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Rescuing the Logbooks of 19th-Century Whaling Ships

Illustration from a 19th-century whaling logbook (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)
Illustration from a 19th-century whaling logbook (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)

Each whaling ship that departed the northeastern United States carried a logbook aboard, in which whale hunts, shipwrecks, weather conditions, and daily sailing life were recorded. Due to their use out at sea, many suffered water damage, and those that survived weren’t often recognized as valuable. Recently, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, off the coast of Massachusetts, had five of its whaling logbooks dating from the 1840s to the 1860s conserved and digitized by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). Each represents the voyage of a different 19th-century vessel: the Iris, the Erie, the Rose Pool, the Independence, and the Adeline Gibbs.

whaling logbook
Detail of a page in a whaling logbook (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum) (click to enlarge)

“There is a lot of information locked up inside these things, and they have not been accessible before,” Bonnie Stacy, chief curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, told Hyperallergic. “There’s a potential for a huge amount of data for scholarship and scientific inquiry that has not been readily available in the past.”

In December the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched Old Weather: Whaling, incorporating weather records of the Arctic from logbooks at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, New Bedford Whaling MuseumProvidence Public Library, and other institutions. These logbooks are a resource for how sea ice and climate changed over time, and can contribute to a model for predicting the Arctic’s future.

Protecting the logbooks from further deterioration presents some unique challenges — conservators stated that the logbooks still smelled faintly of the ocean. Stacy noted that the Erie logbook was used as a scrapbook after it returned to shore. Through ultraviolet imaging, they retrieved the text that was obscured through this recycling. Other logbooks have children’s illustrations from when they were considered disposable objects.

“One of the difficulties with working with some of these artifacts is they went into these periods where they weren’t considered important, and were used for something else,” Stacy said.

Whaling Logbooks
Spine of a whaling logbook (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)
Whaling Logbooks
Illustration by Richard E. Norton, keeper of the ship Iris logbook (1843–47) (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)
Whaling Logbooks
Logbook for the ship Independence, with pages sewn into a binding of limp canvas (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)

Julie Martin of NEDCC reported that the five volumes suffered “damaged bindings, tears and losses, previous repairs that were deteriorating, fading inks, and evidence of water damage — which is not surprising since these logs lived on the ships and were handled everyday by the first mate.”

While the logbooks were meant purely as a form of record, some of their writers were more visually expressive, illustrating events like a whale upturning a boat, or the thrill of the pursuit of the giants of the deep. The man who kept the Iris log, for instance, filled its pages with elaborate drawings. Stamps of whales, with space for a number indicating how many gallons of oil were procured from each body, also accent text throughout the logbooks.

“The whale stamps and other drawings might be considered folk art today,” Todd Pattison, NEDCC senior book conservator, told Hyperallergic. “But at the time, they were just part of the documentation required for a commercial venture. Keeping the log was a job, but they were on those ships 24 hours a day for months and even years at a time. These records would have given them an outlet for expression at the same time they were recording business details.”

Whaling Logbooks
Whale illustrated with a stamp in a whaling logbook, with the number referring to the gallons of oil from this whale (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)
Whaling Logbooks
Conserving water-stained pages with a Hepa-filtered vacuum to remove mold spores (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)

There are also details of 19th-century life from around the world, when sailors from Martha’s Vineyard and other ports of New England traveled from North America to distant places like New Zealand and Japan.

“When you read a passage about the excitement of sailing around the Horn, or a first-hand account of the weather on a particular day, in a particular spot in the Pacific Ocean, you can’t help but feel a connection to the person who is writing in the logbook, ” added Jessica Henze, NEDCC associate book conservator. “As conservators, we don’t sit down and read the books, but we are not separate from them. We feel connected by handling these objects that have been to places we have never been.”

Now that the logbooks are digitized, the museum hopes to put the materials online, and crowdsource their transcription. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum, being on a Massachusetts island, isn’t easily accessible to most researchers, and this will enable a global audience to finally journey into the depths of these rare logbooks.

Whaling Logbooks
Water damage on one of the logbooks (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)
Detail of a page in a whaling logbook (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)
Detail of a page in a whaling logbook (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)
Whaling Logbooks
Detail of a whaling logbook, noting time on the “coast of Japan” in 1826 (courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum)

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is at 50 School Street, Edgartown, Massachusetts. Find about more about the whaling logbook conservation at the Northeast Document Conservation Center.

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