When whalers from Nantucket set out for their journeys around the world, left at home were their wives, sometimes for three or four years at a time. According to scholars and legend, the wives turned to dildos for comfort as stand-ins for their departed husbands. These devices even had a name, the “he’s-at-home”. As in this passage found in a anonymous diary from that era:
He’s at home is on the mantel.
Ben Shattuck travelled to Nantucket to research the history of he’s-at-homes and found only a single surviving specimen but discovered that the island has been dealing with loneliness for a long while.
But I was starting to see what loneliness looked like, and the weird quality of how heartache from long ago feels so freshly sad — perhaps because those separated by distance are now separated by death. Edward, his wife and daughter are now forever separated, so the ink circle is the mark of their unending relationship. Mattie Coffin and her husband are forever apart, and so the he’s-at-home is the truest bond they have. The above quoted letters could read like journal entries to the deceased: “You was all the world to me,” thought Susan Gifford, “and now you are gone”; “I long to see you. I sit to the window and watch for you as I us’d to, but you do not come.” Loneliness petrifies over time, because it’s our last state, isn’t it? As we’re closed off from the world by last breaths. The fossils of our living loneliness, the letters and shirt collars and photographs boxed up for another generation to find, have eternal shelf lives, timeless as obituaries, fresh today as the ancient honey we keep discovering in Egyptian tombs. Connie’s comment — “Life went on here in Nantucket” — rang with new definition, for her own life, and the life of the dildo owner. Maybe she wasn’t talking about sex at all — maybe she was talking about life going on as it does, or must, for the bereaved.
I know this is a weird segue, but I also need to acknowledge this top-notch exploding cake gag from the article:
Sarah Pope went so far as to send her fiancé a cake to accompany her letter. She preserved the cake in too much alcohol, so that when he opened the package, it exploded. He wrote that he was “nocked higher than a kite” but still ate the cake.
The perfect metaphor for the passionate longing and loneliness felt by couples separated by whaling journeys.