Road Trip Through History: Mystic Seaport

My Own True Love is not my only co-conspirator when it comes to road trips through history. I met fellow historian Karin Wetmore my first day in graduate school while we were standing next to each other in the part of the registration line dedicated to people with names beginning with letters at the end of the alphabet.* Shortly thereafter we headed downtown to the Field Museum to see an exhibit of the terra cotta warriors from the tomb of the first Chinese emperor, which had been discovered several years before and were making their first guest appearance in the United States.

We’ve been taking each other on historical adventures ever since, though not as often as either of us would like. When I recently visited her in Boston, we hit the road for a day trip to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.**

Mystic Seaport is a living history museum devoted to the the Yankee whaling ships of the nineteenth century. Like other living history museums I have visited over the years, it includes a row of small period shops devoted to the crafts and businesses that would have played a role in the port during the days of the whaling industry. Some of them, like the printing shop, the barrel maker, and the apothecary, were familiar from inland living history programs. Others, like the sailmakers, the rope walk, and the chandlery, were not. I came away with a greater appreciation of rope making and the role of a printing shop in small town America in the nineteenth century.***

Much as I enjoyed the “village”, the real focus of Mystic Seaport is the whaling industry—just as it would have been in the late eighteenth century. We began our visit with a tour of the Charles W. Morgan, a restored whaling ship that first launched in 1841 and made 37 voyages over an eighty-year career. In its day, the Morgan was known as a lucky, or “greasy”, ship—that is one that regularly got its whale. I suppose you could say it’s still a lucky ship since it is the last of its kind that is still afloat. I was fascinated by a close-up look at the ship’s fittings, all of which looked cozy enough until you thought about sharing quarters with thirty-five of your (unwashed) fellow sailors and a hold full of rendered whale blubber. Presumably the nose grows numb with time.

Once we had seen what a (seriously cleaned-up) whaling ship looked like, we moved on to the whaling museum, which provided context. The museum tells the stories of Yankee whaling, aboriginal whaling, and the “save the whale” movement. It looks at how the popular image of whales changed over time, and how nineteenth century naturalists created a body of data about whale movements that remains the foundation for the work of modern marine biologists. It displays the range of products that depended on whalebone, baleen, and whale oil. (I was fascinated by a video demonstrating scrimshaw carving.) It considers the role of whale oil in the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. (The short version: machinery needs to be oiled and whale oil was cheap.)

Here are some of the bits that caught my imagination:

  • The use of whale oil lamps on city streets changed urban life. Streets were safer (at least in “good” neighborhoods) so more people moved around after dark.
  • In the American Civil War, the Union sunk old whaling ships to block southern harbors.
  • As late as 1972, Dexron transmission fluid contained whale oil.
  • The term “whale on” comes from the use of a buggy whip made from baleen.

If we’d come later in the year, we might have chosen to participate in the annual Moby-Dick Marathon: a twenty-four hour public reading of Hermann Melville’s long-winded classic in honor of Melville’s birthday. It’s a communal event, in which visitors are encouraged to read a chapter or two. Then again, maybe not. Reading Moby-Dick in high school was enough of a marathon.

*Alphabetization has always been my friend.

**As those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter may have seen, I also took the opportunity to meet with the publishing team at Beacon Press, which is publishing Women Warriors. It’s starting to feel real, people.

***Just because I’m familiar with the mechanics of the printing press (at least in theory), it doesn’t mean there wasn’t stuff to learn. The printer at Mystic Seaport was willing to talk at length about the types of documents that would have been printed in a shop like his in addition to the local newspaper: bank notes issued by the local bank, job announcements, theater bills, election ballots, wedding announcements, menu cards, etc. There was a *headsmack* element to the experience. Sometimes the obvious is surprising.


  1. Joy McGinniss on July 10, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    I have a cherished memory of Mystic Seaport. My hubby of 3 1/2 years at the time surprised me and took me away for an anniversary getaway. This was a pretty incredible event for two poor fairly newly wed and me expecting our first son (now 35!). My beloved and I both love all things oceanic and historical but what made the trip most memorable (besides needing to find a new motel on Labor Day weekend because the one he’d booked had fleas !) was that he’d packed all my clothes, jewelry, make-up, etc. Who could not love a man like that? One of many reasons we’re still together all these many years later. Mystic is lovel and we keep meaning to go back. Sounds like they’ve added things since our visit several decades ago. New Bedford, MA and Nantucket Island also have excellent whaling museums, though not “living” ones. Thanks for the post, Pam. Lovely memories ❤️.

    • pamela on July 12, 2018 at 3:23 pm

      Evidently My Own True Love and I are not the only couple to make road trips through history. What a lovely memory! Thanks for sharing it.

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