Alright. So. I’ve probably grabbed your attention with my title, right? I BET YOU’RE DYING TO KNOW MORE.
So, Man Friend surprised me on my birthday with a weekend getaway in Newport, RI (which is gorgeous, by the way, and totally worth visiting). He’d planned a trip to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in nearby New Bedford, MA, since I’m crazy about whales and really enjoy national parks and historical sites. I’ve been fascinated with the sea ever since I was a wee tot, probably because I grew up in the land-locked Midwest, and I devoured classic books of high-seas adventure– Moby-Dick, Captains Courageous, etc. (you know the mini versions of classics for kids with an illustration on every other page?). So I was pretty stoked to check out the museum!
Obviously, I knew there would be some sad and disturbing sights since whaling was such a violent enterprise, but I wasn’t prepared to see…
…knitting and sewing notions made out of whale bone! Noooo! They must have had 50 different knitting swifts, all made from whale bone and ivory.
Here’s a spool holder made of whale ivory. Ahhh! I’d never heard of ivory sewing notions. They had quite a few pipes, canes, and walking sticks, and tons of other scrimshaw samples, which is more like what I had expected to see.
Now, I don’t want to judge generations past by today’s standards, but it’s kind of a bummer to think of a material harvested in such a vicious fashion being used for sewing supplies. But, then again, maybe it was pragmatic to use more of the whale instead of just collecting the oil and discarding the carcass (kind of like that thing they always tell you in elementary school about how Native Americans used every part of the buffalo… is that little factoid even true?). And I’m sure if we investigated, we’d find that many of the things we use everyday are produced in environmentally-unfriendly, if not cruel, ways. That said, I’m pretty sure I don’t need a seam ripper made out of a walrus tusk or anything like that!
If you ever have a chance to visit the museum, you should go. The history of whaling is really fascinating– it’s hard to believe that a practice as dangerous, inefficient, and cruel as whaling provided light to the entire east coast of the United States. As you can probably imagine, there are some really colorful characters and crazy stories from that time period! Also, whaling was one of the most racially-inclusive professions at the time– because the enterprise was mainly developed by Quakers, who believed all people were equal, many freed (or escaped) slaves and Native Americans worked alongside white men on whaling crews, and could rise to the rank of captain or ship owner. If you’re too far away to visit, here’s some great reading material:
- Moby-Dick (although it’s incredibly long, it’s an epic tale and well-worth the time it takes to read)
- In the Heart of the Sea (a harrowing but riveting true story of the ship wrecked by an aggressive whale, the tale that inspired Moby-Dick. It also details the fascinating history of Nantucket whaling.)
- The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea (a beautiful book about our collective love affair with whales)