Nantucket, 1819

View of the Town of Nantucket, by Thomas Birch, ca. 1810. Gift of Robert M. Waggaman. 1974.21.1

Nantucket in 1819 was the world’s leading whaling port, made prosperous by international demand for quality lighting and lubricating oils harvested from sperm whales. Between 70 and 80 vessels belonged to the island’s whaling fleet during that year, and an equal number traded from the island. Most of Nantucket’s 7,000 inhabitants were of Anglo descent, and complex ties of blood and marriage linked neighbor to neighbor. At the same time, the highway of the sea linked the island to many American, Caribbean, and European ports, and to the islands of the Atlantic. A steady stream of sailors and traders, including many people of color, passed through the port, with a growing trickle staying to partake in the island’s success.

Nantucket’s People

The Town of Sherburne in the Island of Nantucket (detail) Benjamin Tanner Jr. after Joseph Sansom, 1811. The hallmarks of Nantucket’s economy—whaleships, coastal traders, sheep, ropewalks—proudly fill this engraving from a Philadelphia magazine.

Men and women alike worked to sustain Nantucket’s whaling industry and the trade and commerce that supported it. As a port town of sailors and fishermen, the island depended on its boatbuilders, smiths, coopers, and rope makers, at the same time that merchants, shopkeepers, and innkeepers found themselves neighbors to refiners and candle makers. Outside the commercial town, farmers and shepherds did their best with the island’s long growing season but poor soil.

A Glimpse of Nantucket in 1819
(Click on an image for more detail)

The portraits, books, and tools displayed here represent the vibrant community of people living and working on Nantucket in 1819. During this time, the austere and industrious principles of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, dominated island culture, creating a local preference for plainness in dress and taste and for thrift and practicality in both public and private affairs.

“Nantucket, 1819” as it appeared in the original 2015 exhibition at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

Next: The Whaleship Essex