There once was a dildo in Nantucket
October 16, 2015 3:31 PM   Subscribe

He's-at-homes The dildos of the wives of the whalers of Nantucket. Except this isn't exactly about that, really, it's about loneliness, fading port towns, myth making and removing women from history.
posted by Helga-woo (46 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
 
A great read, thanks for posting.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:10 PM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


This acknowledges the oft ignored sexual needs of women, in the context of history and the times.
posted by infini at 4:11 PM on October 16, 2015


Fascinating information, and the writing is so moving. Thanks for this.
posted by GrammarMoses at 4:34 PM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Having the flowers" is the best euphemism for menstruating ever
posted by DarlingBri at 4:36 PM on October 16, 2015 [16 favorites]


“Would you like to see the chimney?” she asked after I had measured the dildo.

That's a bit sudden.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 4:51 PM on October 16, 2015 [22 favorites]


This is terrific and really captures the fascination of these old scraps of intimate household life that you sometimes find in looking through old family stuff, and the ruminations on one's own hidden personal things.
Often, in death, you exit in a rush, with your things scattered about, your life exposed, your desk drawers a mess. That will be the case for all of us—leaving behind more than what we’ve accounted for. The valuables and debris of your life reach equal status at death. They are simply everything that’s left behind. Everything that was once yours. You will have thought of money, jewelry, maybe car or house, but you will not have thought of your toothbrush, your old slippers, letters from your first girlfriend you could never bring yourself to throw away, a favorite book, your child’s baby teeth. These items will be found, puzzled over, and either tossed out or kept in the back of a drawer to follow the next generation and maybe the one after that. There will also be those items you always intended to throw out but which your death will have safeguarded. I recently found in my great-grandmother’s correspondences a few letters from the secretary of state talking about the kiss they’d shared in her bedroom (she was sixteen at the time). Burn this letter, he’d written in red ink on the top of each one she saved.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:00 PM on October 16, 2015 [11 favorites]


Read this and loved it, it's meticulously researched and beautifully written. I really hope there are more he's-at-homes out there.
posted by Juliet Banana at 5:20 PM on October 16, 2015


This is terrific and actually quite moving. I can't even imagine the loneliness of being in a big house on Nantucket in the 19th century while your partner is out at sea. It must have been crushing.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:33 PM on October 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is a wonderful post. What a thoughtful, carefully researched, and well written piece - especially for something so easily played for a shallow laugh or two.

For various reasons I know a fair amount about 19th-century whaling culture, and Nantucket, too; I've seen New Bedford's dirty scrimshaw, but I've never encountered even a mention of these before. I've sent the piece to some colleagues to see if they've interacted with this tale before and can add some perspective.

I have a different theory, one I think is plausible - that the plaster penis was not meant to be a dildo (plaster?!), but a lewd souvenir of the kind sailors picked up around the world in the kinds of tourist markets that catered to visiting sailors in the 19th century - not a serious sexual aid, but a bawdy joke of some kind, a novelty. If that were true there should be more, but maybe not many in the U.S. It would pick up on Shattuck's instinct that it was a joke of some kind, but the most likely market for such a joke would be the young men spending months and years at a time cooped up together on a small ship and then released, cash in hand, into foreign ports to get drunk and buy gewgaws. This just seems like the kind of piece of exotica they would have a hard time resisting - a frat joke.

Anyway, I'm sure it'll occasion some fresh talk in the maritime geek community, and look forward to learning more.
posted by Miko at 5:35 PM on October 16, 2015 [17 favorites]


It must have been crushing.

The flip side was that whaling communities were pretty empowering for women. The dearth of men meant that women ran the businesses, invested the money, managed the books, and cultivated their educations.
posted by Miko at 5:36 PM on October 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


He's at home, kinda reminds me of a "husband's bulge" from Cabin in the Woods.
posted by ill3 at 5:39 PM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Looking for any support for my theory, I found a couple of sorta-similar-stylistically Chinese carved penises. The one in the story has a hole through it too, so maybe was an amulet like the 2nd link.

Could have been something serious in its own culture, brought back as a novelty by an American as a joke.
posted by Miko at 5:50 PM on October 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Having the flowers" is the best euphemism for menstruating ever
Shark week.


Cool read.
posted by plinth at 6:04 PM on October 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


That was a wonderful read. Thanks for making this an FPP.
posted by mosk at 6:09 PM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


“It should be obvious why they kept them there.”

“Why?” I had asked, encouraged.

“To keep warm.” Not for the first time, I had felt like I was hearing the punch line of a far-too-long-running joke that had bled into history.


Man, I could hang out with Connie. She knows what's up! (But really, a cold ceramic dildo sounds awful.)

This was a wonderfully written article and I can't imagine living life like that. Especially that letter where he said it's only 40 months till he's home. Forty. Months. I definitely think that this portion of women's sexuality is swept under the rug and hidden. Yet there have been discoveries of dildoes for centuries. Even today it's embarrassing if your kids find your dildo, but they joke around if they find dad's porn stash.
posted by Crystalinne at 6:11 PM on October 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


Shark week.

You are confused. Shark Week is the opposite of the best euphemism for menstruating ever.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:15 PM on October 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I find Miko's theory to be pretty compelling for this particular item, but I do think there were He's-At-Homes, and I wouldn't be surprised if novelty items were also used for the purpose whether in mutual sexplay or solitary enjoyment.

Finding a more ... refined ... He's-At-Home from the past will be complicated by the intimacy of the item; your daughter can wear your wedding dress or even your corset, but is less likely to use your dildo. And when you died, your son almost certainly wouldn't want to save such a thing, and most wouldn't even want to think about it if they came across it. In most cases, I suspect a maid or daughter-in-law or daughter or friend would secret it away and dispose of it later when clearing up after a death.

It's easy to see how a ceramic/pottery one might be broken into small pieces or dropped into the ocean or otherwise disposed of. And then there are tools that weren't designed for the purpose but that might be pressed into service when needed whose secret history might never be discovered.
posted by julen at 6:22 PM on October 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh come on. No one has finished the limerick yet? Metafilter you disappoint me.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 6:28 PM on October 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


There once was a dildo in Nantucket
And though she wanted to chuck it
When he was home
She wasn't alone
So into her chimney she stuck it.
posted by Joey Michaels at 6:42 PM on October 16, 2015 [58 favorites]


What a great article. Whether or not this artifact is a raunchy souvenir or was used seriously for its purported purpose, it does make me wonder what historical sex toys might have looked like and how common they might have been. It would have been easy to make dildos out of wood, clay, and other materials from the tools around a house, but whether or not it was commonly done is not obvious.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:47 PM on October 16, 2015


There was a dildo in Nantucket
An antique but she wanted to fuck it
It'd lost it's old sheen
She weren't sure where it'd been
So she gave it a wash in a bucket
posted by ArmandoAkimbo at 6:53 PM on October 16, 2015 [18 favorites]


A terrific piece, beautifully written and fascinating subject matter in many ways. The layers of grief and loss, and love, the experiences of women in the past echoing and rippling Connie and her loss - the CD of her husband on NPR being the only record she has of his voice.

You was all the World to me and now you are gone.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:58 PM on October 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


There's a series of children's books, picture books, set among the Quaker community on Nantucket during whaling times. In one of them, two children are racing to be the one who first brings the news to town from the top of the hill when a ship comes back to port after a year, two years at sea. The one who brings the news usually gets a shiny silver coin.

A little girl, Rachel, runs into the house of the wife of the returning sea captain and tells her the ship has been sighted flying a flag that means "all well aboard". The woman says "bless you child," and reaches behind her cupboard, gets a jar, and gives the girl a coin. But then the woman pauses, , "All well aboard, you say?" The girl notices the woman is crying. "Bless you child, bringer of good news." She gives the girl a second coin, at which the girl runs out excitedly to show her brother.

Reading that passage to my little daughter never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It's hard to imagine in this age what those women lived through, sending their husbands off to sea for years with no word, no letter, no knowing if they would ever return.
posted by alms at 7:34 PM on October 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


> What a great article. Whether or not this artifact is a raunchy souvenir or was used seriously for its purported purpose, it does make me wonder what historical sex toys might have looked like and how common they might have been. It would have been easy to make dildos out of wood, clay, and other materials from the tools around a house, but whether or not it was commonly done is not obvious.

Ask (?) and ye shall receive: I remembered reading an article from earlier this year about just such a discovery, and was able to find it:

Leather sex toy from the 18th Century is discovered by archaeologists in Poland

Although the linked article is not salacious at all, I suppose the accompanying photo could be NSFW for some folks/workplaces.
posted by mosk at 7:57 PM on October 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


There's a "Read More" link at the bottom of the page to someone else's very good article "In Praise of Melville's Whale Chapters" which kind of makes me wish that Moby Dick had a long chapter about Nantucket dildoes. It would have fit right in, so to speak.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:58 PM on October 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


God damn, and I'm depressed after five-out-of-twelve months away from Mrs. SeanMac right now. Of course, on the flip side, it will have been three years out of the last nine...
posted by SeanMac at 8:02 PM on October 16, 2015


Miko, let us know what your colleagues get back to you with, if anything.
posted by thetortoise at 8:26 PM on October 16, 2015


Writing from the Pacific in 1842, Elijah Case asked his mother to tell his sweetheart “that she must cheer up, for it is only 40 months more before we shall put away for home.”

I cannot even imagine how strong you would have to be to get through that. Terrific read.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:06 PM on October 16, 2015


Beautifully written, and fascinating. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Pericles at 1:58 AM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Scrimshaw really jumped the shark when they stopped having erotic pictures and focused on the articles.
posted by dr_dank at 5:44 AM on October 17, 2015


it does make me wonder what historical sex toys might have looked like and how common they might have been. It would have been easy to make dildos out of wood, clay, and other materials from the tools around a house, but whether or not it was commonly done is not obvious.

People have been making dildos since the dawn of time. Here's a 28,000 year old stone dildo. Here's a medieval strap-on.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:41 AM on October 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


A theme blending dildos and whaling generated a finely nuanced portrait of human longing.

I didn't see it coming.
posted by mule98J at 11:09 AM on October 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


Thank you for this post.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:13 PM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is such a great article! This kind of stuff is what makes historical archeology is so wonderful, because it's all the little pieces of life that were always ignored in favor of the big picture of history. Getting down to the personal level of history, to get a sense not just of the "average" life, but the individual, idiosyncratic, complicated human experiences.

One of my professors is a major archeologist who studies, among other things, the embodied female experience in history, and I will HAVE to talk to her about this next week. Thank you so much for posting this!
posted by teponaztli at 7:16 PM on October 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Great piece about how people live and how history forms out of it.

It's too bad that we missed on getting to talk with Edouard Stackpole, who sounds like the last best source. But I have some suspicion he would refer us back to an erlier source...

I'd like to know if the shaft is painted or coated to make it non-porous. Because plaster. I just can't imagine. Not to leer, but I wonder if anyone has tried the thing.
posted by away for regrooving at 1:36 AM on October 18, 2015


kind of makes me wish that Moby Dick had a long chapter about Nantucket dildoes.

Well, he does have a chapter about whalers' penis cosplay.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:57 AM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


away for regrooving, I have actually been trying to figure out the material myself. I'm supposed to be learning how to ID materials from this period, but I'm really just guessing here because I'm going by a low-resolution photo and not the real thing. It sounds like it wasn't identified as plaster by an expert, so it's possible that it's something else - a lot of materials can look pretty similar after 120 years. The weight could imply some kind of a ceramic (like stoneware maybe?), and at least the tip looks like it could have been glazed. But like I said, these are just wild guesses.

A couple of my professors specialize in this period, and they are much, much more familiar with materials from this period than I am. They may even be familiar with sex toys made out of plaster, who knows. If I remember to ask them about this next week I'll dutifully report back.
posted by teponaztli at 2:24 AM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, plaster struck me as a bit strange too. But although I'm an archaeologist, I'm not a North American archaeologist, so I didn't feel qualified to comment.

I was down on the Thames foreshore today, didn't find any bits of dildos, but I'm going to be looking out for them from now on...
posted by Helga-woo at 9:06 AM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's too bad that we missed on getting to talk with Edouard Stackpole

He had tremendous knowledge of New England's maritime material culture but he was subject to a lot of the faults of the colonial revival (romanticism, sexism, white supremacy, acceptance of folk narratives), so you have to treat him as a source critically.

The weight could imply some kind of a ceramic

If it's a Chinese fertility amulet like I now think it is, it would probably be unglazed porcelain or other ceramic, yeah.

Without getting too explicit, one reason I think that female sex toys are not that archaeologically common is that having a purpose-made one is not really necessary because other common objects were around to serve the function, if it were wanted. It would be a novelty/unusual thing even if it really was meant as a sex toy, not something regular people commonly owned.
posted by Miko at 10:10 AM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Adding on to what Miko said, I remember (but not concretely) from a class at university years ago Medieval engravings and/or bawdy songs specifically about root vegetables.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:55 AM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Adding on to what Miko said, I remember (but not concretely) from a class at university years ago Medieval engravings and/or bawdy songs specifically about root vegetables.

And engravings of witches riding broomsticks very differently than depicted on modern halloween decorations.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:09 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


If these were really common in Nantucket and elsewhere on the coast, you'd think we'd find them in outhouse excavations, right? That would seem like a good-enough way of disposing of something you didn't want your heirs to find, and we do find broken crockery and other stuff in that kind of pit.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:14 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


You would think that but I don't know of any such finds despite hanging around some outhouse archaeologists. That's one reason I think it's more of an unusual rarity that has accreted some salacious folklore around it.
posted by Miko at 1:08 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]




Lab time would be fun if you were piecing together some pottery sherds and found yourself building a penis. "Hey guys, check it out!"
posted by teponaztli at 1:33 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


This was a wonderfully deep and rich essay. Thanks so much for posting it.
posted by zarq at 1:10 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


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