WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Whaling Towns of Massachusetts – Nantucket

By Fern L. Nesson

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

Main Street at dawn.

Even in the depths of the Great Depression, Nantucket drew tourists for its quaint, but stunning beauty. Here’s what the Guide had to say:

“Nantucket is an experience. The steamer rounds Brant Point Light and comes suddenly upon the little gray town in the sea, a town today full of visitors all frocks, polo shirts and white ducks, [and] striped shorts … yet the little gray town has not lost its sense of the past … when it was the great whaling port of the world… . [C]rooked paths from house and warehouse, copper shops and rigger ships …  the quays …the old cobblestoned streets, the comfortable homes, … the stately trees [all] still entitle the island to its Indian name Canopache (‘the Place of Peace.’)”

Massachusetts Guide p. 560


Nantucket’s phenomenal wealth was derived from whaling. The Guide reports that there were 115 whaling ships in Nantucket in 1768, making it the most important whaling center in the world until New Bedford surpassed it in the 1830s. The houses of the whaling captains were lavish and they continue to impress today.

Melville places Nantucket at the heart of Moby Dick. When Ishmael decides to ship out with a whaling vessel, he chooses Nantucket in which to do so:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago never mind how long precisely having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.


My mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me […]

Where but from Nantucket, too, did that first adventurous little sloop put forth, partly laden with imported cobble-stones so goes the story to throw at the whales, in order to discover when they were nigh enough to risk a harpoon from the bowsprit? 

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it [standing] there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. [T]hey are shut up, belted about, every way enclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean.

What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood […] launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it; peeped in at Behring Straits.

[…] conquer[ing] the watery world like so many Alexanders. …Two-thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it. 

The Nantucketer alone resides and riots on the Sea […]  He lives on the sea. [F]or years he knows not the land; [with] the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so, at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.”

Given his admiration for Nantucketers, it is no surprise that Melville named the Pequod’s first mate Starbuck, after a family prominent in Nantucket in 1851—and today. There are no fewer than six historic Starbuck houses in Nantucket town and 9 Starbuck families live in the town today.

Melville describes Starbuck as a classic, cautious, shrewd, and courageous Nantucket whaling man:

“The chief mate of the Pequod was Starbuck, a native of Nantucket, and a Quaker by descent. He was a long, earnest man.… Only some thirty arid summers had he seen; those summers had dried up all his physical superfluousness. But … his thinness seemed no more the token of wasting anxieties and cares. … It was merely the condensation of the man. 

Looking into his eyes, you seemed to see there the yet lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life. A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds. 


‘I will have no man in my boat,’ said Starbuck, ‘who is not afraid of a whale.’ By this, he seemed to mean […] that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward […] For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew […]”

Nantucket remains a sailor’s town and the reminders of its whaling past recommended by the Guide remain unchanged since 1937:

“The Whaling Museum sits a block from the harbor. It contains all sorts of whaling gear:  whalebones, ships’ logs, models ships, whaling boats, try pots and paintings. With such a large and elegant collection, it is easy to spend days taking it all in.”

But there is much else to see:

The Guide mentions the Atheneum:

Merchant’s Warehouses:

Straight Wharf:

The Houses of the Crew and of Shipbuilders:

Widows’ Walks (for sighting returning ships):

The Pacific Club—“a rendezvous of old whaling captains”:

The Fire Station:

In the nineteenth century, Nantucket was for whalers. In the twentieth, it was for fishermen in winter, the wealthy in summer. Now it is the summer playground of the super-rich. Up and down the old cobblestone streets, historic buildings have been repurposed for high-end shops and restaurants. Megayachts and sleek sailboats crowd out the fishing boats in the harbor.  Hotels and inns cost well upwards of $500 per night and, even so, rooms are hard to come by.

Still, it is possible to visit for the day and the trip is well worth the crowds and the cost. Nantucket is one of the rarest places in our country—packed with history, overwhelming in its beauty, and unique in its location.  The French Michelin Guide would say, it is “vault le voyage,” or, as the Massachusetts Guide so aptly put it, “Nantucket is an experience.”