The He’s-at-Home: A 19th Century Tool for When Whalers Were Away, And Faithful Wives Wanted to Play

by Owen James Burke


There once was a box on Nantucket, up the chimney an old lady did stuff it. Contents: An empty laudanum bottle, a tobacco pipe, letters to and from a Mr. James B. Coffin, and a plaster phallus, which, purportedly, belonged to his wife, Mattie. Photo: The Common Online.

“Cape Horn Widows” was the collective epithet applied to New England women whose husbands were years away, in pursuit of sperm whales around Cape Horn during the 19th century. Fidelity, sailors knew, was a hard thing to ask of a woman whom they would not see for years at a time. So it became tradition for yankee sailors to return from the orient with things like opium and laudanum in an attempt to subdue any romantic escapades that might take place while they were at sea, themselves, in some cases, galavanting their own way– but with absolute anonymity–through far-flung ports.

Rumor also has it, thanks to some residual literature (see below) but also a chimney mason’s discovery, that sailors took to the tradition of gifting their wives exotic phalluses crafted of either porcelain or carved ivory in what was probably a desperate attempt to keep them faithful.

 One industrious writer by the name of Ben Shattuck, who first read of what came to be known as the “he’s-at-home” in the works of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author Nathaniel Philbrick’s Away Off Shore: Nantucket and Its People, 1602–1890 (1994) and Frank Conroy’s Time & Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket (2004).

Shattuck decided to dig a little deeper, which ultimately led to a frenzied tour of New England whaling and maritime museums searching for a single artifactual piece of evidence. He was finally led to a house on Nantucket, stashed in a box which the home’s current owner–or her mason–uncovered in a sealed chimney in 1979. Among an empty laudanum bottle, a tobacco pipe and a few letters addressed to the supposed proprietor’s husband (who, by the way, was not a whaler . . .) was the coarse but unmistakable plaster phallus.

Read Ben Shattuck’s epic saga to locate the last of the Victorian whaling widow’s secret bedroom appliance at The Common.


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