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,

Maria Mitchell Association


Maria Mitchell Birthplace

While in Nantucket I visited the Maria Mitchell Association, a complex of four museums. There’s the natural science museum in the main building. This features animals (mostly dead) found on or near the local beaches. They have dolphin skeletons, butterflies, moths, taxidermy animals, live snakes and turtles and a discovery center.

The main focus of my visit was the Maria Mitchell birthplace. A typical Quaker house built in 1790, this house is the birthplace of America’s first female astronomer.


Maria Mitchell Birthplace sign

The Mitchells acquired the home shortly before Maria’s birth in 1818. It is typical Nantucket architecture. It has an off-center front door and a small window above to let light in the hall when the door was closed. On the roof is a roof walk, which was actually for putting out chimney fires and fires on the roof. Could they have used it for other purposes? Yes, but that isn’t what it was built for.

William Mitchell had to add a new kitchen to the old house to make the house bigger. The new kitchen has a back staircase, a warming alcove and plaster walls painted to look like wood. The front room features the most exciting and unique artifact in the house-Maria’s telescope through which she discovered a comet. The front entryway has an amazing mural of “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.” (Fake news is obviously not an Internet age problem).

Maria Mitchell was educated at a young ladies seminary and also taught by her father, an astronomer who rated chronometers for use by the Nantucket whaling fleet in celestial navigation. His Quaker belief in equality led him to educate his daughter in subjects normally taught to boys. At the age of 12, Maria assisted her father in calculating the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse. By 14 she trusted to calculate navigational computations for sailors leaving on whaling journeys.

Maria’s interest in science extended to teaching as well. After she finished her own formal education, she opened a school for girls to train them in science and mathematics- like an early STEM school.

At the age of 18 she became the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, reading everything she could after hours. She worked there from 1836-1858.


Nantucket Atheneum

Her greatest accomplishment was yet to come. Avoiding a party at her family’s apartment above the bank one night in 1847, Maria went up to the roof to observe the sky through her father’s two-inch telescope. She lucked out that night, October 1, and discovered a comet! She was not only the first woman to discover a comet, she was the first in America to record her sighting.


Pacific National Bank

Unfortunately, the next day there was a storm and ships couldn’t leave the island so the observations she sent off to Europe were delayed, allowing an Italian man to gain credit for the discovery. However, Maria prevailed and her careful notes revealed she sighted the comet earlier than the Italian. The King of Denmark awarded Maria Mitchell of Nantucket an International gold medal.

Maria then skyrocketed (pun intended) to fame.  “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” as it became known, was featured in Elias Loomis’ The Recent Progress of Astronomy.


Recent Progress in Astronomy

Maria became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848, the only woman recognized for almost 100 years thereafter. She was also elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Philosophical Society and earned an annual salary from The U.S. Coastal Survey ($300/year) as a celestial observer. [1] She was also able to meet other women involved in the sciences on a Grand Tour of Europe in the 1850s.

Though Maria ultimately broke with the Quaker meeting, she retained some Quaker philosophies, such as equality and abolitionist principles. She always dressed in black silk, refusing to wear cotton as it was grown by slaves.

After her mother’s death, Maria was invited by Matthew Vassar to be the first female professor at his new women’s college, where she rebelled against the strict rule prohibiting women from going out at night. Her students adored her and even persuaded her to pose for a portrait. (Maria believed her plain looks would not appear to advantage on canvas or in photos). She did insist on appearing as she normally did, in her Quakerish black silk dress and plain hairstyle.

Maria Mitchell became involved in the emerging women’s rights movement, with fellow Nantucket Quaker Lucretia Mott, meeting the luminaries of the day and holding meetings in her observatory. Her famous friends later donated money to save her Vassar observatory. [2]

Though Maria Mitchell died in 1889, a year after her retirement from teaching, her legacy lives on. The Maria Mitchell Association also operates an observatory. Their website states “since 1908, the Observatory has been the site of research, lectures, and other programs . . .” [3]  That is smaller than the house!


Normally they start outside but since it was rainy and overcast, we couldn’t see anything in the sky. We did look at a scale model to see how far the planets are in the solar system. That was very helpful. I don’t really understand or care for astronomy so much of it was lost on me. Inside there is a little museum where visitors can see Maria Mitchell’s influence on culture and science. She has asteroid and a crater named after her, among other things. I really liked it when they mentioned there is an archive. That would be fun to look at.

More on the history of Nantucket in my next post.

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Nantucket, Massachusetts

There once was a man from Nantucket . . . Or in this case, a woman visiting Nantucket. I’ve been too busy working in a museum to visit other museums. A family wedding brought me to the small island of Nantucket, off the coast of Cape Cod. For two and half days I crammed in as many museums and historical sites as I could.

I commenced with a self-guided walking tour up Main Street.

I found Thomas Turner Square with a dedication plaque dedicated to “Thomas Turner, son of Nantucket served on the ship Bon Homme Richard Killed in Action with H.M.S. Serapis September 23, 1779.” A reminder of Nantucket’s rich maritime history and how the locals honor their long history. The Bon Homme Richard was commanded by John Paul Jones and the battle with Serapis was when he uttered the famous line “I have not yet begun to fight.” Though the battle was won, the ship was lost and half the crew on both ships were killed. [1]



Thomas Turner memorial plaque

The plaque is on the side of the Pacific National Bank, which is a historic monument as well as a bank. The bank was incorporated in 1804 for the newly wealthy whalers. [2]

In 1830s William Mitchell served as bank cashier. The job came with living quarters on the second floor. William Mitchell moved in with his family, including his daughter Maria, a librarian at the Atheneum and astronomer. William and Maria set up a telescope on the roof, where she preferred to spend her evenings over boring dinner parties. In 1847 Maria discovered a comet and rocketed (pun intended) to fame. (More on her later).


Pacific National Bank

Outside the entrance to the Mitchell’s apartment, William placed a stone marker to measure the angle of distance between true north and magnetic north.


Town’s Meridan Line plaque


Meridan Line Stone

Just past the bank is a granite obelisk standing as a memorial to the Nantucket men who died in the Civil War. [3]


Civil War Memorial


Civil War Memorial

The memorial was begun in 1874 using a stone from the recently demolished Round Top Mill. 73 Nantucket men died in the war, the first war Nantucket men participated in. Previously, the island was largely Quaker and the Quaker tradition of pacifism kept them out of previous wars. [4]

Slightly off the beaten path is the Fire Hose Cart House. I didn’t go in but I gather this is a museum of antique fire fighting equipment.


Built 40 years after the great fire of 1846, this was an important building. You can read about it at the Nantucket Preservation Trust website.

Wandering along, I noticed this house out of place among the mid-19th century mansions.


The plaque on this house says it was built in 1690 for Christopher Starbuck. The Starbucks were among the founding families of Nantucket. I was impressed this simple wooden structure survived the great fire of 1846!  This house is an example of a lean-to style house.

The wild Nantucket landscape as it must have looked centuries ago.


Nantucketview Wild Nantucket Landscape

Heading back down Main Street, near the center of town is an example of what new whaling money could buy-this opulent mansion.


Hawden House 96 Main Street

William Hawden, a whale oil and spermaceti candle manufacturer and silversmith built this Greek Revival mansion for his family during the golden age of whaling. More about him later on.

Back in the center of town is the Nantucket Atheneum. It was built in 1847 after the great fire burned the original. Maria Mitchell was the first librarian.


Nantucket Atheneum

The Atheneum has a rich history and the previous structure was the site of abolitionist meetings. In 1842 the Atheneum hosted the second Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention and in 1850, Frederick Douglass spoke here. [5]

This concludes my initial walking tour but I will write about the rest of my trip in future posts.


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