In 2008, a huge collection of more than 1,800 books, ledgers, and other banking documents dating from 1825 onward were discovered in storage in a downtown office building in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The documents were property of the New Bedford Merchants Bank (later the Merchants National Bank), which closed in 1916 and had once been frequented by many of the most influential whaling merchants of the 19th century. When the United Way moved their headquarters to a building on Williams Street, they found some very old pallets of books in the attic and designated them for salvage. Luckily, the New Bedford Whaling Museum was able to save the documents before they went on their way to antique shops around the country.
I had the honor of being able to help sort and catalogue some of these books 4 years ago when the museum was still trying to make sense of the sheer size of the new collection. Thumbing (very carefully!) through all of these almost 200 year old documents, admiring the Quaker scribes’s careful script (and penchant for recording days of the week as “First Day,” “Second Day,” instead of “Monday,” “Tuesday,” etc) and reading all the signatures of people I’d read about in whaling history - William Rotch, Charles W. Morgan - was one of the defining moments of my life. I joke a lot about being a whaling and history nerd, but for some reason no one has ever inspired me as much as the Yankee whalers of the very first American oil industry.
The first photo above is a snapshot I took as the books were being taken off the pallets and piled up to be examined and sorted. If you click on the South Coast Today link, you can read the original article from the New Bedford Mercury, who came out to document some of our work that first day while Whaling Museum librarians Mike Dyer and Laura Pereira were there, and took the second and third photos. I’m the one in green :P (for some reason the reporter chose to take photos of us with a super wide-angle lens. I’m not sure why, as there was plenty of room in that warehouse space to use at least a 28mm.)