Never had Richard Doctorow thought his study of whaling history could involve postcards, stamps and a dodo bird.
But ahead of the exhibition “Mailing Whaling,” the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum curator is, borderline, swimming in piles of the first two — and mulling over the third.
This particular story begins in 1907, when two washed-up Amagansett whalers were craving the thrill of the chase and spotted two whales off the coast of East Hampton. They raced out to sea and caught them, lending the skeleton of the smaller baby whale to the American Museum of Natural History in New York — until it was moved to the Natural History Museum in London and traded for a dodo bird skeleton.
The exchange got Doctorow thinking.
“It’s one of those things about studying whaling history,” he said. “The industry was so vast that you begin with, ‘Oh, I’ll look at whaling and whaling captains, and how much oil they brought home,’ and you find yourself taking these strange turns. So here I am, with postcards and stamps.”
The 1907 scene is depicted on one of the postcards included in the exhibition— on view from Friday, June 21, through Sunday, July 21 — as is 20th-century paraphernalia from Norway, Greenland and Canada to Japan, South Africa and South Georgia, all featuring whaling men, whaling ships, whaling tools or whaling scenes of some kind.
“What I discovered is even just using postcards and stamps, I can really tell the story of the American and worldwide whaling industry. It’s pretty fascinating,” Doctorow said. “You wouldn’t think you would have enough different images, from enough different places, to do that with just postcards and stamps. Come to the show; you’d be amazed.”
It was the sheer proliferation and popularity of whaling that landed it on postage stamps and postcards — an industry driven not only by sport, but also by absolute necessity, Doctorow said. Oil was oil, whether it came from the ground or a living creature, and the valuable resource also equaled money.
“Back in the 1600s, it was the Dutch who were the kings of the industry. It had begun with the Basques in Spain, before the 1200s,” Doctorow said. “Eventually, America — God bless her — really took the lead in the 1800s. It was primarily an American industry by then. And Sag Harbor played its role. It was the largest whaling port in New York State, and the sixth largest in the entire country.”
On the East End, whaling had evolved from drift whaling — waiting for whales to simply wash up on shore — to shore whaling, where men only launched their boats when they saw a whale swimming nearby. Finally, they put their whaleboats on larger whale ships and committed to months- and even years-long voyages, leaving their loved ones behind.
It was a brutal reality, one that artist Barbara Maslen contemplated before creating her mixed-media piece “Your Words Comfort Me,” a modern-day take on village history. She imagined a woman on a widow’s walk, reading a letter while overlooking a dark sky and stormy sea.
In conjunction with “Mailing Whaling,” she brought this image to life, surrounding her character in a nest of collaged letters and stamp, a comforting quilt-like pattern to envelop her.
“I tried to think what it was like for a woman in Sag Harbor in the whaling era, not knowing the fate of her loved one, far away at sea, except for an occasional letter,” Maslen said. “And how they must have treasured those rare reassurances, compared to today’s instant communication.”
Maslen was not alone in her thinking, nor in the exhibition — joined by five fellow artists including Susan Lazarus-Reimen, who also considered the role postcards and stamps played at the height of the whaling industry, and the journey that they made, as well. Her piece, “What Remains,” elicits the melancholy, sadness and pining associated with long expeditions at sea, which relied on the postal system as a means of communication.
“There is much sentimentality surrounding postcards and stamps, as they elicit a nostalgia for a past time,” she said. “I think that individuals generally possess an interest and yearning to understand and appreciate another time, as well as imagining what that time was like — what came before and to understand that time in history.”
As nothing more than a casual hobby, Doctorow first began collecting postcards and stamps as a teen, tucking them away in a box and, subsequently, forgetting about them for years — until he started down “this rabbit hole,” he said.
“I think both stamps and postcards are an accessible way for people to stay related with history,” Doctorow said. “Once you have a collection, effectively you’ve begun a museum, and there is an appeal to that I, for one, can certainly understand.
“And as for the dodo?” he said. “I haven’t tracked it down, but that’ll have to wait for another exhibit.”
“Mailing Whaling – Postcards & Stamps From Around The World,” curated by Richard Doctorow, will open with a reception on Friday, June 21, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, located at 200 Main Street in Sag Harbor. Participating artists include Robert Carioscia, Grover Gatgewood, Susan Lazarus-Reimen, Barbara Maslen, Dave O and Bob Weinstein.
The exhibition will remain on view through July 21. For more information, call (631) 725-0770 or visit sagharborwhalingmuseum.org.