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Whaling Museum Cold Spring Harbor

A trade card advertising a New York confectionery depicts Victorian children playing tug of war with a wrapped hard candy.

By Nomi Dayan

As you reach for a sweet treat this June in honor of National Candy Month, consider how the abundance of candy today is a rather exceptional thing.

For much of human history, sugar was an expensive indulgence reserved for celebratory desserts. Sugary treats were a luxury for the rich. People also used sugar for therapeutic functions, with early candy serving as a form of medicine, including lozenges for coughs or digestive troubles. 

Sugar was also used as a preservative; similar to salt, sugar dried fruits and vegetables, preventing spoilage. But all in all, sugar was carefully conserved. In George Washington’s time, the average American consumed only 6 pounds of sugar a year (far less than the 130 or so pounds consumed annually per person today).

The use of sugar swelled dramatically in the 1800s. Suddenly, sugar was everywhere, and with it came new technological advances in candy production. Sugar shipped from slave-powered plantations in the West Indies became more affordable and available with new, steam-powered industrial processes. 

Candy-making, 1888 by Rosina Sherwood. Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

These changes were part of the Industrial Revolution, made possible by prized whale oil and its valuable lubricating properties. In 1830, Louisiana had the largest sugar refinery in the world. The invention of the Mason jar in 1858 drove demand for sugar for canning, and in 1876, the Hawaiian Reciprocity Treaty made sugar even more available. People couldn’t get enough of sweetness.

The availability of sugar brought a slew of new inventions to the culinary scene: candy! Confectioneries sprang up everywhere. The shops’ best customers were children, who spent their earnings on penny candy. Hard candies became very popular. 

As Yankee whaling reached its peak, Victorian-era sweets boomed with a succession of creations: the first chocolate bar was made in 1847; chewing gum followed in 1848; marshmallows were invented in 1850 and, in 1880, fudge. People’s breaths were taken away when sweets with soft cream centers were tasted at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.

Some candies, especially hard ones, were sold as being “wholesome” and even healthy. Unfortunately, candy was anything but nourishing. Sugar was sometimes adulterated with cheaper plaster of paris or chalk. Other candies were far more toxic.

In 1831, Dr. William O’Shaughnessy toured different confectionery shops in London and had a range of dyed candy chemically analyzed; he found a startling number of sweets colored with lead, mercury, arsenic and copper.

But as ubiquitous as candy was on land, a sweet treat was quite rare at sea, especially on a whaleship. Sugar on board was still a luxury reserved for the captain and officers. The crew had to settle for molasses, which was often infested; one whaler wrote it tasted like “tar.” Candy only makes brief glimpses in whaling logbooks, or daily records. 

On May 22, 1859, William Abbe journaled on the ship Atkins Adams: “Cook & Thompson Steward making molasses candy in galley.” (Earlier on the voyage, he described molasses kegs as “the haunts of the cockroach.”)

Laura Jernegan, a young daughter who sailed with her father and family on a three-year whaling voyage, wrote in her diary on board the Roman, “Feb 16, 1871. It is quite pleasant today. The hens have laid 50 eggs …” Then, an exciting thing happened – she passed another whaleship at sea, the Emily Morgan. There was a whaling wife aboard, too! Laura wrote: “Mrs. Dexter [the wife of Captain Benjamin Dexter] sent Prescott [her brother] and I some candy.”

In other cultures, whales still facilitated the treat scene – no sugar needed. Frozen whale blubber was (and is) a traditional treat for the Inuit and Chukchi people. Called muktuk, cubes are cut from whale skin and blubber and conventionally are served raw.

While whaling in our country is a thing of the past, the years of unrestricted whaling reflect how, in essence, people treated the ocean “like a kid in a candy store,” as noted by author Robert Sullivan. In the 20th century, so many whales were caught so quickly and efficiently that soon even whalers themselves were worried about saving the whales. 

Today, as we continue to gather resources from the sea, we must ensure the ocean can replenish itself faster than we can sweep its candy off the shelves.

Nomi Dayan is the executive director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center.

Calling artists and artisans

The Whaling Museum, 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor invites local artists and artisans (bakers, carvers, knitters, quilters, potters, candlemakers, woodworkers, weavers, etc.) to showcase their old world skills and talents at the museum’s annual SeaFaire celebration on Saturday, Sept. 29 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event is an opportunity to share and sell works of art. There is no charge if demonstrations are provided. Questions? Call Liz at 367-3418.

The Captain James Wright House, 1894

COLD SPRING HARBOR: The Whaling Museum has been a Cold Spring Harbor fixture since opening its doors in 1942. What many people don’t know is that the museum offices are housed in the historic home located next door to the museum — the Captain James Wright House built in 1894. On Friday, May 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., a dedication ceremony will take place honoring the installation of a new Pomeroy Historic Marker celebrating the Wright House.

Captain James Wright served in the Navy during the Civil War and went on to become a successful Coastwise Captain on many ships, including the Excelsior that sailed out of Cold Spring Harbor. The exterior architectural detail of his home has remained intact, from the stained glass windows down to the captain’s wheel adorning the porch gable.

The William G. Pomeroy Foundation awarded the marker to this museum, to highlight the Captains Row residence of a noteworthy individual who was part of Cold Spring Harbor’s rich maritime history. The Whaling Museum purchased the home in 1956. 

“It has been a pleasure working with The Whaling Museum to commemorate the historical significance of the Wright House and Captain James Wright through our Historic Roadside Marker Program,” said Paula Miller, executive director of the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. “We hope that bringing a marker to this site on Captains Row will give the public another opportunity to discover local history in Cold Spring Harbor.”

The dedication ceremony is open to the public and will take place on the museum grounds with several local dignitaries as well as a representative from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. The museum will be open for a wine and cheese reception, followed by a historic walking tour through Cold Spring Harbor village. Donations will be accepted to support the museum’s maritime history-based education programs.

The Whaling Museum & Education Center is located at 301 Main St. in Cold Spring Harbor and specializes in the culture and history of our maritime heritage as illustrated by the Cold Spring Harbor whaling industry of the 1850s. Hours are Tuesday to Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and weekends from 11a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 631-367-3418 or visit www.cshwhalingmuseum.org.

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A handwritten and hand-drawn excerpt from ‘Descriptions of Whales’ by Capt. Thomas W. Roys. Image from Whaling Museum
Mystery solved: Beware of artifacts on eBay!

The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor discovered that a recently purchased artifact, the first description of the natural history of whales, had been stolen from the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

In spring 2016, Nomi Dayan, the Whaling Museum’s executive director, received a call from the museum’s past curator and scholar, Fred Schmitt. He alerted her that a one-of-a-kind document was up for auction: the handwritten and hand-drawn “Descriptions of Whales” created by Capt. Thomas W. Roys (1816-1877).

A handwritten and hand-drawn excerpt from ‘Descriptions of Whales’ by Capt. Thomas W. Roys. Image from Whaling Museum

Considered to be the most prominent Long Island whaling captain, Roys is the American founder of the modern whaling industry. With humble beginnings as an upstate farm boy, he joined a whaling crew out of Sag Harbor as a green hand and rose to master in only eight years, devoting his life not only to hunting whales but to the scientific study of whales. Roys was an inventor of modern whaling tools — even blowing off his left hand in an experiment with the first rocket-powered harpoon and was the first American to sail through the Bering Strait as well as the first industrial whaler to discover the bowhead whale.

While commanding the Cold Spring Harbor whaleship, the Sheffield, in 1854, Roys received a query from Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury asking about his knowledge of whale species and their habits. Roys enthusiastically responded with a detailed manuscript: a 24-sheet booklet filled with pencil drawings of whale species; his observations about their size, appearance and behavior; their products; and when and where to best hunt each species.

“This is a one-of-a-kind artifact penned by a key figure in our local and national whaling history,” said Dayan. “Not only is ‘Descriptions of Whales’ a clear snapshot of the foremost scientific understanding of whales at the time, but today the manuscript is viewed as the first whale textbook.”

The museum acquired the piece at Skinner Auctioneers for $1,599. However, when Schmitt visited the museum to view the item in person, he was struck by a sense of familiarity. He had seen the piece before — 30 years ago. It fact, there was a picture of it in a biography about Roys he had authored. When Schmitt and Dayan flipped through the book to find the photo, they were puzzled to see the image was credited to the Mariners’ Museum in Virginia. Had the document once belonged to the Mariners’ Museum? Why was the piece at an auction house? And why did the item look like it was ripped out of a larger volume?

Dayan consulted with Jeanne Willoz-Egnor, director of Collections Management at the Mariners. After sleuthing through its archive collection records, Willoz-Egnor confirmed that the piece indeed did belong to the Mariners’ Museum — and it had been internally stolen and sold.

Willoz-Egnor explained how Roy’s manuscript was one of thousands of pieces systematically stolen from the institution over a six-year period by the Mariners’ archivist, Lester Weber, who sold the items on eBay. Unprocessed and uncounted collection items were raided and items were cut from scrapbooks. To cover up his actions, he rearranged the collection’s storage area, instituted a new numbering system and methodically erased donor and acquisition information.

Astoundingly, six years of rampant thievery passed until the Mariners’ Museum received a phone call in 2006 from a collector in Switzerland. He had purchased a number of the items through eBay and had become suspicious about the never-ending source of such high-quality materials. Weber’s eBay account was listed under his wife’s maiden name, Lori Childs, which never yielded any information in internet searches by the collector. However, when Childs happened to include her middle initial on a return address on one occasion, the collector was finally able to link her name online to an obituary about her mother where there was mention of Lester Weber, who worked at none other than the Mariners’ Museum.

An investigation led to Weber’s termination, who continued to sell stockpiled stolen artifacts even after his arrest. Research indicated at least 6,456 items were removed from the collection between 2000 and 2006. In 2008, Weber and Childs both pled guilty to more than two dozen counts, including theft. In 2008, Weber was sentenced to four years in prison, his wife to 15 months, and was ordered to make restitution of the $172,357 he made from the sales, even though the museum valued the stolen items at $500,000. Weber was released from prison in June 2012.

Today, 5,500 pieces remain unaccounted for, but “Descriptions of Whales” will be returning to its original home. The finding also led to the detection of several other items that had been stolen from the Mariners’ Museum and were sold in the same auction lot, including the 1776 logbook of the whaling ship, the Minerva.

Howard H. Hoege III, the president and CEO of Mariners’, stated, “It is difficult to fully express how grateful we are to The Whaling Museum & Education Center at Cold Spring Harbor for their diligence and compassion regarding the Roys manuscript. All of us at The Mariners’ Museum were incredibly proud and humbled that our fine colleagues in Cold Spring Harbor would go to the lengths that they did in an effort to make us whole.”

“Uncovering the circumstances behind this item’s whereabouts was bittersweet,” said Dayan. “It is unfortunate for our museum to lose this tremendous scholarly importance to our collection, but rewarding to do the right thing and return this object home.”

The Whaling Museum & Education Center, located at 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor, specializes in the culture and history of local maritime heritage as illustrated by the Cold Spring Harbor whaling industry of the 1850s. Learn more at www.cshwhalingmuseum.org.

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Above, a 19th-century glass plate portrait of mother and infant in Australia. Photo courtesy Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences
Whaling wives in the 19th century faced daunting challenges
Nomi Dayan

By Nomi Dayan

As I prepare to become a mother for the third time around, I am brought to reflect on one of the most dirty, reeking and unlikely places possible to birth a baby: a whaleship. Today’s challenges with pregnancy and childbirth pale in comparison with the experience of the 19th-century woman — and even more so, the challenge whaling wives faced at sea.

 

Because whaling wives saw so very little of their husbands, some resorted to going out to sea — a privilege reserved for the wife of the captain. Aside from dealing with cramped and filthy conditions, poor diets, isolation and sickness, many wives eventually found themselves — or even started out — “in circumstance.”

In the 19th century, pregnancy was never mentioned outright. Even in their private diaries, whaling wives rarely hinted to their pregnancies. Some miserably record an increase in seasickness. Only the very bold dared to delicately remark on the creation of pregnancy clothes. Adra Ashley of the Reindeer wrote to a friend in 1860, “I am spending most of my time mending — I want to say what it was, but how can I! How dare I!” Martha Brown of Orient was more forward by mentioning in her diary in 1848 that she is “fixing an old dress into a loose dress,” with “loose” meaning “maternity.”

Once the time of birth approached, women at sea faced two options: to be left on land — often while the crew continued on — or to give birth on board. Giving birth on land was far preferable, as the mother would be theoretically closer to medical care and whatever social support was available. Martha Brown was left in Honolulu — much to her personal dismay to see her husband depart for 7 months on the Lucy Ann — but fell into a supportive society of women, most left themselves in similar situations.

During Martha’s “confinement” after birth when she was restricted to bed rest, a fellow whaling wife nursed her. When Captain Brown returned, he wrote to his brother: “Oahu. I arrived here and to my joy found my wife enjoying excellent health with as pretty a little son as eyes need to look upon. A perfect image of his father of course — blue eyes and light hair, prominent forehead and filled with expression.”

Giving birth on land did not always ensure a hygienic setting as one would hope. Abbie Dexter Hicks of Westport accompanied her husband Edward on the Mermaid, sailing out in 1873. Her diary entry on the Seychelles was: “Baby born about 12 — caught two rats.”

Some whaleships found reaching a port before birth tricky. In 1874, Thomas Wilson’s wife Rhoda of the James Arnold of New Bedford was about to give birth, but when the ship arrived at the Bay of Islands of New Zealand, there was no doctor in town. A separate boat was sent to search up the Kawakawa River for 14 miles; when a doctor was finally found and retrieved, the captain informed the doctor that it was a girl.

Some babies were born aboard whaleships — either by design or by accident, despite hardly ideal conditions. Births, if recorded in the ship’s logbook, were mentioned matter of factly. Charles Robbins of the Thomas Pope recorded in April 1862: “Looking for whales … reduced sail to double reef topsails at 9 p.m. Mrs. Robbins gave birth of a Daughter and doing nicely. Latter part fresh breezes and squally. At 11am took in the mainsail.”

Captain Charles Nicholls was in for a surprise when he headed to New Zealand on the Sea Gull in 1853 with his wife. Before the birth, fellow Captain Peter Smith had told him during a gam (social visit at sea), “Tis easy,” and advised the first mate be ready to take over holding the baby once it was born. When the time came, Captain Nicholls dutifully handed the baby to the first mate, only to return several minutes later shouting, “My God! Get the second mate, fast!” — upon when he promptly handed out a second infant.

Captain Parker Hempstead Smith’s wife went into labor unexpectedly: “Last night we had an addition to our ship’s company,” seaman John States recorded on Feb. 18, 1846 on board the Nantasket of New London, “for at 9 p.m., Mrs. Smith was safely delivered of a fine boy whose weight is eight lbs. This is quite a rare thing at sea, but fortunately no accident happened. Had anything occurred, there would have been no remedy and we should have had to deplore the loss of a fine good hearted woman.”

He also added his good wishes for the baby: “Success to him — may he live to be a good whaleman — though that would make him a great rascal.”

A pregnant Martha Brown had two options, to be left in Honolulu while the crew continued on or to give birth on board. She chose the first.

The author is the executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center, 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor.

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More reading:

▶ Joan Druett, “Petticoat Whalers.” Auckland: Collins, 1991.

▶ Anne MacKay, Ed. “She Went a Whaling: The Journal of Martha Smith Brewer Brown.” Orient, NY: Oysterponds Historical Society, 1993.