For a good chunk of the 19th century, New Bedford, Massachusetts was one of the most diverse, prosperous, and progressive cities in the United States. But now, a hundred years later, long after the demise of the American Whaling Industry, New Bedford is reduced to advertising that it’s a place where “parking is free on the weekend.” But who cares, right? Industries come, and industries go. Just ask Iceland, which is ironically trying to dig its way out of economic ruin, by what? That’s right…Whaling!
I, for one, visit New Bedford a handful of times per year. It’s a great place to spend a few hours, especially if you love maritime history and Herman Melville (which I do and do).
But, first things first. Food. A diet coke, a pint of beer, a stuffed quahog, and a plate or Portuguese beef stew set me back less than 13 bucks at Antonio’s. I can sum Antonio’s up as follows: It tastes good. There’s usually some cute Portuguese girls working there at the bar and/or the pick up window. I ate there at noon and didn’t need to eat again until after 10PM. And my meal cost 13 bucks, alcohol included.
Breakfast of champions...and this is the "lunch portion" (quahog, not pictured)
Second things second…I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything, but I don’t often learn new stuff at whaling museums anymore. But today…I learned something. The scientific name for blue whales is Balaenoptera musculus…and, as it turns out, musculus can be interpreted as meaning “muscular” from the latin, but it can also be be interpreted as “tiny mouse,” and it’s commonly believed that this double-entendre was intentional on the part of the man who gave the name, Carl Linnaeus.
And third things third…I “Stubbed” my toe in front of the Seaman’s Bethel. No shit. It cracked me up…
Anyhoo…first stop post-food…the Seaman’s Bethel.
The Seamen's Bethel - New Bedford, Mass...as featured in Moby Dick
The Seamen’s Bethel, built between 1831 and 1832, served as the inspiration for Melville’s famous Chapel, Pulpit, and Sermon chapters of Moby Dick. I accept at face value that Melville sat in the pew below when he visited the very same building in 1840. Otherwise, why would it say that it was his pew?
Herman Melville's pew at the Seamen's Bethel (great font, btw)
The bow-shaped pulpit was something that Melville imagined, and was only installed in 1961, after the Gregory Peck version of Moby Dick brought a new influx of Moby Dick-interested visitors to New Bedford.
If you had to preach in this every week, wouldn't you be like, "Really? Really?"
To me, the cenotaphs are the highlights of the bethel. A cenotaph is a monument to honor a dead person whose remains lie elsewhere…like the bottom of the ocean perhaps?
Poor Cap'n Swain made an Ahab-esque exit from this world.
This isn't the most ironic way to die on a whaling voyage, but it's in the top two.
Next stop…The New Bedford Whaling Museum, of course.
It really is better than the one in Nantucket...(I think)
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is so awesome that it has random whale parts just laying about.
The jawbone of a sperm whale...
Baleen in the corner of the New Bedford Whaling Museum
The museum is currently featuring an exhibit of classic whaling prints. If my memory serves, it covers Dutch, British, French, American, and Japanese prints. The highlight is an installation called “The french are the lads…” which features the prints that Melville reviews positively in chapter 55 “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.”
The French Are The Lads...
And in these astonishing centuries-old Japanese prints, it’s confirmed that the Japanese continue to employ traditional methods in their modern day whaling endeavors.
Traditional Japanese Whaling several hundred years ago
Modern Japanese Whaling (identical to above)
And they also had on display some Rockwell Kent-illustrated copies of Moby Dick.
Rockwell Kent-illustrated Moby Dick...Even through the glass, you can smell the communism in the drawings.
Um…what else? Well, I saw a genuine Susan’s Tooth.
A genuine Frederick Myrick.
Kids like whale bones. Everybody likes whale bones, when you think about it. They got whale bones.
Blue whale and right whale (bones)...I think. I know the big bones are of a blue whale
They have a 90-foot, half-scale model of the whaling bark Logoda.
The Whaling Bark Logoda - New Bedford Whaling Museum
And they have a whale wall mural with a cool Moby Dick in it.
That's Herman Melville's great-great-grandson.
So…after I left the Whaling Museum, I more or less did about half the walking tour. I didn’t get down to some of the gardens, and I didn’t get over to the seaport area, which you can see from the museum actually.
The New Bedford, Massachusetts waterfront.
They’ve got this big visitors center, and I’m just going to be honest with you here…there really isn’t anything in it. Like maybe one or two things and a bookshop that’s more like a bookshelf. I’m not trying to talk you out of going in there or anything. They’ve got maps of the walking tour in there.
And, while I’m being honest, I’m not a HUGE fan of “The City that Lit the World” – a low-budget doc about New Bedford’s whaling past, i.e., I probably wouldn’t watch it a 3rd time.
There’s this “Dead Whale or a Stove Boat” statue.
New Bedford Whaling Tribute Statue
The Quaker values that dominated ruling-class New Bedford society in the 19th century stood in stark opposition to slavery, and New Bedford was a prominent home to abolitionists and freed and escaped slaves. Frederick Douglass lived in the house on the left in the pic below.
Frederick Douglass House, New Bedford, Mass. (left) - the house on the right is famous too, it housed some abolitionists and freed slaves.
I’ll leave you with these images. Myself, when I saw them, it was time to go. I have no idea honestly…
Double-you tee eff ?
I haven’t regretted not stealing a sign more since I didn’t steal the Lolita Bra Store sign down on the lower east side of Manhattan…(and now it’s gone, and I’m the only person that even remembers it).
I actually sort of needed this place to be open.
So, do yourself a favor and spend some time in New Bedford, Mass. one afternoon. The Whaling Museum is top notch. The city’s forgotten more history and relevance than 99.9% of this country ever had. And it’s got a few shops and a couple places to eat. And be sure to come back in January to watch me read at the Moby Dick-a-thon.