The World & Nantucket


In February, 1815, a month when the thermometer had hit an all-time low of eleven degrees below zero, Nantucket got word of the peace, and held what with sublime understatement was referred to as a “general jollification.” Bells were rung, windows were illuminated, lights were burned from the church towers, and cheering crowds swarmed through the snowy streets. One man made a sleigh by lashing a chair to a peat sled and then, with a small American flag flying, drove out to the neighboring settlements to spread the news. In this, a comparatively short war, Nantucket lost only half its ships.

The decline and eventual end of Nantucket whaling was due to a number of factors, most of them of off-island origin. The only local reason—aside from a catastrophic fire—was a sand bar, which built up across the harbor entrance and, as ships got bigger, necessitated an elaborate flotation device known as a “camel” to get them over it. It was easier for ships to work out of New Bedford, which eventually surpassed Nantucket as the leading port for whalers. Then, about 1850, came the development of “earth oil”—petroleum—which was better than whale oil, and finally, as the last straw, there was the Civil War. The Confederate raiders took Union ships wherever they found them, the Shenandoah singlehandedly destroying Nantucket’s entire Arctic fleet. The last whaler to leave Nantucket went out late in 1869.

Over the years, many people tried to start businesses of one sort or another on the island, and most of them failed. By “businesses” is meant anything that might provide an export, or give the island an industry by which it could sustain itself. In 1836 a silk factory was set up under the impressive name of the Atlantic Silk Company, and thousands of mulberry trees were imported for the cultivation of silkworms. The project lasted eight years. In 1859 a boot and shoe factory opened, but it was destroyed by fire in 1873. In 1864 a man started making linen coats, or dusters, and by 1880 was turning out 50,000 a year, but then linen dusters went out of style, and with them went the business. (On the subject of individual enterprise, mention must be made of one William Rawson, who in 1829 grew a Nan tucket turnip that measured three feet two inches in circumference, and weighed eleven and three quarters pounds. It is not recorded what he did with it.) More recently, the Nantucket Historical Trust, which has spent some $500,000 restoring a historic old inn, set up a weaving establishment that is turning out Nantucket fabrics and handmade crewel-work at an increasing pace. One problem, of course, with any island product is that the shipping charge makes it hard to compete with similar mainland products, so the exports—aside from woven goods-must be limited to scallops and cranberries, which cannot be found everywhere. Nantucket scallops and cranberries have a steady market, but an island of 3,500 people (the present approximate population) cannot subsist on the income from these alone.

And, as it turns out, they can’t even make their own money; last summer, when the national shortage of change was acutely felt on the island, an enterprising storekeeper named Harry Howard made aluminum “whale money,” in two-bit and four-bit pieces, redeemable at any of the three gift shops he owns. The first batch of one thousand dollars’ worth was immediately snapped up by coin collectors, and the whale money might still be in circulation if Mr. Howard had not had the prudence to write to the Treasury Department in Boston, explaining what he was doing and asking if it was all right with them. The answer was a quick and emphatic “No,” larded with mutterings of “cease and desist”; Mr. Howard had to recall his tokens and go back to using the practically nonexistent United States currency.

So it is on the off-islanders—the 100,000 summer visitors and tourists—that Nantucket must depend, and to islanders whose roots go back to pre-Revolutionary days this is faintly galling. For those whose roots don’t go back that far, and who must earn enough in an average eight-week season to last them the rest of the year, the off-islanders represent a source of income that must be tended and nurtured as carefully as a fragile flower. A few years ago, in an attempt to stretch out the summer season to include June and September, a public-relations firm was retained and commercials extolling the beauties of Nantucket were plugged on mainland radio stations. They got the message across, but the result was that more people than ever came in August, when Main Street tends to look like a riot at a racetrack anyway, and hardly any came in June and September. A few new people stayed over into early fall and were frightened off by a hurricane. If only they’d known it, a hurricane is nothing to what some of the winter gales are like, and the months of September and October are generally the most satisfying of the year. The moors turn red, the skies are crisp and clear, the water stays warm enough for swimming until around Columbus Day, and there are bluefish and striped bass for those who have mastered the knack of surfcasting. This is also the time when the town of Nantucket is its most beautiful; the old whaling captains’ houses, which are of a purity of design seldom seen, look their best surrounded by the reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn foliage. The sense of relaxation, which is Nantucket’s primary commodity, is never so evident as it is in the fall, just when the visitors have dwindled to almost nothing.