• McKinley Valentine

Nantucket in the 1800s sounds like a town from a videogame or fantasy novel

“The good citizens of [Nantucket] do not seem to pride themselves upon the regularity of their streets [or] the neatness of their sidewalks,” observed a visiting Quaker. The streets were narrow and sandy, the houses were shingled and unpretentious and, as often as not, included items scavenged from ships. “Hatchways make very convenient bridges for gutters; a plank from the stern of a ship—having the name on it—answers the double purpose of making a fence—and informing the stranger if he can be at a loss—in what town he is.” […] “Nantucket was a town of roof dwellers. Nearly every house, its shingles painted red or left to weather into gray, had a roof-mounted platform known as a walk. While its intended use was to facilitate putting out chimney fires with buckets of sand, the walk was also an excellent place to look out to sea with a spyglass, to search for the sails of returning ships.” […] “Where a person lived in Nantucket depended on his station in the whaling trade. If he was a shipowner or merchant, he more than likely lived on Pleasant Street, set back on the hill, farthest from the clamour and stench of the wharves. Captains, in contrast, tended to choose the thoroughfare with the best view of the harbor: Orange Street. With a house on the east side of Orange, a captain could watch his ship being outfitted at the wharf and keep track of activity in the harbor. […] There was rumored to exist a secret society of young women on the island whose members vowed to wed only men who had already killed a whale. To help these young women identify them as hunters, boatsteerers wore chockpins (small oak pins used to secure the harpoon line in the bow groove of a whaleboat) on their lapels."

(Excerpts from In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, mentioned above.)

And because the whalemen were away for three years at a time and only home for a few months in between, women had an enormous amount of independence and power, being fully responsible for managing households, trade, politicking, etc.

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Nantucket Girls Song (1855)

I have made up my mind now to be a Sailor’s wife, To have a purse full of money and a very easy life, For a clever sailor husband is so seldom at his home, That his wife can spend the dollars with a will that’s all her own, Then I’ll haste to wed a sailor, and send him off to sea, For a life of independence is the pleasant life for me.

But every now and then I shall like to see his face, For it always seems to me to beam with manly grace, With his brow so nobly open, and his dark and kindly eye, Oh my heart beats fondly towards him whenever he is nigh, But when he says “Goodbye my love, I’m off across the sea” First I cry for his departure, then laugh because I’m free.