Nantucket Whaling Museum- Hawden & Barney

In the mid-19th-century, the Nantucket firm of Hawden & Barney was one of the leading whale oil candle manufacturers in the United States until the decline of the whaling industry.

The Building

In 1846 a fire destroyed much of downtown Nantucket including Robert Mitchell and Sons candleworks. A year later the firm built a new candle factory on the same site. In 1848 the Mitchells sold the building to whale-oil merchants William Hawden and Nathaniel Barney who operated the business on a limited scale. The decline of the whaling industry forced the company to use the brick building as a warehouse. In the 1870s, Nathaniel Barney’s son converted it to office space for the New England Steamship Company.


By 1919, the building was used as an antiques shop. It was purchased by the Nantucket Historical Association in the 1920s to use as a museum for the exhibit of the NHA’s whaling collection.


The Whaling Museum building 


Nantucket Historical Association in the old Hawden & Barney factory

In 2004 the museum was renovated and some of the space is dedicated to showcasing 19th-century Nantucket and what the building looked like when Hawden & Barney operated there.

Hawden & Barney


William Hawden (1791-1862), originally a silversmith from Newport, Rhode Island, was a Nantucket transplant who became a prominent whale oil candle manufacturer.


William Hawden and family in 1860

Hawden married the descendant of one of Nantucket’s first families, Eunice Starbuck, in 1822. Seven years after his marriage he established the firm of Hawden & Barney with his cousin/brother-in-law Nathaniel Barney.

Nathaniel Barney (1792-1869) is best known to history for his activism in the anti-slavery movement. He and his wife Eliza shared a home with their Hawden family at 100 Main Street for many years.

William Hawden became extremely wealthy from the whale oil manufacturing business. He lived with his family in this grand Greek-Revival style mansion (now a museum) at 96 Main Street.


Hawden House

By 1850 the firm employed 12 workers in three buildings (the museum building and two outbuildings which no longer stand). The laborers were paid $27.50 a month ($800 in 21st-century currency).

They produced 4000 boxes of spermaceti candles, as well as 450,000 gallons of refined sperm whale oil. The worth of this oil? $300,000 1850s dollars, approximately $9 million in today’s dollars.

The firm’s ship, the Alpha, made six whaling voyages between 1834-1859. The crews also purchased oil from other ships to bring home to Nantucket.

The sign features information about two of the known workers. One worker, William M. Eldridge (1826-1912) spent his childhood and younger adult years working in candle factories before become a sea captain. He later retired to a farm on his native Nantucket.

The profits made from whale oil refining were staggering. In the mid-19th-century, at the peak of the whaling industry, headmatter was worth an average of 90 cents a gallon or $28 per barrel. This one barrel produced:

$23.60 of winter oil ($1.00/gallon)
$2.40 of spring oil (80 cents/gallon)
$1.20 of summer oil (80 cents/gallon) for a total of $27.20

Candles were worth 30 cents per pound or $8.10 total, equaling $35.30 for a profit of $7.30 per barrel or 26%! (More than the workers were paid per month).

Want to learn more about the 19th-century whaling industry? Visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum. You won’t be disappointed.

If you can’t travel there, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has some whaling industry ephemera online.





Nantucket Whaling Museum

mural of Nantucket

Mural of Nantucket during the heyday of the whaling industry in the mid-19th-century

My next two posts will share more on the history of the Nantucket whaling industry and the museum building.

In my previous post you can follow the link to the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s excellent and gruesome description of how whales were captured and processed. Unfortunately I missed the presentation in Nantucket and did not have time to stay for the next. Having read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I have a good idea of what happened and I’d rather not listen to that kind of information anyway.

Whalers hunted whales for spermaceti, a waxy substance from the large cavity in the sperm whale’s head. Spermaceti was used in making candles, machine grease, and other lighting. In Nantucket, the firm of Hawden & Barney was the leading refinery and manufacturer of spermaceti candles. They occupied the building that is now the museum.

Spermaceti oil

Spermaceti oil

Spermaceti cake

Spermaceti cake

This cake of refined spermaceti is an example of the main product of the oil refining process of the mid-19th-century. The blocks were molded in the spring, stored until softened in the summer heat, then ground into meal and pressed to remove the last drops of the oil remaining in them. This resulted in pure spermaceti that could then be molded into candles.

candle molds

Candle Molds and box stencils

Spermaceti candles were the end product of the refining process. The candles were made by mixing the refined spermaceti with a small amount of beeswax placed into block molds to harden.

Spermaceti oil and candle molds

Spermaceti oil and candle molds

A skilled candle maker would then melt the blocks until liquid and then pour into special molds. The candles were left to cool and then packed into boxes with candle paper. The boxes were branded or stenciled to indicate the manufacturer, the size of the candles and other important information.

Spermaceti candles and oil lamps 

Spermaceti candles and oil lamps

Spermaceti candles were considered the finest in the world.

Read on to learn more about the firm of Hawden & Barney.

Nantucket Whaling Museum

A long overdue post on the rest of the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

After tearing myself away from the archive exhibit, I browsed a bit more of the museum and learned more about the whaling industry in Nantucket.

The museum had on display many of the treasures the men brought home from far flung places. They were gifted objects of cultural significance by the natives of places they visited and also purchased fine goods to be sent or carried home with them.


Chinese fan 1821, pierced ivory, painted silk

This Chinese fan, dating to 1821, was purchased by Captain Eliakim Gardner of Baltimore, Maryland, captain of the ship Orozimbo. Captain Gardner presented the fan to his wife Pamela who passed it on to her granddaughter Mary Myrick Gardner. It was passed down through the years and in 1887 the fan was given as a wedding gift to Florence Folger when she married William A. Webster. The scene on the fan depicts a European couple. The fan is also decorated with gold inlay.

Sea captains also commissioned china patterns for their wives. This pattern, famille rose, uses overglaze enamels to create detailed depictions of the human form, in this case, a woman and child. This pattern is an example of a hybrid pattern known as “Madarin.”


Famille Rose Punch Bowl c. 1755-1770 

The Famille Rose punch bowl was passed down through three generations of the Starbuck family. It must have been a cherished possession.


“Fitzhugh” Dinner Service c. 1810

This blurry  photo depicts the “Fitzhugh” dinner service belonging to Gideon Swain (1776-1848). His initials are featured in the medallion in the center. The pattern comes from a design originally ordered by a Thomas Fitzhugh, Captain in the East India Company in 1780. The English firm Spode later copied the pattern. The design became more elaborate as the 19th-century advanced and was popular well into the 20th-century as well.


The Mars and the Minerva

The sign accompanying this tea service tells the story of Captain Uriah Swain (1754-1810), the Nantucket captain who initiated trade between China and Nantucket in 1800. The Mars returned to Nantucket with a cargo of tea and other Chinese goods and souvenirs in exchange for sealskins. In 1801, Captain Mayhew Folger sailed to Canton in the Minerva bringing back this beautiful porcelain tea service decorated with the popular American Seal design. This design features the Federal Eagle. A better image of the design can be seen at Northeast Auctions .

There were many examples of porcelain from the China trade era including creamware jugs custom made with the ship’s flag or family name painted in the design. They were made in Liverpool, England for export.

I will return with more history of Nantucket’s whaling industry. As a preview, you can read up on the gruesome process of capturing a whale and how whales were processed before viewing my post on the end products and Nantucket’s role in producing spermaceti candles and other goods from whales and for the elite citizens involved in the whaling industry,

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).

What Cheer Day

Saturday, 25 October 2014 became Saturday 25 October 1800 when the Rhode Island Historical Society presented What Cheer Day. The beautiful John Brown House transformed from a regular museum to a hive of activity as reenactors portrayed members of the Brown family and their servants. As soon as Kitty, the housekeeper, opened the door, the visitor was transported back in time to 1800.


At that time, the house was quite full with John Brown’s family in residence. Mr. Brown was away at Congress in Philadelphia and his son was not at home but the rest of the family was there.

Mrs. Brown was trying to visit with her sister and work on their sewing in the parlor and visit with their guests but all the noise and activity of her young adult children made that quite difficult. She ranted about all the visitors that day, including a tradesman who dared come to the front door! I expressed my shock at that transgression of propriety, for every Downton Abbey/Jane Austen/Queen Victoria wannabe knows the lower orders visit the tradesman’s entrance in back! I suggested perhaps because this is America, he thinks he’s republican. Mrs. Brown stated that “We are federalists in America.” She questioned her daughter Sally’s suitor, Mr. Charles Hereshoff about the French Republic. He is originally from Prussia and Prussia was lately at war with France.

I chatted with Mr. Hereshoff. He has been courting Sally, the middle daughter of John Brown, for several years. Mr. Brown does not approve. Mr. Hereshoff is Prussian and he has no business prospects. Mr. Hereshoff remarked he hopes some business opportunity presents itself soon, but the Napoleonic wars were ruining trade. I asked if he was a gamester but he said no but Sally’s brother-in-law Mr. Mason is.  None of the family approves of Mr. Mason. He’s a gamester and a rake. He was awake all night carousing and kept the whole household awake. He left the house a mess and is only just waking up at almost 2 of the clock in the afternoon! Mrs. Brown lamented that her daughters love the bad boys. She said it was all right to love them but not marry them! While Mrs. Brown went out to see what all the noise coming from across the hall was about (her daughters brought in a fortune teller and were quite giggly), her sister explained that they were raised as Quakers and Mrs. Brown doesn’t always approve of her children’s activities.

Upstairs I visited with the mantua maker. She had some lovely fashion plates from Paris.  The French fashions this year are quite daring, with deep decolletage and filmy skirts that cling to the legs.  The dresses feature trains, demi-trains and all manner of ornamentation. The ladies sometimes are shown wearing scarves or turbans on their heads. Mrs. Brown’s sister looking longingly at the fashion plates, hoping for a new dress. She thinks her sister would approve of something in a more sober color like dark red or green and something without such deep decollete. She liked the same pattern as her niece, Alice, and Alice was very proprietary about “her” dress. Mrs. Brown’s sister also coveted a new bonnet but since she had just purchased a new bonnet so she thought perhaps she had to wait awhile for new clothes. She’s a spinster and though she enjoys some manner of freedom, she is sometimes subject to her brother-in-law’s rules.

Frenchfashionplate1 Frenchfashionplate2 Frenchfashionplate4 Frenchfashionplate3

Next I called on the Masons. Alice is John Brown’s youngest daughter who married Mr. John Brown Mason, the rake. Some visitors remarked they heard that Alice was able to arrange her romantic matters to her own satisfaction by becoming with child. Alice was quite adamant that she was married when her baby was born – by one day – and that’s all that matters. She demanded to know if we had heard the whole story and when she was told we hadn’t, she wanted to know who told us. She thought the maid had gossiped about her and was determined to get rid of Eliza. Her first plan was to borrow some of Mr. Mason’s winnings and her second plan was to frame Eliza with a novel. I questioned whether it was one of those horrid gothic novels all the young ladies love (read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey for a parody of the popular fiction of the day). She was shocked and asked if I was implying she had actually READ the novel. She assured me it was the finest French literature. I doubt her mother would approve of gothic novels. It didn’t appear to be a Minerva Press novel at any rate. Perhaps she was hiding one novel in another.

Alice realizes her husband probably married her more for the money and less for herself, but she doesn’t mind because it gets her out from under her father’s thumb and gives her more independence and freedom. That’s an interesting way of looking at marriage. She must have felt having her own home was freedom enough. At the moment they are living with the Browns along with their baby Abby. Baby Abby is out taking an airing with her nurse, as is good for her health. Alice can not be expected to take care of her own child! She spent an hour a day with her baby and will spend an hour later on and that’s plenty.

Back downstairs, I saw the fortune teller. I don’t believe in fortune telling but I was prepared to play along. She didn’t tell my fortune but she told my character through reading my face. She said I’m independent, something of a free spirit, unconventional.  She was spot on but I don’t know how she knew that!

I stopped by the woodshed on my way out and sampled some of the 18th century foods someone had made. There were ginger cakes, a crispy gingersnap very different from the soft, cakelike ginger cakes sold at Colonial Williamsburg. My preference is for the soft, cake-like kind but the harder ones were good too. There was also Diet Bread, which I think comes from Amelia Simmons. It was more like a coffee cake sliced very thin than bread. It had a hint of sweet cinnamon and was quite tasty. Also available were Jordan Almonds. gingercakes

Diet Bread.

One pound sugar, 9 eggs, beat for an hour, add to 14 ounces flour, spoonful rose water, one do. cinnamon or coriander, bake quick.

Back outside, I looked at the games but there was no one to play with. My friend Susanna found a hoop nearly her size and enjoyed rolling it down the hill.


It was such an enjoyable experience, like visiting a Jane Austen novel for a day! (I’d rather visit Jane Austen’s world this way and not actually live in the 19th century). I had fun last year and this year was even better. There were more visitors and more activity so I didn’t get to chat as much as I would have liked but it was still a lot of fun.

Concord Museum

Concord Museum signOn Saturday last, I had the pleasure of visiting the Concord Museum. The museum collections date to the mid-nineteenth century when America was celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Concord had a long history of celebrating the past and also of rebelling against the status quo beginning with the Puritans of the seventeenth century. This museum tells the story of this rebellious town.

Puritans arrive in Concord

Puritans arrive in Concord

The Puritans arrived in this swampy wilderness seeing freedom from religious tyranny but found a community of Algonkian Indians who called the place “Musketaquid” (“grassy plain).

Algonkian Concord

Algonkian Concord

The Puritans saw the Indians as Satan’s instruments and sought to Christianize them and make them “civilized.”

Algonkian rituals

Algonkian rituals

Concord Indians

Map of “praying Indian” town and pamphlet exclaiming the success of the missionaries

A special gallery specifically on the Battle of Lexington and Concord brings together artifacts from many different locations in one spot. The exhibition concludes on 21 September. It’s a must-see if you can. It’s very awe-inspiring to see objects that old as so important to the history of the United States. Artifacts include numerous artifacts from the Battle of Lexington and Concord, including Paul Revere’s lantern made famous by Longfellow; flints; muskets; powder horns, engravings and more

Battle of Lexington and Concord Photoengraving

Battle of Lexington and Concord Photoengraving 1903, after Dootlittle

These engravings are particularly interesting, having a copyright date in the early 20th century.

copyright on the photoengraving

copyright on the photoengraving

publisher's mark

publisher’s mark

These photoengravings were sold by Charles E. Goodspeed, a Boston bookseller. This is one of a series of four done after Amos Doolittle (Connecticut, 1754-1832). Read more about them at the Concord Library‘s website.

Another special exhibition features photos of the Revolutionary generation, people who survived into their 80s and beyond and sat for a photograph, a brand new invention at the time. It’s amazing to see the faces of the men and women who lived through that period in history. I felt very connected to the past seeing those photos.

Photos of the Revolutionary generation

Photos of the Revolutionary generation

Not only is the museum decorated with interior decorations salvaged or reproduced from area homes, they also have a series of period room scenes.

leaded glass window

Seventeenth-century leaded glass window saved from an area home

Reproduction early nineteenth-century wallpaper

Reproduction early nineteenth-century wallpaper

I especially enjoyed the  period rooms.  I love seeing how people lived in different times in history. Currently the museums has set up an early eighteenth century room; a mid-eighteenth century room; a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century lying-in chamber and an early nineteenth-century dining parlor. I learned quite a bit about how wealthy merchants in Concord lived at those times.

early 18th century room

An early eighteenth-century parlor/bedroom with original period furniture.

 mid-18th century room

Mid-eighteenth century bedroom/parlor with original period furnishings

 lying-in chamber

A late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century lying-in chamber for mother, baby and visitors

I really loved the attention to detail in each and every room. They copied the wallpaper and textiles from actual period furnishings.

Concord was also home to a number of furniture designers and manufacturers in the eighteenth century. The museum retains original period pieces made by local craftsmen.

Concord-made furniture

Concord-made furniture

 inlay clock

An inlay clock made by a local firm in the eighteenth century

There’s so much more to experience in this museum. I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area. I’ve been to Concord more times than I can count but had never been inside the museum until Saturday.

Concord, Massachusetts

On Saturday last I had the pleasure of visiting Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is the birthplace of the American Revolution (Battle of Lexington and Concord, 19 April 1775) and also the birthplace of American Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was a literary, religious and philosophical movement that had it’s grounds in the Unitarian church. This group of like-minded individuals struggled to make sense of a changing world. They wanted to incorporate modern ideas with traditional spirituality and sought a new kind of freedom. They believed  people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. “It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.” [1]

Emerson quote self-reliance

Emerson quote on self-reliance

Most of the Transcendentalists were involved in social reform movements, especially anti-slavery and women’s rights. They believed that “at the level of the human soul, all people had access to divine inspiration and sought and loved freedom and knowledge and truth.” [2] They urged a return to nature and the pondering of philosophical truths.

The major figures in the movement in Concord were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Amos Bronson Alcott.

Concord reformers

Susanna, my research assistant and traveling companion, poses with images of the Concord reformers


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