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T

he Hadwen & Barney Oil and Candle Factory by Benjamin Simons and Marjan Shirzad photos Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association

The brick building of the Hadwen & Barney Oil and

Candle Factory has a charm and evocative beauty of its

own. The gigantic edifice was magnificent for its time, erected in 1847 just after the 1846 Great Fire destroyed most of the wooden buildings of the downtown area. Peering up into its criss-crossed grid of rafters supporting towering brick walls and a high-peaked roof, you can begin to imagine all of the enormous wealth that this refinery generated by processing oil from Nantucket’s main catch, the mysterious sperm whale. Oil brought back by the Nantucket fleet of ships that circled the globe “like so many Alexanders,” according to “Moby-Dick,” was carted here from Nantucket’s wharves, and then pressed and boiled in the factory to create one of the world’s most valuable commodities: the oils that powered the industrial revolution and the oil and candles that lit the world.

Benjamin Simons ~ Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator Editor of “Historic Nantucket” Nantucket Historical Association

Casks below beams brought raw oil to the candle factory.

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Marjan Shirzad ~ Director of Visitor Experience Nantucket Historical Association


Block and tackle are used to raise the great beams of the lever press.

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In the 19th century, glass lamps began to take the place of candles. Whale oil was a primary luminary fuel, burning cleaner, clearer and brighter than grease lamps. The discovery of petroleum in the 1850s, and the subsequent use of kerosene lamps, diminished the demand for whale oil.

The invention of the Argand lamp in the late 18th century

Visitors will learn in visual detail how the factory pressed

was the era’s equivalent of the discovery of electricity.

the oil seasonally in the enormous lever press, and then

Daylight in private life and in the workplace was limited,

boiled or “tried-out” the various grades of pressed oils in

due to the smelly and inefficient lighting using animal

enormous kettles. The Fosters published the well-received

greases and fats. The day was truly limited by the course

illustrated book “Whale Port” (2007, Houghton Mifflin)

of the sun, with minimal extension by tallow lamps and

that brought to life the whole development of whaling

greasy candles. Lighting using Argand’s invention

from Nantucket’s earliest period through to the reign of

revolutionized society and industry. The main fuel of these

New Bedford as the chief whaling port. Now they will

devices in the earliest period was whale oil. Where did

turn their talents to explaining the whole “factory site,” as

this oil come from? Its main source was the American

well as the in-depth seasonal processes that led to the

whaling industry led by the Nantucketers. Think of

production of the world’s finest oils and candles.

Nantucket as the Dubai or Houston of its era, and you will begin to get a sense of the importance of its “refineries” or factories that processed the raw oil delivered from the ships.

Visitors will experience the interpretation of the building and “how it worked” as they enter on the ground floor after having learned the story of “the whale hunt” in

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To explain this refining process, we have commissioned

Gosnell Hall, the museum’s main story-space for whaling.

the father-and-son team of Mark and Gerald Foster to

Once they arrive on the second level of the Hadwen &

produce David Macauley-style “how it worked”

Barney Oil and Candle Factory, they will be treated to a

illustrations of the process from “wharf to market.”

visual feast of interesting artifacts from the Nantucket


In the 19th century, glass lamps began to take the place of candles. Whale oil was a primary luminary fuel, burning cleaner, clearer and brighter than grease lamps. The discovery of petroleum in the 1850s, and the subsequent use of kerosene lamp, diminished the demand for whale oil.

Historical Assocoation’s collections that have been slumbering in storage until now. With 20,000 artifacts in the NHA collections, there is currently a full 10% of the museum’s collections on display (twice the national average for museums). However, the new installation will present an artifact-rich display loading the walls and rafters with fascinating items that illustrate the major themes of Nantucket history: Boom & Bust, Diverse Peoples, Business & Commerce, Island Characters, Intellectual History, and more. Ship models will hang from walls, old business sign will loom high in the air, portraits, paddlewheel covers, fine art, and more will fill the space with a visual treasury of Nantucket material. We have also commissioned island artist Mary Lacoursiere to create a large map of Nantucket linking it with the distant points around the globe that Nantucketers traveled to and gathered their quarry of spermaceti oil from sperm whales. Another highlight will be a vignette of a “Nantucket Attic” created in the rafters of the factory

The names “Hadwen & Barney” originally stood on the lintel above the entrance to the candle factory. When the building was converted for use as an antiques shop in the early 20th century, a federal-style lintel was placed over the original names. The 2004 restoration of the candle factory returned the entrance to its original appearance.

evoking the great tradition of treasures housed in attic spaces and home museums on island.

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The Hadwen and Barney Oil Factory