Written By: Nantucket Magazine | Photography By: Nantucket Historical Association

The NHA’s latest exhibit will have you thinking outside of the box.

In November 1847, Rockwell’s New York Circus set sail on the brig Young Lady from Manhattan to Boston. After fourteen days of storms and contrary winds and running short of feed and water for their trained horses, the troupe persuaded the captain to put into Nantucket. To make the most of their unscheduled stop, the performers applied to the selectmen for permission to perform and pitched their tent at the corner of Broad and Water streets for four days only, with tickets costing 12.5 cents and 25 cents.

Today we might think it a wondrous spot of luck for the island to have a circus “accidentally thrown upon our shores,” but pious Nantucketers of the day decried its appearance as “highly demoralizing, of no benefit to any one, and fruitful of much evil.” They stayed away, we presume, leading the Weekly Mirror newspaper to comment indignantly, “If the Circus remained here the entire year, it would be incapable of accomplishing a tenth part of the actual and positive evil which one rumseller inflicts upon this community… A single rumseller is, in every particular, of vastly greater injury to any community, than a hundred circus companies.”

This spring, the Nantucket Historical Association will display the sole surviving poster from Rockwell and Co.’s controversial visit to Nantucket as part of its major exhibition of the year, Out of the Box: Unpacking Nantucket Stories. Treasures from the NHA’s collections, many of them not exhibited in a long time, are coming out of storage to tell the fascinating and varied stories of real Nantucketers across four centuries of the island’s history.

The exhibition is organized into sections that parallel some of the key rhythms of island life. “Nantucket At Sea” explores the centrality of water to everything that happens on island, presenting ship models, children’s toys, fishing artifacts, and mementos from wrecks, as well as the playbill from a crewmen’s theater performance aboard the whaleship Alpha in 1848.

Nantucket At Home” draws back the curtain on the quotidian and the extraordinary in the domestic sphere, featuring the extraordinary toy doll’s bed with whale-ivory decoration that island cooper David Folger made for his daughter Lydia in the 1850s. “Nantucket at Work” looks at the island’s many economic pursuits. An elegant box wagon made on South Water Street by Andrew J. Swain, collected in 1906 but never before exhibited, takes center stage, surrounded by whalecraft, samples from the silk factory and the straw hat works, baskets from Main Street grocers, and Native American tools.

Nantucket at Heart” is a mini-tour through islanders’ love affair with our humble spit of sand. It features scrimshaw given by sailors to their sweethearts; baby curls preserved in lockets; and shell art; as well as “Nancy Tucket,” the figurehead Bob Perrin carved to decorate his studio on Old South Wharf, and the weathervane from Greater Light, with its silhouettes of Hanna Monaghan and her greyhound named Angel Gabriel.

Nantucket at Play” celebrates the island’s diversions, both old and new. The circus poster will be on view here, alongside artifacts from the island’s early bathhouses, souvenir whirligigs by local artists, and the whimsical men’s room door from the Skipper restaurant, painted by Tony Sarg in the 1920s.

The exhibition will also contain the NHA’s version of an “object theater,” where video, sound, and lighting will provide a virtual tour of selected key objects. Showcased objects will include the Monaghan sisters’ spectacular needlepoint sofa decorated with scenes from their island life in the 1930s; the 1848 whaling journal of Susan Veeder, with its unique watercolors of Pacific islands; and the 1928 wedding dress worn by four generations of brides in the Bishop family.

The NHA’s exhibitions tell the stories of real people from the past and connect those stories to the lives and concerns of contemporary islanders and island visitors. Out of the Box will be a treasure chest of surprises and delights, with something of interest to everyone who loves Nantucket.

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