We spent a couple of days at Mystic Seaport last week, had a great time and learned a lot about the shipbuilding, fishing and whaling industries that kept New England afloat for a few centuries or so. The little village is a working museum consisting of many period buildings from the heyday of maritime dominance, some in their original locations, many moved from other towns.
The whaling industry is on full display here, especially with the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the second oldest commercial ship still in the water. I was able to break a long-standing record by hitting my head on every single surface of the vessel. Tall ships aren’t necessarily for tall people. On board the ship was evidence of all the other industry that went on in the town.
You don’t hear much about wooden barrels anymore, at least since the invention of Tupperware, but back in the 1800s the cooper who made the barrels was one of the most important people in the village. If you were going on a sea voyage you needed enough provisions to last the trip. It’s not like you could pull into a rest stop, gas up, hit the loo and get a cup of coffee.
Everything had to be taken on board. When it came to making these vessels to take on your vessel, the cooper really had you over a barrel. The one at Mystic was working on so many projects, he should have a plaque at Cooperstown. He cooped ‘til he was pooped. He told us how the staves of the barrel were fitted together using whale oil, which made the seal tight. I didn’t even know seals drank.
The whaling industry was dangerous, hard work and not for the squeamish. That’s why so few whales wanted to get into it. We learned about the small whaleboats the crew used to harpoon the giant mammal and deliver it back to the ship. Until now most of my contact with whales was centered around the “Fudgy the Whale” cake from Carvel.
Whale oil itself was like a miracle product back then. I assumed they used whale oil to keep the whales from making those screechy sounds that they make underwater, like the saying, “the squeaky whale gets the grease.” But in fact it was used for soap, lubrication, textile processing, and mostly, to burn in lamps. It’s surprising that the whales didn’t think of using it for all that themselves. I began to wonder where baby oil comes from, proving that you can think about things too long.
At the Thompson Exhibition Building the tales of some adventurous seafarers are on display along with artifacts from their journeys, such as scrimshaw, which are meticulously etched pieces of whale teeth. The detail in this art is impressive, and even more so if they forgot to take the teeth out of the whale beforehand. You can see the tusk of a narwhal here, a whale with a bony protrusion coming out of its head, like a “unicorn of the sea.” Why they call it a unicorn I don’t know; it’s not like it has an ear of corn coming out of its head.
The nautical instruments shop sold navigational tools, compasses and other items for fixing your position at sea. I say if your position ain’t broke, don’t fix it. They had sextants, which I’m too much of a lady to go into here. I’m not sure exactly what a sextant does, but suffice it to say that everything had to be done manually back then. They also had many antique clocks, and we had to get out of there before 12 o’clock noon hit and all the chimes went off.
The chandler sold items and provisions for the trip, and the blacksmith forged a personal relationship with the ship’s captains by making all kinds of ironwork, from gaffs to anchors. The ropehouse is by far the longest building there, because a ropemaker would actually have to walk a straight line carrying the entire length of the rope behind him, weaving the strands together. The original building was four times the length of this 250-foot structure. Could just anyone do this work? I think knot.
Many of these disciplines are flourishing again as the Mystic shipbuilders refurbish the Mayflower II, a replica of the original on hand from Plymouth, Mass. The Mayflower carried the pilgrims from the original “Brexit.” Now that they see what’s going on in America, they may want to go back. As I strolled the grounds of Mystic and talked with the artisans there and learned how much goes into it all, I will never again complain about “shipping and handling” charges.
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