So, did the women married to perpetually absent nineteenth-century Nantucket-based whalers all own dildos dubbed “he’s at homes” or what? Turns out that’s a complicated question.
This fascinating piece of trivia pops up with some regularity in writing about the lonely island off of Cape Cod, an important hub in the historical whaling business. Ben Shattuck, having run across this story in several places, set out to track one down. It wasn’t anywhere near as straightforward as he hoped, and he chronicled his search in this lovely piece for Literary Hub (via Digg).
It takes hundreds of words to untangle it all, and you should really read Shattuck’s full account. Despite the humble “he’s at home” popping up in books like In the Heart of the Sea, Shattuck found it very difficult to track any of them down. His contact at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library didn’t know anything about them, for instance. The collections manager at the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library told him the stories were “mostly myth,” but then referred him to Connie Congdon, who actually owns one. A mason had discovered in the 1970s, tucked into the chimney of her and her husband Tom’s Nantucket home, along with some letters from the 1890s. It’s plaster with a red tip and, as one friend pointed out, it looks a little like a poisonous mushroom.
The fact that there was at least one of these handmade dicks complicates the story even more than an utter absence of evidence would. The questions posed are numerous: Where are the rest of the dildos? What happened to them? Was everybody just too embarrassed to save them? Or could it be that the Congdon’s wasn’t a genuine article but rather the nineteenth-century equivalent of a gag gift from Spencer’s? (Plaster certainly doesn’t seem a very vagina-friendly material.) Shattuck runs through the scenarios:
Standing by the chimney with Connie, I saw three possibilities. One: Connie’s was, in fact, the last surviving artifact of a fascinating and undocumented history of which we find ourselves without much evidence, which was suffocated from secrecy into oblivion by its raciness. Two: This artifact was a product of a joke, either of the far past or of the recent past. Or three, and least probable: The he’s-at-home fiction had somehow stumbled into fact when, one day in 1979, a mason had actually recovered a specimen that looked remarkably close to evidence of the story—as if a Loch Ness a serpent were suddenly hauled ashore.
It’s not implausible, as Shattuck goes on to demonstrate, that the story of “he’s at homes” are a pre-Internet viral misunderstanding—that several people heard tell of the Congdon’s wonderful find and retold it until it became a sort of urban legend.
Then again, the set of circumstances that would theoretically create a thriving market for dildos were certainly real. And so many personal items are lost to time, for so many reasons—and our ancestors’ deeply personal attitudes, along with them. We can read some nineteenth-century New Englanders’ letters and diaries, and we can pore over doctors’ writings and patent medicine advertisements, but it’s impossible to reconstruct with absolute felicity how a lonely whaler’s wife might have looked at a promisingly dick-like object. That knowledge is fundamentally ephemeral. And along the way, reading letters from separated sweethearts, Shattuck found himself contemplating the loneliness and longing of the people whose sex lives he was attempting to reconstruct:
I started on this journey to see what a really old dildo looked like. 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.”
At any rate, if you have in your possession any dildos of historic interest, please do get in touch.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via AP. Brant Point Lighthouse in Nantucket.