Nantucket Whaling Museum

This post is long overdue but worth the wait!

The seafaring Pinkhams sign

The seafaring Pinkhams

Back in June, I visited the island of Nantucket off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. On my last day I popped in the whaling museum for a short time. I was immediately captivated by an exhibit of letters from their archive! The museum recently acquired a collection of letters from a Nantucket whaling family. They have an excellent exhibit, displaying some of the letters, along with select transcripts (on panels), photographs and artifacts from the extended Pinkham family in an exhibit titled “Dear Absent Ones: The Seafaring Pinkhams.” This exhibit shared the human side of an island family at sea and waiting behind at home.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, Nantucket was at the forefront of the whaling industry. Ships sailed off to the Pacific in search of the mighty sperm whale returning with barrels full of spermaceti to turn into oil, candles and other products that would earn a fortune for those involved in the business.

Seth Pinkham letter

A long letter from a loving husband and father. I wonder if the water stains are sea water or happened later?

Captain Seth Pinkham (1786-1844), the family patriarch, was an early whaling captain, completing three voyages between 1815-1823 before retirement. He and his wife Mary (Brrown) Pinkham brought up a second generation of seagoing Pinkhams. After business failures, Captain Seth Pinkham returned to the sea, only to die at sea in 1844. Seth, Jr., age 9, most likely was eager to join his father at sea, but his mother put her foot down and insisted he was too young.

Seth Pinkham letter

Seth Pinkham letter -searching for whales

Captain Pinkham’s letters reveal a family man who missed his family but made up for his absence by writing as many letters as he was able to get home. These letters are full of long-winded advice to his son, such as “In order to be good children, good husbands, good fathers and good citizens, we must strive to be useful . . . I tell you these things while you are young for youth is the time to form the man.” (1841) The other letters continue in the same vein, encouraging thoughtful study, sobriety, enterprise and exemplary deportment in all endeavors.

He had strong opinions on laziness.

Seth Pinkham letter

“Never one to be lazy, Pinkham shares his strong opinion about occupying one’s time with useful tasks only.”

Seth Pinkham letter

Seth Pinkham, a self-professed Jeffersonian, held strong opinions about the role of government and citizens’ part in directing their own affairs. He emphasized each person’s duty to stay informed and reason for himself.

Other artifacts on display include a lady’s writing desk made for Seth Pinkham c. 1810. The desk is made from Mahogany with white pine and birch inlays. This is a very generous gift to Mary from her loving husband.

Mahogany and lightwood inlaid ladies' desk

Mahogany and lightwood inlaid ladies’ desk

The second generation of seagoing Pinkhams included Malvina Pinkham Marshall (1820-1885), the only one of Captain Seth and Mary’s 6 children to go on a whaling voyage. At seven months pregnant, she joined her husband, Joseph Marshall (1811-1879), on board the Sea Queen in 1851. Joseph Marshall began his whaling career at age 17 in 1821. Rising through the ranks quickly, he became first mate in 1841. In 1846 he married his second wife, Malvina Marshall, and took command of a ship the following year.

Malvina Marshall gave birth to her daughter Helen (1851-1939) while the ship was docked in the Azores. The Azorean women presented Malvina with gifts for her new baby. The Marshall family continued to sail throughout the Pacific for the next eight years before Joseph retired to Nantucket.

Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall, daughter of Joseph and Malvina (Pinkham) Marshall, born at sea.

The Marshalls kept photographs of her friends and family to remember them by. H

Photos from the 1860s and 70s compiled by Helen Marshall.

Photos from the 1860s and 70s compiled by Helen Marshall. The many pictures of her little cousins were gifts to her mother from her uncle Seth Pinkham, Jr. in San Francisco. The small children on the bottom are Helen’s nieces and nephews by her much older half brother.

They have some older artifacts from the women on the homefront. Women on Nantucket supported each other through ties of friendship, kinship and community. The sign says “Running a household, caring for children, and maintaining a strict economy were necessary duties complicated by the uncertainty of the length and success of voyages and the difficulties of communication.”

Mary Brown's Sampler 1800

Mary Brown’s Sampler 1800

1850 wool blanket

Mary Brown Pinkham’s wool blanket, passed down to her granddaughter Helen Marshall

This is a wonderful exhibit that combines letters from the archive with museum artifacts to paint a more detailed portrait of a Nantucket seagoing family. The exhibit text does a great job of explaining the context of the items in terms of the time period and the whaling industry. It was wonderful to learn about a real life whaling family and more about the personal life of a whaling captain.

The rest of the part of the museum I saw focused on the whales and the spermaceti. (More on that in the next post).

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