Nantucket as a Summer Holiday Destination

11 June 2018


The small spit of land off the coast of Massachusetts which maps refer to as ‘Nantucket’ was called the ‘far away land’ by its first settlers, the Wampanoag Nation. Nowadays, this small island, which at just under 273 km squared is smaller than Malta or the Maldives, is easy to reach by long-distance bus and the ‘Cape Flyer’, by high-speed ferry or by commercial airline. In our hectic twenty-first century, Nantucket is marketed as a holiday destination which combines unspoilt beaches, picturesque harbours and peaceful shingle-style residences, and nowadays Nantucket’s 11,000 residents host up to 50,000 visitors during the ‘season’. But how did this extraordinary island market itself a century ago to its summer visitors from the US-American mainland? 

Adam Matthew Digital's Leisure, Travel and Mass Culture offers valuable insights. Particularly noteworthy in this collection is Folger and Rich’s 1878 Handbook of Nantucket dedicated by its authors to summer visitors who ‘desire an accurate, condensed epitome of the island’s historical data […]' and ‘a guide which shall show them the best way to employ their time pleasantly with as little loss as possible’ [1]. With one of the authors a descendant of Peter Folger (island resident, poet and interpreter of the Native American Language in Nantucket in the seventeenth century), this handbook starts with a historical discourse. It corrects the popular view that America was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and reminds its readers that an intrepid Norwegian explorer by the name of Bjrone Herjulfson reached Nantucket, centuries ahead of English captain Bartholomew Gosnold, who arrived in 1602. The famous 1659 sale of Nantucket, when its title holder, the missionary and merchant Thomas Mayhew, sold the island to a group of settlers ‘for and in consideration of the sum of Thirty Pounds – and also two beaver hats one for myself and one for my wife’ is not mentioned by Folger and Rich. But the handbook is ahead of its time in recognising that ‘although the ten men had become owners of all the right and title to the island that the Crown could give them, they considered that the tribes of Indians who held possession were the true owners, so they commenced to treat with the various sachems, and shortly acquired, by purchase, a large part of the land from the natives’ [2].

Hand-Book of the Island of Nantucket © The Newberry Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the image. Available for free for 30 days.

In subsequent chapters, readers of the handbook learn of Nantucket’s many defiant stances: from capital of the whaling industry to its position in the Independence War to the devastating fire of 1846. Refuting East Coast perceptions of Nantucket as a ’dead place’, the writers of the hand-book confirm that in 1878, ‘Nantucket is far from death. […] She is now commencing to furnish health for the weary summer sojourner who lingers on her shore’ [3]. Among the specific recommendations are the balmy temperatures, the bluefin-fishing and clam bakes on Tuckernuck Island, and, a little surprisingly, shipwreck-spotting.

Map of Nantucket. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The advertisements included in the guide tell their own story: the Nantucket newspapers, the twice-daily boat service to neighbouring Martha’s Vineyard, mattresses and artificial teeth, ‘pure drugs and fancy goods’ are just some of the goods and services advertised. Folger and Rich’s 1878 Handbook of Nantucket reminds us that Nantucket is more than summer get-away destination for stressed executives: it is at once a birthplace of history, a blend of cultures and beliefs, and above all a place that constantly reinvigorates and reinvents itself and those lucky enough to visit [4]. 

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About the Author

Christina Westwood

Christina Westwood is a PhD candidate at Keele University. Her research is in the field of spatial theories and literary geographies. Her areas of expertise and interest include the postmodern novel, American literature and literary geographies.