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.
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.
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.
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.
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.