As a 26-year-old mother and wife, Martha Smith Brewer Brown of Orient made the tough decision to set sail with her husband who captained the whaleship, Lucy Ann. Her story as a whaling wife in the mid-1800s is akin to that of many other wives who found themselves at sea. Their stories often involved intense pain and hardship, but also great strength and fortitude as they dealt with horrible living conditions, seasickness, pregnancy, bad weather, and seclusion.
Hers is one of the stories told in a current special exhibit at The Whaling Museum and Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor. The exhibit, “HEROINES at the HELM,” celebrates whaling wives like Martha Smith Brewer Brown.
At first, although she left her two-year-old daughter behind at home, Martha Brown enjoyed being at sea as it kept her close to her husband, “the object of her fondest affection,” as she described him in her diary. But she did not know what hardship she would experience during the whaling voyage that would last two years. After the first five months, sickness set in and her positive opinion quickly changed. In her journal she wrote, “I have caught as many colds as there are days in the week, and nights too, for all I know.” Perhaps, the source of many of her toils involved her pregnancy which, after causing many problems at sea, resulted in her being stranded in Honolulu for nearly seven months with “[no] one [to] call friend.” Of course, birth on land was preferable as she would be closer to medical care and perhaps to the support of wives left stranded in the same situation. When Martha Brown’s husband returned after she gave birth to a son, she was happy to embark on the Lucy Ann once again, but only for the purpose of getting home. She instructed her husband - in the ship’s log - that he was never to go to sea again. He ignored that ultimatum, but Martha never set foot aboard a whaleship again.
As “women’s issues are taking the forefront in the news” today, the museum decided to revive and update an exhibit that was displayed more than a decade ago, according to museum director, Nomi Dayan. The previous exhibit was a collaborative project called “The Sailing Circle” done with the Three Village Historical Society in Setauket. The whaling museum’s research for this project explored whaling wives in depth, uncovering many of the “marginalized and under-told” stories of women at sea. “With the 2017 [centennial] anniversary for women’s suffrage in New York State and the upcoming centennial anniversary in the country,” Dayan believes the stories portrayed in the exhibit should be shared because there is something for everyone to take away. Dayan feels “so close to some of [the women]” whose stories she read in-depth while researching for the exhibit. Whaling wives often dealt with the hardship of working in the home and of raising children alone while their husbands were at sea. Others, like Martha Brown, bravely left their homes, sometimes leaving their children behind, so they could sail with their husbands. Many of these women that Dayan called “trailblazers” recorded their stories in diaries and journals in the museum’s collection.
One portion of the new exhibit is titled “She Sailed” and features an interactive biography wall where visitors can choose a photo of a woman who went to sea and read more about her experience in quotes from her diaries, journals, manuscripts and other historical pieces. Also, in a nod to women’s suffrage, viewers can deposit “VOTE” tokens into ballot boxes that ask questions like whether they, as a whaling wife, would sail with their husband or stay at home, take their children or leave them behind, and other trying decisions that the women were often forced to make.
The exhibit, on display until Labor Day 2019, includes a twist with mixed-media artwork by three contemporary female artists dispersed along the walls and cases. Viewers are encouraged to ponder what it would have been like to be a woman who may have been forced to fit into a domestic role. One highlight is a work by Angela Ellsworth titled “Seer Bonnet,” which came to the museum from Arizona. It consists of a white pioneer bonnet on a metal stand covered in thousands of steel pins that give it a beautiful pearly finish on the outside but a spiky and extremely painful-looking interior. Dayan finds the piece very thought-provoking and interprets it as representing women’s internal pain as well as hidden strength. Other multimedia pieces are by Ellsworth, Esphyr Slobodkina and Bastienne Schmidt.
Beyond the special exhibit, whaleship models, scrimshaw pieces, whaling and navigational tools, marine art, early photographs and manuscripts are all part of The Whaling Museum and Education Center’s diverse collection. This little museum on Main Street has been operating since 1942, and its collection has grown from 248 pieces to 6,000 artifacts today. The museum was inspired by Robert Cushman Murphy, who voyaged aboard a whaling ship and wrote one of the first published logs that described the techniques, tools and customs of whaling. He purchased a whaleboat and gave it to a friend and prominent Cold Spring Harbor resident, Dr. Charles B. Davenport. Davenport then built a permanent home for the whaleboat and became the museum’s first curator. That whaleboat remains on exhibit today, stocked with many of the original tools used for whaling.
A useful exhibit shows visitors how to identify whaling vessels. It displays a model whaling ship, identifying hanging whaleboats, “tryworks” for rendering oil from whale blubber, “lookout loops” for sailors looking for spouts, and other characteristic whaling ship elements. Nearby, samples of spermaceti, a waxy substance harvested from whales and used for candles, right whale oil, dolphin blubber, whale teeth and baleen, a strong yet flexible material used in corsets, are available for inspection. In an interactive exhibit called “If I Were a Whaler,” families can pack for a whaling journey, chart a voyage, handle the helm, hoist a sail, swab the deck and climb into a whaler’s bunk bed.
One of the main purposes of the museum, in addition to preserving a special part of Long Island’s history, Dayan said, is “to explore the impacts of the whaling industry.” She says the museum aims “to enrich people’s lives by teaching them about whaling.”
The museum serves 20,000 Long Islanders annually and is open year-round, offering a field trip program for schools, special weekend programs for the public and yearly special exhibits like HEROINES at the HELM.