteenth century, the Quakers formed a majority of the island population and their traditions, customs, and architecture became the dominant form of expression in Nantucket culture. Both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 dealt a serious blow to the Quaker establishment, however. Their doctrine of pacifism alienated several members of the Friends during a time of great conflict and change. By the mid-nineteenth century, with the prosperity of the whaling industry rapidly vanishing and continued social change, the Nantucket group of Friends had splintered into several factions. Their numbers on the island began dropping precipitously. By 1894, the meeting had declined to such an extent that the members decided to sell their remaining meeting house to the fledgling Nantucket Historical Association — for $1000. The Friends Meeting House on Fair Street provided the first home for the Nantucket Historical Association and is still used as an active place of worship.
1850 Sankaty Head Lighthouse erected.
1851 Moby-Dick published.
1851 Elm trees planted on Main Street.
1853-56 Archer Dressing Case
Nantucket's reign as the world's premiere whaling port is well documented; however, after the Great Fire of 1846, the island never fully recovered. Whaling voyages continued to be launched from island shores until 1869, but the "greasy luck" of the 1820s and 1830s was never recaptured. This elaborate dressing case was made by Captain James Archer (1810-69) for his wife, Mary C. (Ray) Archer, while on board the bark Afton during an Atlantic Ocean voyage between 1853 and 1856. The Afton returned in 1856 with only 336 barrels of sperm oil and sixty-seven barrels of whale oil, suggesting the reason why Archer had so much free time to make this gift. Although the voyage was not particularly prosperous, the dressing case became a valued family heirloom. Given to the NHA in 1906 by Archer's children, in memory of their mother, it also represents the importance that history played in the lives of Nantucketers during the early twentieth century.
1856 Nantucket Agricultural Society
Established in 1856, the Nantucket Agricultural Society was formed "to encourage Agricultural and Mechanic Arts in the county of Nantucket." A response to the effect that the declining whale fishery had on the island, this group of committed Nantucketers hoped to encourage their peers to pursue other vocations and revitalize the economy. Toward that end, the society initiated an annual Agricultural Fair in 1856. Held at the Atheneum, prizes were awarded in a number of categories including livestock, vegetables, needlework, and arts and crafts. During its first year, the society raised funds through membership dues and by making the "friendship quilt" pictured here, which was given to the NHA in 1970. Although many autograph quilts were made as a group gift for a mutual friend, sometimes they were made to raise funds for a favorite charity. Individual blocks were "sold" for a small fee. Each person who paid could sign a block and have a chance to win the quilt when it was raffled. The Agricultural Society quilt contains over 250 signatures and reads as a "who's who" of the island community during the mid-nineteenth century.
1859 Cheaper fuels derived from petroleum will quickly eradicate the need for whale oil.
1859 Abram Quary, Nantucket’s last Native American, dies.
1859 Coffin School reopens on Winter Street in brick Greek Revival building.
1860-1865 Some 400 Nantucket men go to war to fight for the Union cause.
1861-1865 Civil War
After war was declared in 1861, Nantucket established a militia known as the Island Guard, associated with the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Over the course of the conflict, 373 Nantucket men served, even though the island's quota was only 100 men. Leander F. Alley (1833-62) was the first to sign the roll of volunteers in 1861 and attained the rank of second lieutenant in September 1862. At that time, the men of Company I, as a mark of respect, contributed money to purchase this presentation sword for Alley, which was given to the NHA in 1948. At the battle of Fredericksburg, in December 1862, Lieutenant Alley was killed. His body was retrieved under fire and transported back to Nantucket for burial, where he received the island's first military funeral, including a procession, the flying of flags at half-mast, and the closure of island schools and businesses, so that all could attend the services. Alley is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery and his name appears on the Civil War Monument, on upper Main Street.
1865 The Nantucket Inquirer and the Mirror merge to form the Inquirer and Mirror.
1870 “Not a ship, bark, brig or vessel of any kind” from Nantucket’s glory days to be found in the harbor.
circa 1870 Island Renaissance
After the mid-nineteenth-century decline of the whaling industry on Nantucket, many residents abandoned the island, leaving it in a deep economic depression. But beginning in the early 1870s, Americans, particularly city-dwellers, "rediscovered" Nantucket as a beautiful and healthy summer resort. The island became especially popular with writers and artists as it provided a relaxing climate in which to work and endless sources of subject matter. Scenes of island life were often captured in charming genre paintings that reflected a growing sense of nostalgia in an increasingly industrialized nation. Foremost among those artists who flocked to Nantucket s shores was Eastman Johnson (1824-1906). One of America's best known and most accomplished artists of the nineteenth century, Eastman Johnson began summering on Nantucket in 1870. He spent the following twenty summers on Nantucket, drawing his inspiration from everyday life on the island and the people who inhabited it. In addition to painting portraits of several sea captains and whaling merchants, he recorded seasonal events like corn husking and cranberry picking, such as this study for his well-known The Cranberry Pickers, Island of Nantucket, 1878-79. In his studio on the north shore of Nantucket, Johnson completed several of his masterpieces. They are paintings that remain among the most loved and recognized examples of nineteenth-century American art.
1881 Nantucket railroad inaugurated.
1886 Fire Hose Cart House built at 8 Gardner Street. Now NHA Property.
1894 Nantucket Historical Association established; purchases Quaker Meeting House.
1894-1928 NHA’s first curator, Susan E. Brock (1852-1937)
A native Nantucketer, Susan E. Brock traveled on her father's whale-ships as a child. The daughter of Captain George H. Brock and Charlotte Coleman Brock, she was educated at island schools. As an adult, Brock was the organist at the Unitarian Church and gave music lessons. She also served as the NHA’s first curator, from 1894 to 1928. Her appreciation and understanding of island history are evident from the care she took in recording early gifts to the collection. Her 1909 report to the association's membership explained her view of the NHA’s mission: "Our society is, as its name implies, the custodian and conservator of the history of Nantucket, and we hope that its utility will be more appreciated from year to year, and long after its... present patrons have passed from the stage of action, we believe its work will abide among the most cherished possessions of the Nantucketers that are to be." A major early donor to the NHA’s collection, in 1937 Brock left a significant bequest of many family heirlooms including the "Fishing Lady" needlework picture, ceramics, furniture, and paintings.
1890s Tourist Guide
This tourist guide, published in 1897, promotes the charms of the island and the Sea Cliff Inn, "A Delightful Summer Home 28 Miles at Sea, on the Island of Nantucket." From June to October, guests could enjoy the hotel's "pleasant and favorable appointments," which included 115 rooms, five parlors, amusement hall, billiard room, and piazza, while receiving the "remedial benefits" of the island's sea breezes and salt water. With the decline of the whaling industry, Nantucketers turned increasingly to tourism as a way to rejuvenate the island's economy. They were successful: an 1897 resident and business directory listed nine boarding houses and seven hotels. Cottages, too, were available to accommodate hundreds of summer visitors, or "strangers," as the locals referred to the tourists.
Early 1900s Siasconset Actors Colony
In the early to mid-1800s Nantucketers used to "vacation" in the fishing village of 'Sconset, on the island's southeastern shore. There they enjoyed a slower pace of life among the village's shanties and rose-covered cottages. Late in the nineteenth century, off-islanders also discovered 'Sconset and everyone from college presidents to admirals to painters traveled to find the peace and serenity of that corner of the island. By the early 1900s, 'Sconset had grown into a summer colony of theater people, due in large part to the influence of actor-manager George Fawcett and his actress wife Percy Haswell, who purchased a house on the village's Main Street where they hosted New York actors every summer. Margaret Fawcett Barnes, their daughter, made the house a centerpiece of her story 'Sconset Heyday. By raising money with local performances, the then-famous actors built the Siasconset Casino in 1900 and laid out the 'Sconset Golf Course in 1901. New York theater critic, actor, and New Yorker contributor Robert Benchley brought his family to 'Sconset for the summer beginning in 1922. Benchley's son Nathaniel, a novelist and children's book author, continued the family tradition and even persuaded his New York neighbor John Steinbeck to spend a summer in 'Sconset in the 1960s while writing East of Eden. Benchley's descendants still call 'Sconset home.
1900 Siasconset Casino built by summer visitors, most of whom are professional stage actors from New York.
1900 Nantucket reborn as a “spa,” famous for its health-giving waters.
1900 The first car, a Stanley Steamer, brought to Nantucket but prohibited from operating.
1900 Atheneum opens as a public library.
1901 First ship-to-shore message transmitted from SS Lucania to Siasconset wireless station, which opened in August.
1902 Maria Mitchell Association founded.
1904 NHA Fair Street Museum
For the first ten years of its existence, the Nantucket Historical Association stored its collections in, and operated out of, the Quaker Meeting House on Fair Street. By 1904, with the collection nearing a thousand artifacts, it was decided that a larger space would be necessary in order to continue the NHA's work in the preservation of island history. A building was designed to connect to the Meeting House on the land already owned by the NHA. What was unique about the proposed structure was that it was to be one of the first poured-concrete buildings erected in Massachusetts. The steel-reinforced building not only provided additional storage and exhibition space, but allowed the NHA to safeguard its collections in a fireproof museum. The cost in 1904 was $8,300. The building has served as a museum since that time and symbolizes Nantucket's early recognition of the importance of preserving its cultural heritage. By 2001, the Fair Street Museum will be the new home of the Nantucket Historical Association's research library.
1906 Nantucket Yacht Club founded.
1907 State legislature passes bill permitting exclusion of cars from June 15 to September 15.
1911 Nantucket Cottage Hospital founded on West Chester Street.
1914 Exclusionary act barring cars from Nantucket voted in.
1914-1919 World War I
During 1917 and 1918, Nantucket was headquarters for an active Naval Reserve force, numbering approximately three hundred men and officers. A large fleet was stationed off the island's coast. The reserve force became active in the island's social life during the winter months. Islanders expressed their patriotism in numerous ways, including some men and women who served in Europe. This apron from a Red Cross nurse's uniform, given to the NHA in 1976 by Miss Margaret Yates, was worn by Mrs. Daisy Parrish, who was awarded the Croix de Guerre when she served in France during the conflict. Back home on the island, Nantucketers subscribed a total of $1,665,000 in the nation's five "Liberty Loans," a per capita contribution of approximately $555.
1915 Wharf Rat Club founded.
1917 President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson visit Nantucket.
1917 192 men drafted into WWI service.
1917 Nantucket railroad closes, rails and rolling stock sent to France the next year.
1918 Law banning cars is repealed.
1920s "Rainbow Fleet," by H. Marshall Gardiner
Pictured here is Nantucket's Rainbow Fleet, a class of small catboats introduced in the 1920s. The colorful boats, just over twelve feet in length, sported brightly dyed sails and were favorite racing cats for decades.
H. Marshall Gardiner (1884-1942) came to Nantucket as a young man in 1910; he learned the art of making hand-tinted photographs from his father, W. H. Gardiner, who had established a successful studio in Florida. Gardiner photographed the beaches, historic sites, and daily life of Nantucket for thirty years, sometimes favoring rather sentimental tableaus depicting colonial customs and sensibilities. His focus on nostalgia and historic preservation is understandable, given Nantucket's reliance on these island qualities to promote tourism.
1920 Summertime day and night electric service began in June; winter service will begin in 1922-1923.
1920 Tony Sarg comes to Nantucket
Artist, puppeteer, and author Tony Sarg was born in 1880 in Guatemala and grew up in Germany. Groomed for a military career, Sarg had other notions and moved to London in 1905 where he illustrated books and magazines and developed his self-taught, ebullient style. While there, Sarg also began a life-long fascination with puppeteering and gave marionette performances using the puppets he created.
In 1914 Sarg moved his family to New York City and in 1920 discovered Nantucket while on holiday with other New York artists. His affinity for the island was immediate, and he bought a house on the island in 1922. For twenty years, Sarg summered on Nantucket, exhibiting his artwork at the Easy Street Gallery and operating a gift shop. He also assisted island institutions, like the Nantucket Cottage Hospital and the Nantucket Yacht Club, by designing posters and giving benefit marionette performances. In New York he illustrated for magazines, wrote and illustrated books, created animated films, and produced the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was Sarg who conceived of the display of huge balloons that now characterize the annual event. Always drawing and designing, Sarg liked to boast that he "never did a day's work." Sarg died in 1942 from complications of appendicitis. In 1984, a large collection of Sarg's artwork, books, and papers was given to the NHA, including the hand-painted envelopes addressed to family members seen here.
1921 U.S. Coast Guard station at Surfside, operational since 1854, closed.
1924 On Nantucket, 965 ballots cast in the presidential election, 340 of them by women.
1929 Stock market crash.
1929 Edward E Sanderson (1874-1955) and the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
Known primarily on the island as the benefactor of the Whaling Museum's Sanderson Hall, Edward F. Sanderson was first drawn to Nantucket architecture in the 1920s. When he bought "Moors End" on Pleasant Street in the late 1920s, he started collecting whaling gear to decorate a few rooms in the house. However, Sanderson quickly became hooked on the subject and soon ran out of room to store his collection. When the old Hadwen and Barney Candle Factory came on the market in 1929, Sanderson helped to purchase it and made arrangements to sell it to the NHA as soon as the association could raise the necessary funds. Once the building changed hands, Sanderson gave his extensive collection to the NHA, feeling that "Nantucket was the place of all others where it should be kept and displayed for all time."
Opened to the public in 1930, the Whaling Museum is the NHA's flagship, attracting over 90,000 visitors each year. Sanderson's collection of whaling gear makes up the bulk of the exhibit in Sanderson Hall, where lectures on whaling history are presented three times a day during the summer. Significant collections of scrimshaw, marine paintings and ship portraits, South Seas ethnographic material, the skeleton of a forty-three-foot finback whale that washed up on the north shore in 1967, and the original Fresnel lens from the Sankaty Lighthouse provide visitors with an insight into Nantucket's whaling history.
1933 Sankaty Head and Brant Point lighthouses electrified.
1938-1953, 1968-1971 Edouard A. Stackpole president of the NHA
The library at the Nantucket Historical Association was named in honor of Edouard A. Stackpole. Author, teacher, newspaperman, and historian, Edouard A. Stackpole (1903-93) served as president of the Nantucket Historical Association from 1938 to 1953, and again from 1968 to 1971. For many years he was the NHA historian — collecting, preserving, and documenting Nantucket's past. Stackpole is the author of numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the island's history and presenter of countless programs and lectures, all of which can be found within the association's library. Upon his death in 1993, Stackpole's collection of manuscripts, books, and maps was bequeathed to the historical association, forming an invaluable body of research material for present and future scholars.
1940 Straight Wharf Theatre established.
1942 Construction of Nobadeer airport; will be renamed Nantucket Memorial Airport.
1945 Nantucket’s art community begins cooperative named the Artists Association of Nantucket.
1956-1967 George W. Jones president of the NHA
A Nantucket native, George W. Jones was active in many island organizations, not the least of which was the NHA. As president from 1956 to 1967, Jones oversaw major additions to the NHA's collections and holdings, including the Hadwen House and the Winthrop Williams scrimshaw collection. Even upon his resignation from the NHA, Jones continued to assist the organization — for example, taking over supervision "of the Peter Foulger Museum upon the untimely death of the architect, H. Errol Coffin," giving "freely of his time, engineering knowledge, and good judgment to expedite the work with commendable results." Those words were part of a resolution passed by the NHA on July 20, 1971, to express "grateful appreciation for this and past services to [the NHA] and the community." In 1998, Jones's family presented a box of his papers to the association, including photographs, membership pins from various island and fraternal organizations, and a plaque with the text of this resolution.
1956 HDC created. State legislature ratifies Nantucket’s historic district commission, second such historic preservation “watchdog” organization in the nation. Its initial jurisdiction is over only Nantucket town and Siasconset.
1956 Wreck of the Andrea Doria
Still making headlines today, often for claiming the lives of curious divers, the remains of the Italian liner Andrea Doria lie forty-five miles southeast of Nantucket in 225 feet of water. Shortly before midnight on July 26, 1956, the 656-foot Andrea Doria was rammed on her starboard side by the Swedish liner Stockholm. Fifty-two of the Andrea Doria’s 1,709 passengers were killed during the collision and subsequent sinking of the ship. In 1970, the NHA was given a section of the Andrea Doria's Zodiac stateroom wall by Alfred Lowden, who found it along the island's south shore after the disaster. The wall section is illustrated here, alongside a photograph of the suite, taken before the disaster.
1959 Coffin family reunion (415 attended) held in conjunction with Nantucket’s 300th anniversary celebration, August 11. Swains and Hussey’s also hold reunions.
1961 Hurricane Esther separates Madaket from Smith Point, forming Esther Island. Twenty-five years later, the island would be reconnected naturally to Nantucket.
1964 Cross Rip Lightship is sold out of service and replaced by an automatic beacon.
1965 Sherburne Associates, with Walter Beinecke Jr. as a principal, acquires hotel properties. Sherburne announces plans for redevelopment of waterfront.
1966 Nantucket Island is named a national historic landmark and thereafter is placed in the National Register of Historic Places.
1967 A forty-three foot finback whale washed up on the north shore. The NHA preserves the skeleton for display. It now hangs in the Nantucket High School.
1970 Nantucket Historical Commission’s jurisdiction is extended to encompass the entire island.
1970s The Peter Foulger Museum and the Macy-Christian House
The early 1970s marked a period of important growth for the Nantucket Historical Association. Another property was added to the list of historic structures to be owned and operated by the NHA. The Macy-Christian House, at the corner of Liberty Street and Walnut Lane, was bequeathed to the NHA. Built originally in the early settlement of Sherburne, the dwelling was moved to its present site sometime before 1745. The home remains open to the public today and is an important link in the chronology of architectural types now in the possession of the NHA. The Peter Foulger Museum opened in 1971, forty-three years after the initial bequest of Admiral William Mayhew Folger. In 1968, his estate was transferred to the Nantucket Historical Association with the understanding that a building was to be constructed and endowed as a "Historical Association." The NHA chose to build the facility on the lot adjacent to the Whaling Museum and stated that the institution ought to "present in logical order the story of Nantucket, its inhabitants, its work-a-day world, together with the relationships of one to the other."
The construction of the Peter Foulger Museum represented a "major step in the goal of the Nantucket Historical Association." It has provided crucial exhibition space, storage, and has been home to the research library. In the words of past president and historian Edouard A. Stackpole, the museum "provided a dramatic reminder of the past, of the history of those islanders who strived so hard to build and maintain the Nantucket we have today. The association is in business to entertain the public, to show both summer visitors and islanders the influence of the past upon the present, and to give them all a chance to identify with the past, simply and directly. The museum is no longer a repository, it is a living example of what those who came before us have turned over to us for safekeeping."
1972 Greater Light
Originally built in the early nineteenth century as a barn, the house now known as Greater Light was converted to living space in the 1930s by two Quaker sisters from Philadelphia — Gertrude (1887-1962) and Hanna Monaghan (c. 1890-1972). Amateur artists who painted, acted, and wrote, the sisters stumbled upon and fell in love with the building during a visit to the island and set about furnishing it in their own unique way. Although their ideas of design and furnishing caused a stir among Depression-era island residents, today they seem in keeping with many strongly held island traditions. Like eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Nantucketers, the sisters were members of the Society of Friends, with strong beliefs in inner light and a direct connection to God. Neither sister married, preferring instead to live together and pursue their talents and ambitions, like the many island women left on their own to support their families while their husbands and fathers went whaling. The eclectic style that the sisters employed to decorate Greater Light included many colorful, ornamental knick-knacks and furnishings picked up during their lifelong travels — much as the whalers brought home outlandish souvenirs and beautiful ceramics and textiles when they traveled to the South Pacific and China.
When Hanna died in 1972, the house and its contents were given to the NHA. Complete with furnishings, down to the contents of chests, bureaus, bookshelves, and closets, the house represents an aspect of island life from the 1930s through the 1960s — the bohemian summer artist colony where the Monaghan sisters entertained a group of friends who visited regularly, including many artists.
1972 Zoning regulations are adopted in an attempt to control land use.
1972 Sea Cliff Inn ins demolished.
1972 Brant Point Lighthouse bell is replaced by a foghorn.
1973 Steamer Nobska makes final run to island after forty-nine years of service.
1974 Chamber of Commerce sponsors first Christmas Stroll.
1976 Tom Nevers Navy Base is closed.
1977 For the second time in its history, Nantucket considers secession from Massachusetts when the state threatens (and eventually succeeds in) combining Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod as a single legislative district.
1979 Skeleton of 2,000-year old Native American is unearthed at construction site in Quaise.
1980 Muskeget Island named a national landmark by the United States Department of the Interior because it is home to the unique Muskeget Vole.
1981 First building cap is voted in, limiting summer house building permits.
1982-1986 South Church (Unitarian) Preservation Fund undertakes Island’s most extensive historic preservation project to date.
1984 The 166-year old Great Point Lighthouse collapses into the sea following March gale.
1984 Creation of Nantucket Land Bank approved by state legislature.
1986 NHA’s museum shop built.
1986 Great Point Lighthouse reconstructed to replicate the original and rededicated.
1987 Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association
In 1987, a group of residents with a keen interest in the NHA and its collections formed the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association. The purpose of the organization is to raise funds that are specifically for purchasing important artifacts relating to Nantucket history. Such items add immeasurably to the depth and breadth of the NHA's collections. The impact of the Friends group is remarkable. Because of their efforts a great number of important artworks and artifacts have either been kept on Nantucket or have been returned to the island.
1987 99 Main Street and the Tupancy-Harris Foundation
Built in 1770, with an 1834 addition, the house at 99 Main Street is an excellent example of Federal architecture. The former home of island merchant and ship owner Thomas Macy, the house was passed down in the family until it was acquired by Mrs. Julian Harris in 1947. The Harris family used the house for summer vacations and, later, as a permanent home. Eventually, Mrs. Harris's daughter, Salrie Gail, inherited the house and lived there with her husband, Oswald A. "Tup" Tupancy. Both Sallie Gail and Tup, seen above, believed that their home was an important representation of Nantucket history, too valuable to be left to private ownership, so they bequeathed the house to the NHA in 1987. Along with the house, the Tupancys established the Tupancy-Harris Foundation, which underwrites the care and maintenance of the house, along with funding many other endeavors by the NHA and other island nonprofit organizations. Ninety-nine Main Street is an important resource for the NHA, used for special NHA events, meetings, and guest and staff housing, allowing the NHA to provide a wide variety of lectures and educational programming for the community by bringing experts and scholars to the island.
1987 Oldest House damaged by lightning.
1987 Steamer Naushow retired, ending scheduled steamboat service in the country.
1988 A non-binding town referendum on limiting development has the community’s overwhelming endorsement.
1989 Nantucket’s African Meeting House purchased by Museum of Afro-American History in Boston.
1990 Oldest House reopens.
1990 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution undertakes three-year, $250,000 Nantucket harbor study.
1991 “No-Name Storm” on October 30 said to be costliest storm in Island’s history, with damages exceeding $30 million.
1992 Town approved $75,000 study of Sankaty Bluff erosion.
1993 Atheneum announces major renovation, including new children’s library.
1993 Nantucket Electric Company embarks on plan to lay under-sea cable to connect Nantucket to mainland electric source.
1994 Bartholome Gosnold Center built as conservation and storage facility for the NHA’s extensive collections.
1994 Harvard lyme disease study begun on Nantucket.
1995 Nantucket Regional Transit Authority inaugurates summer shuttles bus system to alleviate traffic congestion.
1997 Nantucket's Sperm Whale
From the early days of shore whaling to the height of the island's whaling industry in the eighteenth century, the sperm whale played a crucial role. Even today, you can appreciate the wonder, fear, and exhilaration of the white settlers as they saw their first sperm whale and its head case overflowing with clear, waxy spermaceti. The island's long history with whales served to galvanize the community on December 30, 1997, when a forty-six-foot male sperm whale was spotted floundering in the surf off the eastern end of the island. People flocked to the beach in raw, bitter winds to catch sight of the massive creature. They cried to see it struggle and cheered at its every meager effort to free itself from the sandy shores. When the whale eventually expired on Low Beach, Nantucketers' determination to keep the whale on the island impressed state and federal representatives who agreed to grant the NHA permission to be the custodian of the skeleton. The sperm whale will eventually hang in the Nantucket Whaling Museum where it will greatly enhance the NHA's efforts to tell the long history of Nantucket whaling.
1999 President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visit Nantucket.
1999 African Meeting House opens to the public for the first time since 1912.