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Charles B. Tobey’s Watch Stand

The Sailor Made exhibition finally opened this past weekend. We had so many wonderful objects to choose from and such a small space to fill that we sometimes had to make some really difficult choices about what to include and what to cut from the display. In one instance, the choice wasn’t too difficult because the piece, a watch stand made by whaleman Charles B. Tobey of Nantucket, is probably the most significant piece of scrimshaw in the collection.

The English settlers in Nantucket were involved in whaling by about 1640, although they were probably not the first nor the most successful. In 1712, after being caught in a storm and blown far offshore, whaler Christopher Hussey discovered a new species of deep-sea whale—the sperm—which produced oil of unsurpassable quality and in great quantity. By 1715, Nantucket had six large sloops cruising deep waters and by 1775 Nantucket had 150 whaleships at sea. As these whalers spread throughout the Atlantic they learned of vast herds of sperm whales in the Pacific and Indian oceans. In 1791, the first six of many Nantucket whalers rounded Cape Horn for the Pacific hunting grounds.

Sources in New Bedford and Nantucket, suggest that Charles B. Tobey was a veteran Nantucket whaleman born in 1798. Not much is known about his early career, but by 1822 he was captain of the 230-ton whaleship Lady Adams. In 1817, Lady Adam’s captain was Shubael Hussey. He commanded two voyages to the Pacific, one which started in Nantucket on October 25, 1817 and returned home on October 2, 1819. The return date of this voyage makes it quite plausible that Tobey was indeed on board the vessel as it rounded Cape Horn in January or February of 1819. The application of his name, location and the date (Charles B. Tobey, Cape Horn, 1819) to the back of the stand places this among the earliest dated pieces of scrimshaw by a known carver. This is supremely important as it means that the piece was made less than 30 years after those very first Nantucket whalers headed into the Pacific!

This watch stand is truly amazing. It allows a modest pocket watch to be converted into a more elaborate-looking timepiece like a mantel or shelf clock. It is fabricated of wood, paper, baleen (from the mouth of the right whale), and whalebone from the lower jaw of the sperm whale. The symbols and imagery incorporated in the piece give us a rare glimpse of Tobey’s beliefs and values. Included are carved representations of religious faith, hope, love and family as well as scenes showing man interacting with nature, certainly all understandable themes for someone suffering through long months at sea and years away from loved ones.

Hussey captained another voyage of the Lady Adams between February 28, 1820 and October 17, 1821, which would have given Tobey, possibly a mate by this point, even greater experience—enough to make him captain on the ship’s next voyage. This voyage started on March 11, 1822, and in April 1823 Lady Adams was seen at the southwest end of Oahu Island by George W. Gardner of the Nantucket whaler Maria who stated “we were in company with the whaleship Lady Adams.” Sadly, in July 1823, a British whaler reported that Lady Adams had caught fire and sunk off the coast of Japan and that there were no survivors. Tobey was in his early twenties when he died and left behind a wife and small child.

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