“Nantucket is known for its quaint cobblestone streets, shingled cottages as well as traditional quarterboards originally, a nautical term for handsomely carved boards nailed to the stern of sailing ships with her proud name,” according to our very own Congdon and Coleman Real Estate agent, Suzi Spring. How did quarterboards come to be? In terms of history, “After the War of 1812, many privateers became pirates,” explains Paul McCarthy of Nantucket Carving and Folk Art. To protect legitimate ships, the government required all ships to have signage on the aft quarter of the vessel. It typically fell to the ship’s figurehead carver to make the “quarterboards.” In the early 1800s maritime law required that each ship be identified with a quarter panel of the bow and that is how the name quarterboards arose.
What is the meaning of quarterboards?
Quarterboards are handsomely carved and gilded ornamental sign boards, originally made for the ships whose names they bore. They were sometimes referred to as sternboards, the difference being the place on the ship where they were located. These signs were placed on the ship’s stern and along the quarter panel of the bow– hence the name quarterboards. In later years, with the decline of whaling many of the ship quarterboards were removed and were displayed on island houses, thus beginning the tradition of naming Nantucket homes
Suzi continues, “The jewel of all jewels, the creme de la creme, the final touch to ownership on Nantucket is to mount a quarterboard above your front door with a name that seems fitting. It’s the finishing touch to your new home.”
“Quarterboards are quite interesting with witty and whimsical ownership…a single name for the house. Be sure to notice some of the quarterboards are intricately carved and painted different colors. They are all worth the search,” says Suzi after exploring another one of her walks through town with her puppy Okie.
If you’ve recently bought a home of your own and you want to jump into the tradition, there are a few places on island that can assist you with making your quarterboard dream a reality. The Nantucket Chamber of Commerce is a great resource, Sign Here and Nantucket Quarterboard, Co. There also was a book written by a local in regards to Quarterboards that you could find at one of the local bookstores in the special Nantucket Island section called, “Quarterboards, A Unique Art Form.” Dan Driscoll the photographer for the project said, “Sharon Hubbard actually wrote the book and I did all of the photographs. That being said, what stood out to me was the wit that so many people exhibited in creating the names to their homes and buildings. During the year that I did the photographs for the book one common question was often asked, “Is there a registry of Quarterboard names?” The answer was no there was no complete record other than the records that each carver had of the work they had done.”
As the writer of “Quarterboards, a Unique Art Form,” Sharon, provided some additional thoughts and information and said, “The journey to collect all of these stories was amazing. And working with Dan Driscoll who took all the photos was a joy.” Quarterboards, mounted on the quarterdeck of sailing ships, reflect Nantucket’s history from whaling to present day, often found after shipwrecks on Nantucket shores. The Lifesaving Museum and Wharf Rat Club hold many of these special boards. The tradition of naming houses with quarterboards started in Siasconset with the ship Shanunga. Though changes occurred since the book’s publication, the stories of these boards remain, including the bones of the Warren Sawyer shipwreck appearing on Nantucket’s south shore. “In the 10 short years since the book was published, many changes have happened. Reggie and his workshop, “Reggie’s Place” are gone. As is the Coffin family boat “Memories” in ‘Sconset. But the bones of the 1884 shipwreck of the Warren Sawyer have reappeared in 2023 on the Nantucket south shore (139 years later).” The journey to collect these stories was remarkable, with support from Nantucket historians Elizabeth Oldham and Robert Hellman. “I was treated like a VIP at the Brant Point Coast Guard Station as I searched for (and never found) the quarterboard of the last and very humongous 6 masted 329.5 ft long wooden sailing boat.” The book’s appearance at the Atheneum brought tears to the author’s eyes.
Paul McCarthy was a well-known master carver and islander, who created quarterboards and Nantucket Online had a past feature that explained some of his process in more detail. He had grown up carving in school and grew into a master carver. He was quoted as saying, “Carving is not like building furniture.” “It’s freer. You have more freedom to create and more freedom to make mistakes. You also have more freedom to correct those mistakes,” He said. Newer to the scene, Kelly Emery’s quarterboard carving business can also be found directly and is called “Nantucket Quarterboard Company.” His company’s website is also a great resource for “The Sign Book:Regulations and Guidelines for Signs on Nantucket Island,” which provides excellent guidelines when deciding on the scope of a project.
If interested in discovering some of these well-known and unique quarterboards yourself. There are many to see. Suzi has talked to various homeowners on her walks and discovered the true meaning behind their quarterboards. It is truly a wonderful ice breaker and gives depth to hidden histories and stories about the houses and people of this island. She found out about one where they made an exchange of their house and so that was incorporated into the name very cleverly. Many are plays on the street names themselves, especially a myriad of the ones spotted throughout town. It’s also an excellent way to explore different parts of the island while driving, biking or strolling on your mission. Happy hunting!
This is a great resource for more information about how an islander, Paul McCarthy, created his quarterboards: https://www.nantucketonline.com/paul-mccarthy-master-woodcarver/
“Quarterboards, a Unique Art Form by Sharon Hubbard(author), Photography by Dan Driscoll