Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Earlier in the month, Anne and I took a drive down to Mystic, Connecticut to experience B.F. Clyde's, the only steam-powered apple cider mill in the U.S. It was a lovely fall day; perfect weather for apple cider and cider donuts! Amply nourished, we commenced a lazy automobile tour of the area, and ended up poking around a few antiques stores and a fun Goodwill store in Groton, Connecticut. The Goodwill visit yielded the glass-domed dried weed arrangement pictured above for a more than reasonable .99 cents, and a very old pad of manila paper for .50 cents: perfect for any project calling for old-looking labels or tags!
A local antiques shop made for some entertaining browsing, but my purchase was limited to a small corked bottle of mysterious oil, procured for $2.99. I desperately wanted it to be an old bottle of whale oil to enhance my modest collection of nautical and whaling related artifacts, and it might well be, though it was unlabeled, and the thoroughly stuck cork will prevent me from ever truly knowing!
I thought the little bottle rather closely resembled some I had seen in a whaling display at Mystic Seaport. The display featured a wooden box containing bottled samples of oil taken from each whale captured during the 1875-1878 voyage of the whaleship Ohio:
Curious to glean a bit more information regarding what a bottle of whale oil might look like, I searched the online object collection of the wonderful Whaling Museum in nearby New Bedford, Massachusetts, and was intrigued by an entry for a bottle of "Spermacity [sic] taken direct from the cooling tank by the cooper on the last voyage of the Charles W. Morgan". Below is a picture of the bottle, courtesy of the Whaling Museum:
The Charles W. Morgan is the only surviving wooden whaleship from the 1800's. It is on permanent display at Mystic Seaport, where it is currently undergoing a thorough restoration. Though the Whaling Museum's aluminum foil-topped bottle of "spermacity" might leave something to be desired aesthetically, I was greatly impressed by the powerfully evocative nature of such an artifact; I couldn't help but imagine the cooper's urgent desire to preserve a little bit of that slippery stuff that had been the Morgan's very raison d'être, on what he knew would be the last of her 37 successful whaling voyages.
Thusly inspired and, as ever, not much of a stickler for authenticity, I determined that, for my own enjoyment, my little bottle of mystery oil might easily be transformed into an artifact of the old whaling days. The real value of any artifact on display, whether authentic or not, is it's power to vividly evoke a sense of the time or circumstance during which the object originated. That old "spermacity" bottle in the Whaling Museum might actually contain castor oil for all I know, but it's very existence captivated me and, in turn, led me to further investigate records of the Charles W. Morgan's final voyage (peruse the actual logbook from her last voyage here). The potential for an object to tell a story and inspire exploration and learning has long been a source of interest to me; indeed it was the impetus for my creation of the National Museum of Hospital and Pharmaceutical History, but alas, I digress...
My .50 cent pad of antique manila paper proved the perfect material on which to type up a label for my little bottle of "whale oil". The label reads, simply: "Oil from the last whale taken by the Charles W. Morgan, 05/21/1921". Serendipitously, the glass dome that had housed a display of dried weeds was perfectly suited to the protection and enhancement of my new artifact, and was made ready by merely removing the weeds and adding a flat disk of cork for the bottle to sit upon. The result:
Thank You for joining me, and happy autumnal days to you all!!!