Lesbianism, Dildos, and the Secret Histories of Whaling Wives
The island of Nantucket was one of early America’s greatest success stories. With profits pouring in from the lucrative whaling industry, Nantucket fostered a society that would appear strikingly unusual today and downright peculiar by Colonial standards. With the men off on whaling ships for months and even years at a time, the women were left pretty much on their own. Sure, they were bound by Puritan restrictions, but that didn’t stop the women from taking charge of business affairs. Thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, the lonely women also took charge of their own sexuality, and that’s where homemade dildos called he’s-at-homes come in.
Nathaniel Philbrick explains the origin of he’s-at-homes in his 2000 book In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. There’s a movie version of the book out next month.
An island tradition claims that Nantucket women dealt with their husbands’ long absences by relying on sexual aids known as “he’s-at-homes.” Although this claim, like that of drug use, seems to fly in the face of the island’s staid Quaker reputation, in 1979 a six-inch plaster penis (along with a batch of letters from the nineteenth century and a laudanum bottle) was discovered hidden in the chimney of a house in the island’s historic district. Just because they were “superior wives” didn’t mean that the island’s women were without normal physical desires.
Nantucket’s whaling industry was left in shambles after a brutal 1806 storm that devastated the island and killed about ten percent of its people. Soon afterwards, the whaling ships moved to the mainland, setting up in New Bedford and remaining there until the whaling industry dried up.
Writer and painter Ben Shattuck was born in South Dartmouth, the next town over from New Bedford. “The sea was always a part of my life,” he says. “The Martha’s Vineyard lighthouse light flashed on my bedroom wall; I was actually baptized with seawater; Buzzards Bay was my backyard.” Shattuck recently wrote a piece for literary journal The Common about a visit to Nantucket to see the same he’s-at-home that Philbrick mentions, the one found in a chimney in 1979, after Shattuck searched fruitlessly for evidence of a he’s-at-home on the mainland. Surely, he figured, there were plenty of dildos in whaling towns like Mystic, CT; Newport, RI; or New Bedford, which to this day is nicknamed the Whaling City.
But when he asked around, no one knew what he was talking about.
“I thought I hadn’t seen them in museums only because they were too risqué,” he told me via email.
I remember there used to be a big dried whale penis in the New Bedford Whaling Museum—a couple feet tall—that one day a few years ago disappeared because, I heard, there were complaints. The same might have been true for dildos. But, as I later found out, there are definitely no he’s-at-homes at any of these museums—not at Mystic, not at the Peabody Essex, not at New Bedford, not at Nantucket, not at Cuttyhunk’s Museum of the Elizabeth Islands.
I asked him whether this was really the case, or whether this was just a symptom of Puritan New England prudishness hanging on into the twenty-first century. Shattuck found that theory unlikely.
The great mystery, though, is that there only seems to be the one surviving he’s-at-home. How can that be? Island lore suggests that the whalers gave he’s-at-homes to keep their wives happy when they were off at sea, but if they were really so common there would surely be more than one surviving dildo. But if they were just a legend, then there wouldn’t be any. The single known he’s-at-home leads to more questions than answers.
And what about after the women left the island? When the whaling community resettled in New Bedford, the women maintained a freedom that was quite unusual for the time. The city was one of the world’s richest, with nearly half of the world’s oil coming off the city’s whaling ships. And the women also started sleeping with one another to pass the time while their husbands were away. Rory Nugent’s 2009 book Down on the Docks chronicles New Bedford’s economic decline, but a chapter called Whalebone focuses on the city’s long lesbian history.
According to Nugent, that history dates back two centuries, with a ladies-only place called the Button Club opening way back in 1817. There was also the Petticoat Society, founded in Nantucket but transplanted to New Bedford along with everyone else after 1806. Petticoat Society members held private meetings, drank tea laced with the opiate laudanum, and threw parties seven days a week. Nugent explains how they also ran the town:
“[W]ith mainland laws and mores to deal with, the women abandoned the limelight to both direct and stage-manage the action from the shadows…The matriarchy was firmly in place by 1818, the wives and widows of whaling caprtains calling the shots at town meetings and council sessions. In fact, the women had their way in any community matter in which, by state and federal law, only half the community was allowed voice and vote.”
But was the Petticoat Society real? As with the he’s-at-homes, there’s evidence that it existed – it makes a lot of sense that something like that would exist – but it seems like there should be a whole lot more evidence. Hasty internet searches turn up nothing on the Petticoat Society, or the Button Club, or even of the black market carved whalebone dildos that Nugent refers to in another section of the chapter. Nugent’s writing style isn’t super convincing, either. He writes in an over-the-top manner suggesting that he’s more interested in storytelling than in actual facts, so maybe his words shouldn’t be taken at face value.
Hosea Ricker was the Petticoat Society’s secretary and lone remaining member when she passed away in the mid-2000s. “Although New Bedford never rolled out the red carpet for homosexuals or bisexuals,” Nugent says, “Secretary Ricker said there was never a reason for a welcoming party, simply because queers were always part of the woodwork.” He quotes her: “Honestly, now, every family in these parts has its share of fruits, from the tippy top to the taproots. Queers, my dear, have always run things in town and probably always will.”
(All photos from the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum)