Whaling and Sailing in Massachusetts

Hector & Christi at New Bedford Whaling NHPI wasn’t that keen to learn about whaling, which seems like such a cruel practice. But New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park was a nearby national park site in southern Massachusetts, and we had a cold, drizzly day, so why not? We were surprised to find that we enjoyed the Visitor Center displays and film, both of which were excellent. Before petroleum came along, whale oil was a major source of fuel for lamps, and baleen (long tissues made of keratin that whales use to filter food through their mouths) provided a strong yet flexible material used in ladies’ corsets and other goods that would now be made of plastic. The whaling industry made New Bedford the wealthiest city in the country at one point in the 1800s, the evidence of which you can see in the many fine historic homes in town.

Christi in New Bedford MassUnlike in the South, many people here belonged to the Quaker faith. Because of their belief in equality for all people, Quakers strongly opposed slavery. Thus, women and non-white residents had a much better time of things here in New England. When escaped slave Frederick Douglass found his way north, it was here in New Bedford where sympathetic people welcomed him and joined him in the abolitionist cause.

Hector in New Bedford MassLife on the whaling ships — where black, white and immigrant (especially Portuguese) sailors earned the same wages — was a dirty, smelly, dangerous affair, and at the same time it was dreadfully boring as sailors waited for a whale sighting. Scrimshaw (whale bone and walrus tusk) carving and music became two of the most creative ways to pass the time. That explains the wealth of sea shanties and whaling songs that still exist today, particularly in Celtic music from eastern Canada.

Hector at Rotch-Jones-Duff House in New Bedford MassWe strolled through the charming downtown harbor area over to the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum. From 1834 to 1981, a succession of three wealthy families lived in this Greek Revival mansion, the first of which earned their fortune from whaling. The self-guided tour allows visitors to go into each room unimpeded by barriers to observe the furnishings, paintings, accessories and other historic artifacts, of course with admonitions not to touch anything and cameras to keep visitors on their best behavior. It is rare that historic homes allow visitors such free rein.

Christi at Rotch-Jones-Duff House in New Bedford MassThe gardens were also a showpiece in their day. Many of the hedges had just been pruned in preparation for the summer season, during which the garden hosts parties, concerts and other events on the property. We had to use our imaginations a bit to conjure up what the garden must look like at its bloomiest and loveliest.

We wanted to spend more time exploring this cute harbor town, but rain arrived and derailed those plans for the day. But we had better weather when we checked out another cute harbor town in Massachusetts — Salem.

Christi & Hector at Salem Maritime NHSSkipping ahead north of Boston (which we’ll recap in a separate post shortly), we met our Peabody-based friend Lilian for a tour of Salem. We began at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. This multi-location park preserves historic homes and buildings from the late 1600s to early 1900s that sit next to the harbor, and the park film in the Visitor Center provides a good overview of the area’s history. In its heyday, Salem was the sixth-largest city in the country and a thriving center of the shipping industry. Wharves, warehouses, a Custom House and the homes of several shipping magnates are open for tours in the summer, but we arrived a bit too early in the season.

Display at Salem Maritime NHSNevertheless, we found the public stores behind the Custom House open and took at peek at the displays of trade goods that came through this port from all over the world. Cocoa, tea, coffee, sugar, ivory, silk, cotton and spices were just some of the products that passed through Salem. I was stunned to read that one ship brought in one million pounds of black pepper. Given how lightweight pepper is, I can’t imagine how much space one million pounds of it must have taken up, or how big the ship must have been to carry such a load!

Hector at Salem Maritime NHSAnother historic site in the harbor area is the House of Seven Gables, made famous in the book of the same name by Salem author Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the interest of time we skipped a tour of the house and instead went to the Peabody Essex Museum. The museum had an excellent temporary exhibit, “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age,” which showcased exquisite items imported from Asia that adorned the homes of Amsterdam’s wealthy elite in the 17th Century.

Christi at Salem Maritime NHSOur last stop was the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, which commemorates the deaths of 20 young women and men accused of witchcraft in 1692. Most of them were executed by hanging, but one particularly unlucky soul was pressed to death. Egad.

And as always on this trip, we were pressed for time, so we said goodbye to Lilian, with hopes to return one summer to spend a little more time in this historically interesting and visually compelling little seaside town.

7 thoughts on “Whaling and Sailing in Massachusetts

  1. Marcie

    Hi Christi,

    Your states visited listings include Maine, VT and NH. Will you be blogging about them.
    That’s my territory and I’d love to know what you saw. I’ll be in Rockland/Camden early August and hope to get to Acadia National Park.

    I’m enjoying your blog. You both look energetic and happy.

    1. Christi Post author

      Yes, we did visit all three of those states and I have blog posts in the works for sites we visited there. We continue to be far behind with the updates as always!

  2. Maxine

    Once again, it was such a pleasure to take this quiet time out of my busy day to read and see what new things you and Hector have been experiencing (and we are missing). I’m sure Lilian had lots of information on places to visit and things to see, just not enough time. Looks like pretty country and filled with history.


  3. Dad

    Seems there’s more to this area than Tom and Ray (Car Talk)? May have to see some of this myself!
    Thanks for the posts – keep them coming. See you both for lunch today in sunny Watseka,

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