Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 13 • July 24 - 30, 2008
now in our 37th season

Quarterboards Tell Tales

by Zoë Kirsch

Last week as I traipsed down a pier, admiring resilient fishing boats, majestic yachts, and sleek cruisers docked to my left, my eyes fell upon the house to my right.  Mere yards from the water, the residence had a view that couldn’t be beat.  What would it be like to live there, so close to the ocean and the exciting scenarios it supplies?  I stood, looked, daydreamed.  Then, my eyes fell upon a weathered, wooden plaque right above the dwelling’s door.  It read: Zora’s Coffin.

The mysterious christening inspires questions not only about the specific name, but also about house naming in general.  Is the practice unique to Nantucket?  When did it start?  Are distinctive names, like Zora’s Coffin, just the beginnings of stories, begging to be told?  Answering my questions would require detective work.

I started with what I knew about house names.  Of this I was sure: Nantucket Town is chock full of habitation epithets.  In fact, I noted, it is more likely that you will lay eyes upon a named house here than an anonymous one. 

Taken out of our island context, dubbing abodes seemed to me a peculiar ritual.  Sure, I puzzled, condos have posh appellations, and university buildings are named after donors.  But here on Nantucket it’s different: the tradition remains quaint and personal.

To get real answers it was necessary that I consult the experts.  Having contacted the Nantucket Historical Association at their Research Museum, however, I realized that perhaps I was starting too specific.  The NHA didn’t have any detailed information about the origins of naming houses on Nantucket.

 I racked my brain for the next helpful source. Whilst learning more tidbits of information online, I came across the name of Paul McCarthy and Jean C. Petty, woodcarver and folk artist, of Nantucket Carving and Folk Art.  But of course!  The next gumshoe move was to talk to the man and woman who create quarterboards, those works of art bear house names.

I trundled down the road to Nantucket Carving and Folk Art, feeling encouraged by a phone conversation I had just had with McCarthy; it had not only signified that he had answers, but also resolved one of my questions.  In response to my inquiry (“Are quarterboards on houses unique to this island?”), he had said, ““In Scituate [McCarthy’s hometown], people used to put their surnames on the houses.  Here on Nantucket, they name them.” After a moment of musing, he added, “To be cute, I think.”  So, part one of the mystery was solved.  Naming houses is not, in fact, uniquely Nantucket.  But the tradition on island is subtly its own.

I pulled up at the destination.  Through Arrowhead Nursery, down stairs, and past photographs hanging on the wall, and I was at Nantucket Carving.  Quarterboards in all stages of development sat on broad tables.  McCarthy was bent over one.  He meticulously carved letters with an easy prowess that could only come from years of experience.

The craftsman genially made it clear that there is general information one should know about quarterboards before one learns more specific information.     

He drew a sheet out and handed it to me.  Along with stating quarterboard prices, the page had a little f.y.i. box.  It summed the history of the quarterboard up so nicely that it is best to reprint it here:

“In 1815, maritime law made it a requisite that every ship have its name affixed to its stern.  When the law also required that name boards or quarterboards be placed on the ships’ bows or quarters, the figurehead carver was often called upon to provide them.  The result has been a collection of such quarterboards which shows the endless variety of decorative carvings …”
– from Figureheads & Ship Carvings at Mystic Seaport by Edouard A. Stackpole

McCarthy detailed, “They made signs to put on the back of the boat, attached to the ship’s quarters, where the captain lived.”

Having established enough of a foundation of general knowledge to continue, (By now, Mr. McCarthy was rightly wondering what exactly I wanted to know) I explained that I was trying to discover the origins of Nantucket quarterboards on houses.  The carving expert enlightened me: “Consider the fact that Nantucket is in the middle of a bunch of shoals out here.  Quarterboards washed up from shore and people decided to put them on their houses.”

I asked how house names have changed since he first started carving here in the early 1990s.  Jean Petty, passing by while doing the finishing touches on several boards at once, said, “The only big change has been people trying to cut costs recently.  More of these quarterboards have been made by machines lately.  People are pleasantly surprised when we tell them ours are all handmade.  No machines here!”

Mr. McCarthy went on to elaborate upon the most popular requests he gets for house quarterboards.  “You wouldn’t believe how many ‘tucked in’s or ‘tucked away’s there are” he chuckled.  “But here,” he said, pulling out yet another stack of papers, “I’ve recorded almost every quarterboard on the island, as well as their locations.”  The carefully organized maps trace about 1800 boards.

Petty and McCarthy cite “Suture Self” (“The guy was a doctor”), “Tob-ACK-o,” and “Knot Leaving” as some of the more unusual quarterboards they’ve been asked to carve.

The artists generously gave me access to their archive: lists upon lists of house names.  The range of epithets is expansive; houses are named everything from the puzzling (“Pflueger’s Roost,” “Scuttlebutt”) to the devilish (“Helzapoppin”) to the Lion King-inspired (“Hakuna Matata.”)

It quickly became clear that there is no one story of focus in the quarterboard-crafting world.  Both McCarthy and Petty certainly had stories, and once they began telling one it led to another, with the curious and wonderful effect that tales began to snowball into one another.

McCarthy and Petty pulled out books faded yellow that dated back to the early 20th century.  One bore a stenciled portrait of Stackpole, an author, and gave descriptions of his other works: “Madagascar Jack: The story of a Nantucket Whaler, being the account of Obed C. Folger who went to the south seas with whalemen, and found there adventures, as well as sperm whales.” 

The quarterboard experts said that due to whaling, Nantucket’s history is closely tied into that of Nova Scotia and other regions like Scituate.  Whaling ships, McCarthy and Petty explained, were made on the mainland and brought to Nantucket.

I was also told that Nantucketers themselves have played significant roles in the broader scheme of history: Nantucket Whaler William Rotch, who used to own the counting house downtown (now the Pacific Club), played a part in the Boston Tea Party.  What’s more, he kept Nantucket afloat throughout the War of 1812.

Discussion of naming houses, quarterboards, and the whaling scenes that play a prevalent part in the art of quarterboard-crafting led us to more Nantucket history lessons.  There was still more island history to learn.  Perhaps there always would be.

Quarterboards still tell stories as they did hundreds of years ago.  As for Zora’s Coffin, McCarthy explained that “Zora” could have been a ship.  The name itself isn’t the only aspect of a quarterboard that communicates a message.  Symbolism too plays a role. The pineapple, for instance, has long been used to tell a tale.  Hundreds of years ago, Nantucketers would put pineapples outside their homes to tell everyone that they were having parties and all were welcome.  Since then, pineapples have been symbolic of invitation.  McCarthy elucidates: "It would be ridiculously time-consuming to carve an actual pineapple on quarterboards, plus, it wouldn’t fit."  He has managed to integrate a welcoming motif by carving pineapple frond ends instead.

Having learned an enormous quantity of information from Petty and McCarthy, I discovered an essay written for the Nantucket Historical Association by the late Frank B. Gilbreth Jr., co-author of the autobiographical books Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes.  One paragraph imparted the yarn behind his house’s name: “The Shoe… [was] built in 1952.  We took the name of our house from the original toolhouse cottage that it replaced.  Dad named the original place The Shoe to tease Mother, whom he compared to the old lady with more than enough children who resided in one.”  The house still stands, a historical site in its own right.

Pinpointing the initiation of house-naming on Nantucket is a struggle. Simply asking about quarterboards, however, reveals island stories, some plainly important, others more subtly valuable.  Next time you see a quarterboard above a friend’s doorway, why not ask how it came to be there?

Who knows what stories you’ll hear?

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Mill Hill Press of Nantucket, an affiliate of the Egan Maritime Institute, has just published Quarterboards: A Unique Art Form, a 100-page book on the history and proliferation of quarterboards on houses on Nantucket.  This is the first book to examine these stylized name boards and their evolution in text and in photographs.  Author Sharon L. Hubbard will be at a booksigning on August 11 at 4 pm at the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum and on August 14 at 7:30 pm, she will lecture at the Coffin School on Winter Street.

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