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Nantucket At A Glance

By Elizabeth R. Elstien

The islands of Nantucket, Tuckernuck and Muskegat uniquely form a town, county and island of the southern coastal area of Massachusetts with an incredible 82 miles of beaches. This area has a long history from the early Native American inhabitants and whaling seaman to today's tourism industry, which causes the town's population to drastically increase every summer. Find out more about historic Nantucket and learn what clothing it made popular.

Seaside History

First sited by Norwegians in the 11th century, British colonists arrived to Nantucket in 1659 and found over 2,500 Wapanoag inhabitants on the island. For about 100 years ending around 1870, the island had a productive whaling community collecting sperm whale oil for candles and pricey ambergris (sperm whale secretion) for perfumes. Only seven ships were actually built in the harbor (the island's dwarf trees don't make good boards for large ships). Even the first whaling ship with an all-black captain and crew left from its harbor. With a population of 10,000 at the height of its whaling days, Nantucket was the third largest city in Massachusetts and the whaling capital of the world.

Quakers came to the island in the 1700s and formed a large anti-slavery community that prompted Frederic Douglas to give his first speech to an all-white audience in Nantucket. The Great Fire of 1846 left hundreds homeless and destroyed a large part of downtown. In 1961, a bomb shelter disguised as a fueling station was built for then-President John F. Kennedy, but was never used. An unsuccessful attempt was made by its residents, along with residents of Martha's Vineyard, to succeed from the State of Massachusetts in 1977. Today, the population is about 10,000 full-time residents but the seasonal residents and tourist that flock to this seaside town bring over 50,000 people during the summer months.

Living and Getting Around

After the decline of the whaling industry in the mid-1800s, the island town's population drastically declined leaving buildings largely untouched. In the 1950s real estate developers restored buildings that were then advertised to those with wealth in New York and throughout the Northeast. Recently, Forbes magazine (2008) declared Nantucket to have some of the highest home prices in the U.S. It can be reached by one of the three commercial ferries or private boat or airport. In fact, the island's airport is often busier than Boston's Logan Airport due to the many private planes flying into its airport. Once on the island, a shuttle bus runs throughout the island during the summer months

Historic District

The Historic Landmark District designation is for the whole of Nantucket island, as well as the smaller islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget. Many well-preserved buildings dating to the 1600s show the importance of Nantucket during its whaling years.

Distinctive Clothing

Murray's Toggery Shop on Nantucket island sells the famous cotton canvas pants, known as Nantucket Reds, marketed as shorts "guaranteed to fade" to a dusty rose or salmon color. Featured in the 1980's book "The Official Preppy Handbook" and still the favorite of "preppies", reds are worn in place of chinos or khakis by summer residents and visitors in the know. Inspired by the salmon color of the faded trousers, an entire line of products from socks to hats can be purchased.

Notable Nationals

Many famous people have lived in or wrote about Nantucket and many more have visited. A few notables are:

  • Politician and inventor Benjamin Franklin's mother was born here
  • R. H. Macy, retail tycoon from the Macy's department store chain, lived here
  • Herman Melville, author, often mentioned Nantucket in his writing
  • Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, husband and wife, comedians
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About The Author

Elizabeth R. Elstien has worked in real estate for over 15 years as a real estate...

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