Villainous Sewists in History

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…

A knitting swift (for winding skeins of yarn into balls)

…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!

Depressed? This guy should cheer you up!  Old Neptune was part of P.T. Barnum’s New York City museum, who identified his species incorrectly and claimed that he was a gift from famous mountain man Grizzly Adams (most likely untrue).  His crazy eyes remind me of Doug the Pug!

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)

45 responses

  1. What a sweet gift from Man Friend!
    I’m certainly no expert on history, but I wonder if these things (and likely many other utilitarian objects) were made from whale bone because that was just one of the “natural resources” of the day, and more durable than wood, for instance. Not really sure if our modern use of plastics is a whole lot better . . .


  2. Ok, I’ve actually been there! Years ago when I was a kid. My dad made us all go (he made us go to EVERY nearby historical site or museum when we traveled). We whined about it at first but I remember it being pretty neat once we were there.


  3. how weird, I visited our local maritime museum last week and took a photo of a swift exactly like that! there were also lots of decorative items made out of whale bones and teeth, and a coat stand made out of Narwhal tusks 😦


    • Thanks, girl! There’s something so dog-like about seals (or seal-like about dogs?)! It was such a nice gift! We rarely travel, and if we do, it’s to visit family, so it was a great surprise.


  4. Very interesting! It is sad that whales were subjected to such brutality for people’s modern day conveniences, but it is part of our history and helped made our country what it is. I did not realize it was started by Quakers, that’s a great piece of trivia! Thanks for sharing this, have a happy thanksgiving 🙂


  5. Hooray for a great vacation! Thanks for giving us all a little tour of the museum. I always love all the little details you can pick up in museums like this one.


  6. My husband read Moby Dick out loud to me while I sewed (for at least half of 2012!) It’s amazing and sometimes disturbing and so worth it. The whaling museum looks fascinating!


  7. Oh my gosh I love “In the Heart of the Sea”!! I know, totally weird tale to love, but it’s gripping! Anyway – What a fun birthday trip! I think whaling is probably one of the more depressing big business ventures in man’s history, but also kind of fascinating, no?


    • I’m so glad you’ve read it, too! I couldn’t put it down! I agree– whaling is such a sad part of our history (especially considering how depleted some whale species populations still are), but it really is incredibly captivating.


  8. Ack! What IS that thing? It’s a seal? The ones at the aquarium seem so much cuter! And smaller! That thing’s huge!
    What an awesome trip and thoughtful man-friend you have! Thanks for sharing.


  9. We have just opened a glass exhibition where I work. One of the artworks is inspired by old Irish fishermen’s jumpers – apparently they all had personalised designs/cables etc so if they drowned they could be identified. Charming use of craft hey?!


  10. “Happy birthday! Let’s look at things made from murdered whales!”

    But seriously, that sounds like such an awesome surprise trip! And I guess at least those whales didn’t go entirely to waste, and were able to contribute posthumously to the making of beautiful things…


  11. I love stories about awesome hubbies!! And what an interesting trip it turned out to be! I also wonder about the use of certain materials from years gone by. I just try to remember that they didn’t have the same knowledge about the effects of the use of materials (or method of killing animals) that we do now. They did what they could with what they had.


    • That’s so true– the animal rights movement, or really, even the concept of animal cruelty is relatively recent, and it’s hard to remember that animals were viewed in a strictly utilitarian way not that long ago. Even the way my grandparents viewed animals is completely different from the way I do (and they were animal lovers, but they still didn’t think that pets belonged inside the house).


    • I’m right there with you, girl! I’m glad we’ve gotten a little kinder to our furry friends (although I still haven’t made the full conversion to vegetarianism… one of these days I’ll convince my meat-eatin’ man)!



    It is standard practice in my family that when my parents bring up all the fascinating places they’ve taken my siblings and I, we kindly remind them of the time they deposited us at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and we had to watch videos about harvesting blubber and OMG we will never get those images out of our minds. Of course, we took that trip back when I was 12?? So it’s been quite some time and we’ve never forgotten that place. I remember little else about the trip but the whaling museum! Had I been more interested in sewing and knitting then, I probably would’ve been even more horrified than I already was at the crafting tools that were on display. I love whales and I love the sea, so seeing all of the cruelty was a bit hard on my pre-teen psyche and threw me into Greenpeace/Save the Earth/Why don’t we recycle more? mode for some of my teenage years. Awkward.

    Sorry – that was a total tangent.

    Anyway, I hope you had a marvelous time in Newport and were able to enjoy some parts of the Whaling Museum! There was a boat regatta happening outside while we were there and it was quite a lovely spot. Yay for surprise trips and cruelty free sewing!


  13. Late to the party here! I just started reading your blog (which is excellent, of course), and was super jazzed to see a mention of the NBWM! Apologies if this is old news, but they host a really great Moby-Dick Marathon every year (, which is also streamed live. There’s also an NYC Marathon (, which I think is returning to the scene in 2014. Anyway, just wanted to pipe up with my joy at seeing cetology mentions on this blog!


    • Hi, Lucy! Thanks for stopping by! The marathon sounds amazing! Thanks for letting me know! I’m working my way through Moby-Dick again right now– there’s something about the book that I just can’t get out of my head, so I re-read it every few years. 🙂


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