“A Stamped Whale or a Stove Boat: On Whalers’ Stamped Logs and Journals”

(This is a guest post by Mark Kelley, a researcher from the University of California, San Diego, who has been working with our Nicholson Whaling Collection in the past weeks. Follow him on Twitter @MarkBKelley. Thanks, Mark!)

“My stamps are poor and they look more like straddlebugs than porpoises.”

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So notes Henry DeForrest, second mate during an 1852-1853 voyage from Massachusetts to the Atlantic and Pacific whaling grounds. During this fourteen-month journey aboard the William Rotch, DeForrest faithfully recounts his home on the water in daily journal entries. “It is written from the impulse of the moment,” he affirms eight months into his voyage, “just as I feel at the time of writing, so goes down.” Like many whalers and sailors, DeForrest augments this power of description with stamped pictures of the creatures whose lives (and deaths) ordered his daily life. Sailors created these stamps by cutting bone, ivory, or wood into the shape of whales or other marine animals. These stamps aided bookkeeping and also added interest to logbooks or journals that recount thousands of whaling and merchant voyages throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much like scrimshaw (the carved and colored whalebone, ivory or shells that may also be found in the library’s collection) stamps are the product of maritime artistry as well as a deep engagement with marine materials.

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Though DeForrest laments the quality of his porpoise stamps by comparing them to long-legged insects, he apparently had access to more materials than most. His journal’s back page reveals a wealth of figures that included sperm whales, dolphins, porpoises, and even ships. One sees evidence of this variety throughout his journal. DeForrest’s personal stamps may be lost to history (though maybe not!), but the library’s Nicholson Whaling Collection contains dozens of authentic stamps that match his description, in addition to hundreds of authentic logs and journals.

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For example, this ivory stamp is in the form of a whale’s tail, or fluke. DeForrest used a similar stamp when the crew attacked but failed to catch a whale. The grooved and detailed handle shows that whoever crafted this artifact had some skill. The ink-soaked head also shows that the stamp got some good use. Artic bowhead whales may live to be over 200 years old, so some of the lucky escaped animals represented by this stamp could still be alive today!

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In an equally poetic and dark twist, the bones of a captured whale could be refashioned as a stamp used to represent the death of another whale! The whales that DeForrest captured could also have been be noted using a wooden stamp much like the one above. This artifact lacks the detailed handle of the ivory example, but the careful carving of the whale’s features is impressive nonetheless. The portrayal of a smiling whale is certainly the result of artistic liberty, as sailors like DeForrest knew them to be ferocious creatures who could just as easily kill as be killed. As Herman Melville affirms in Moby Dick (1851), “A dead whale or a stove boat!” Or, one could say, “a stamped whale or a stove boat!”

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A whaling ship’s thirty or so sailors relied on one another to stay afloat, but also welcomed the opportunity to see new faces. Ships that met at sea exchanged letters, news, or books. According to DeForrest, “The usual practice among whale ships is when they speak each other, to have a Gamm as it is called__I.E. visit each other.” DeForrest always mentioned the ships he had a “gamm” with, and often marked the event with a stamp much the one above. If whale stamps represented a time of hard labor, a ship’s stamp could mark a time of relative leisure. “Many of these Gamms end in a drunken spree,” DeForrest quips, “_ and many do not.”

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If you have the chance, stop by the Special Collections Department for a “gamm” and hold whaling history in your hands!

Bad Children(‘s Books) of History #25: Folly of the Beasts of the Earth

Special Collections has recently acquired an eye-popping addition to our Whaling Collection: Das Jagen, Fangen, Zähmen und Abrichten der Thiere, a 19th century German children’s  book about hunting animals. (The title translates as “The Hunting, Catching, Taming and Dressing of Animals”.)

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The book’s frontispiece shows a spectacular, full-color whale-hunting scene, complete with befuddled walrus, spectator seagulls, and a very morose whale with a baleen mustache.

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(Let’s pretend those dual arches are an exaggerated version of the southern right whale’s “characteristic double spout“, and/or that the sad whale is blocking our view of a smaller, simultaneously-spouting cetacean.)

This generally text-heavy book contains five plates, each of which bears nine tiny engravings. (I don’t recommend scrolling through the following section of engravings if you are 1) a small child, despite the fact that this is a children’s book, or 2) of a delicate constitution.)

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The engravings, as you’ve likely gathered from the above, exhibit all manner of grisly ways in which humans kill other animals (some of which I consider anthropologically suspect, but I’m not a hunting expert).

For instance, there’s the old “bear impaled on a spiky board” trick:

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There’s also the “scaring seals with weird faces over a grassy cliff onto curved spikes”  approach:

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And, lest we forget, the “whipping birds while mounted upon a galloping horse” technique:

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The digitized book can be viewed in its entirety online, either here or here. If you do look over the digital version (or come to Special Collections to view our copy in person), I challenge you to find the engraving of the sneaky person hunting reindeer while dressed in a reindeer suit. Really.

Last Chance: Scott Kelley exhibit

If you haven’t made it to the Providence Public Library to see Scott Kelley‘s nautical paintings inspired by our Nicholson Whaling Collection, I recommend you hightail it over here! The paintings are truly stunning, and we’re taking down the exhibit this Friday morning, February 12th.

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Scott’s paintings are on display on the 3rd floor of the library, in the cases outside of Special Collections, and can be viewed during the library’s open hours today and tomorrow.

New Exhibition: Paintings by Scott Kelley

PPL is thrilled to present a series of gorgeous nautical paintings by Maine artist Scott Kelley, inspired by Kelley’s research in our extensive collection of whaling logbooks.

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Scott Kelley is an artist who lives on Peaks Island, Maine with his wife Gail, son Abbott, dog Francis, and an imaginary pig named Lunchbox. He received a BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art in 1986 and has studied at The Slade School of Art, London and The Glassel School of Art, Houston. He is represented by Dowling Walsh Gallery, Rockland, ME and W.M. Brady & Co, NY.

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The paintings will be on display on the 3rd floor of the library from December 21, 2015 until February 12, 2016. The exhibit can be viewed during the library’s regular open hours.

 

SaltWaterColors

A newly-opened exhibition in our Providence Journal Rhode Island Room draws on our Nicholson Whaling Collection to highlight artistic creations by whalemen during the age of offshore whaling. You can view the exhibition now through the month of December. But in case you can’t make it to the exhibition, here are a selection of images (including quite a few not on display):

 

Whale Guitar Installed

If you missed the Whale Guitar unveiling and exhibition opening a week ago, you missed a great show.

After Jen Long and Rachel Rosenkrantz eloquently explained the motivation and process that led to the guitar, they officially unveiled it…

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And then lots of people packed the balcony outside Special Collections…

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… to hear performances by Area C (aka Erik Carlson), Reza Clifton, and Shannon Le Corre & Chris Carrera (of Bloodpheasant):

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The performers signed the back of the guitar…

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… and then it went in to the exhibition case…

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… where you can see it until June 5th, as part of an exhibition on the guitar’s creation.

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The exhibition is in the Level 3 hallway beside Special Collections. And stay tuned for more information about the June 5th closing celebration, which will feature more music.

History Has a Scent

Working in a special collections library I’ve often thought to myself, “If I just took a random book off the shelf, I’m sure it would be fascinating somehow.” Here’s a quick post to demonstrate that.

On Tuesday, while preparing for one of our twice-monthly Library architectural tours, I decided to put one of our whaling logbooks on display, so I turned to a shelf and pulled down a logbook I’d never opened before, the journal of the ship Marcus, which set out in 1844. By the time I got to the first page the volume was already proving interesting:

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Look closely and you’ll see the page is encoded in some kind of substitution cypher. (According to a cataloging note, it’s a “serenade.” Anyone looking for a challenge is welcome to submit their own decryption in the comments.)

Next, after a few pages of fairly standard logbook entries (wind, weather, etc.), the volume turns into a storehouse for pressed flowers and other plants:

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Some, like this lady slipper, include the plant’s root structure:
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By my count there are 42 specimens, not counting the flying fish wings:

flying fish wingsAnd it’s all rounded out with a bit of poetry:

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But my favorite part is that the author of this journal apparently included spices. Spices that still retain their scent after 170 years. (I think it might be oregano, but I haven’t gone through them all to find out what the spice is yet.)

Just another reminder that rare materials require the use of all five senses. (Well, maybe not taste. I wouldn’t recommend actually eating 170-year-old plants found in books.)