In 1845, Mary Brewster sailed from Connecticut on the ship, “Tiger,” to accompany her husband for a three-year-long journey on the open seas. He was a whaler. At the time her decision was considered revolutionary, but despite constant seasickness — a detail outlined in her diaries — she never regretted going. Shortly thereafter, during the 1850s, one out of six whaleships carried the captain’s wife aboard.
Today, on the cusp of the centennial celebration of women’s suffrage in New York, the Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor is highlighting the historic efforts of these “whaling wives” in a new exhibit, “Heroines at the Helm.” At the heart of the exhibit are extensive first-person accounts that detail what life was like for women at sea.
“Whaling wives became trailblazers by necessity,” said Executive Director Nomi Dayan. “The remarkable endurance they showed in spite of the many circumstances they faced offers inspiration for our lives today.”
Whaling reached its peak in the mid-19th century and was one of Long Island’s most prominent commercial industries; it was also dominated by men. While the husbands were away their “whaling widows” assumed the position as the head of the household, and were responsible for maintaining their families, paying the bills and tending to farmland. Others became entrepreneurs by running inns, becoming teachers or serving as midwives.
Some, like Brewster, broke boundaries by joining their husbands at sea. And while enduring harsh conditions on board — storms, mutinies, dangerous whaling grounds and cramped quarters — the whaling wives were exposed to a feeling that was unknown to them.
“Although whaling [took place] way before suffrage, you can see the very earliest moments of the women’s rights movement in this time period,” said Elizabeth Marriot, the museum’s collections and exhibition coordinator.
“The whaling wives were very independent,” she said. “If you look at our clippings, you can see some of them dodging Confederate ships as they were trying to make their way home. Some of them were the first people to set foot in the Arctic. They just went all over.”
The exhibit illuminates the experiences of the whaling wives through everyday items like needlepoint kits, laundry basins and domino sets, period clothing, photographs, portraits, as well as letter and journal excerpts.
“The sailors at this time didn’t really write down their day to day lives because it was more a matter of fact to them, but [whaling] was fascinating to these women,” Marriott said. “We wouldn’t know as much as we do if they hadn’t gone whaling. The historical record wouldn’t have been as rich.”
Alongside these artifacts is contemporary work by female artists who gained fame by challenging the artistic boundaries of their time. One piece in particular — on loan from Arizona-based artist Angela Ellsworth, a second wave feminist — demonstrates the courageous character of the whaling wives.
A seer bonnet, encased in glass, is one of 35 from a series Ellsworth curated in 2008. Each piece of headwear represents the 35 wives of “Book of Mormon” author Joseph Smith.
The bonnets are covered in thousands of steel, pearl-tipped hat pins that create subtle patterns on the exteriors but result in sharp, rugged interiors. The intentional design reflects an important quality of these women’s lives — strength.
“We want visitors to come here, learn a little bit about what their lives would have been like,” Marriott said, “and leave with a greater appreciation for these women’s stories, and how they advanced history.”
See the “Heroines at the Helm” through Labor Day at the Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor, 301 Main Street, Cold Spring Harbor. For further information, call (631) 367-3418.