Whalers, sailors, and libraries at sea [part 1]

In the whaling days of Moby-Dick, splashy scenes like the above could be infrequent. Many long days could pass between whales, and indeed any long sea journey was marked by tedium. While ship-masters always had an unending list of chores for the sailors to complete aboard the ship, some of the men passed their free time reading. Voraciously! From the few 19th-century book lists I’ve seen, from both whaling and non-whaling ships, the sailors’ general tastes trended toward travel accounts, adventure novels, holy scriptures, and nautical reference books.

The rare ship had its own large library, up to the 326 volumes in the U.S. steam sloop Narragansett‘s ship-wide lending library for instance. (See the Narragansett‘s 1860 printed catalog at the Internet Archive via Boston Public Library, and see p.33 of The View from the Masthead by Hester Blum for more info). Some ships were the recipients of books donated by citizens wishing to encourage erudition among tradesmen, in the spirit of Ben Franklin. More often, though, sailors had only their personal book collection, if any. Aboard the ship, seamen could trade books with each other, but when many days pass between whales, a few dozen books looks quite scant. For bookish mariners, then, a gam was heaven-sent. I’ll let Melville step in here:

At these gams (sometimes spelled gamms), the captains would meet and the crews would mingle and (often) everyone would get quite drunk. Goods would be traded between ships, including tobacco, food, and — books!

In an 1852 account, Henry DeForrest, an erudite officer aboard the William Rotch of Fairhaven, MA, describes how “the reading part of the crew” has exchanged books with other sailors. This scan (used with permission, highlighting by me) comes from the Providence Public Library Special Collections. Transcription follows.

Transcription: “August 18th… Some of the men have been exchanging books, and the ship at present is overrun with a sweet lot of the stuff, emanating from the pens of Paul De Rock, Greenhorn, Proffessor [sic] Ingraham, and  few others of the best writers. It is curious to see, with what avidity, these books are sought after by the reading part of the crew.”

Elsewhere in the log, DeForrest mentions that the captain is reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in the middle of their voyage. The PPL surmises in the item’s description that it too was obtained during a gam.

There may have been a whole economy of book trading at sea, but precious little survives to tell us more about it. Most of our knowledge of maritime reading habits in the 1800s comes from ship logbooks and sailors’ personal accounts, and only a few wrote down their catalog. If you’re like me, seeing someone’s personal library is like seeing a part of their mind. Texts are a common and communicative thread between generations, even centuries. So in Part Two tomorrow, I’ll present actual reading lists from a whaler and a Gold Rush ship.

See part two and part three for book lists »

Special thanks to Jordan Goffin, Special Collections Librarian at the Providence Public Library (PPL), who provided me with valuable research leads via prompt email reply. Thanks also to Richard (Rick) Ring, former Special Collections Librarian at the PPL, who first mentioned the interesting reading histories of whalers to me in 2009. Check out the fantastic Nicholson Whaling Collection at the PPL, the only library I know of that has a harpoon and scrimshaw collection in its catalog.




  1. Jeanine

    John Hay has a pretty neat whaling collection… with a lot of whaling logs. I saw some while cataloging the triple-oversize section there.

    1. Robin Camille Post author

      So this blog post is like three years too late to take advantage of those (-___-) Story of my life, finding out about amazing resources I no longer have access to!

  2. Allan Berry

    Do we have any idea of the level of literacy among 19c sailors? I assume it can’t have been high? Officers a bit more, perhaps, but sailors, crammed below decks, often sharing hammocks on off-watches (at least in the military), might not have had either time or space for books.

    1. Robin Camille Post author

      Actually, literacy rates were pretty high in 19th c America, at least for a certain part of the population. By 1870, 89% of white Americans were literate (compared to only 20% black/other) according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

      Of course, literacy stats don’t tell us who was actually reading. Reading habits are pretty hard to pin down, especially for that long ago. It’s such a private practice that we can only make guesses based on descriptions of the act of reading or evidence like marginalia. As for sailors who read back then, some more descriptive mariners’ accounts do mention reading, like the DeForrest logbook I quoted. On the other hand, concerned citizens created the Committee for the Distribution of Books to Seamen in the 1820s, from which we can infer that the general attitude was that men like sailors weren’t often scholarly then. I think that idea persists today, part of the reason I wrote this post.

      So I don’t think we can safely assume any figures, high or low, for “the reading part of the crew.” However I do strongly suspect that you’re right in saying that officers were likely to read more than sailors. And that space was a premium in sailors’ quarters!

  3. crowjonah

    This is way great! Even though my reading interests focus more on contemporary works, and while I share your fascination with other peoples’ personal collections, the thought of a mariner’s spare catalog of valued, traded works is way more interesting (though perhaps less personally reflective) than the carefully or at least popularity driven curation of an Amazon supplied stack of Vonneguts and Palahniuks, no offense to those dudes.

    Anyway, I think trading books is wonderful, and I’d like to do it more, though perhaps not more than I’d like to keep them on my shelves. I’ve been thinking a lot about bookshelves and spines not just as trophies lost in e-book archives, but as something from which to draw narrative, and not just on others’ shelves. Lately, any free time I’ve had to spend leaves me zoning out, staring at my own bookshelves, remembering reading (or at least buying or being given) the books, reccomending and being reccomending them, and thinking about their implied authors.

    What does it mean?

    1. Robin Camille Post author

      The problem of “what to read next” is something that sends me into total paralysis too often, I think more so now because I have less time to read (or should have less time — can’t wait to graduate and no longer have academic guilt). And it’s something to put into a historical perspective, too — I mean how did these sailors decide what to read next? How much of their decision was made by lack of choice vs. friends’ suggestions vs. ____? I love thinking about the timeless social aspect of book reading, and now it seems like it’s getting easier to divine the history of reading.

      Have you seen the UK Reading Experience Database? I would LOVE to see an American version of that. It’s searchable by profession, era, class, location, etc… Future grant project?!

Comments are closed.