From the edition of May 15, 1987:
On Martha’s Vineyard we turn to a time in the 1840s, a little over a half century after the signing of the Constitution, in the first years the Vineyard Gazette served the Island as the community of record.
While whaling and fishing were crucial to the economic vitality of the Vineyard nearly a century and a half ago, much of the Island population still made its living off the land. An early report by the Gazette noted a prosperous farmer might need extra money only to pay his taxes, purchase a barrel of molasses and possibly a new pair of boots. The rest of the essentials, said the Gazette, may be produced on the farm.
Island farmers often made their own bricks, raised and slaughtered stock for food and leather, and even made their own boats. They proved capable blacksmiths. They grew and cured smoking tobacco for their pipes.
Personal emergencies at harvest time brought quick, free and friendly assistance from good neighbors who expected the same courtesy if needed. Without telephones, emergency communication was often by the means of “waif,” or prearranged signal, a blanket hanging from a second story window, a candle in the window, a basket dangling from a particular tree or branch.
Nowhere was this Island tribal sense more apparent than in the bountiful Great Pond areas of the Vineyard where self-sufficient farms were the rule, not the exception. This independence from the outside world — and dependence on each other for help — speaks through an Islander’s comment to the Gazette about his emergency with an ailing cow. “I never thought I would live to see the day when a North Shore man would come down to the low country to help out!”
Wood and peat were the fuels of the day for heating and cooking in Vineyard homes. Coal was available but arrived on the Island at irregular intervals, making it risky as a primary source of fuel. For cooking, most Island homes turned to open fireplaces, a few to the aristocratic Franklin stove.
As for fashion in the 1840s, it was practical. Advertisements in the Gazette spoke of simple broadcloth, beaver cloth and pilot cloth. Calfskin and goatskin were in vogue for boots, in knee or hip length. It was common to purchase fabric from local merchants but it was a rarity, if not a luxury, to purchase clothes directly from a store.
Ground transportation on the Island was over dirt and sandy tracks, often impassible from snow during bleak winter months. Public funds were scarce for upkeep of roads and passage in winter months depended on hard work and the snow shovel.
Most Vineyarders traveled by horse, foot or two-wheeled ox and horse cart. Pleasure carriages were a rarity and it was reported that only four or five were in use on the Island at any given time. Carriages were considered limited for needed seating capacity and clumsy over rough terrain.
Transportation to the mainland from the Vineyard was by packet service by sailing sloops which visited the Island on a daily basis, wind and weather permitting. The small steamships Hamilton Eagle and Telegraph served the Island irregularly, often diverted to salvage work on sailing ships in trouble and other vessels becalmed and in need of help in Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds. By mid-century the first ferry Naushon was in operation, carrying passengers to and from the Vineyard and often times racing, and usually beating, its competitor the Nantucket to shore in the rush for passengers.
At the mid-century mark, tourism on the Vineyard still did not qualify as a viable Island industry. But the Vineyard’s time was coming. In a letter to the Gazette, a visitor in 1846 predicted the Vineyard will become “better known and more generally appreciated as a place of genteel resort during the summer season.” The writer mentioned specifically the beauty of the Gay Head cliffs, the abundance of wild fruits and the excellent fishing grounds and forests.
From ships serving the Vineyard and from whaling vessels came news from the mainland and from across the seas. Ship captains proved valuable news sources for reports from across the globe.
The Vineyard Gazette in those early years was by its own account: “A Family Newspaper, Neutral in Politics, Devoted to General News, Literature, Morality, Agriculture and Amusement.” The community newspaper made its debut on Friday, May 10, 1846.
An early Gazette subscriber noted the need for a newspaper on Martha’s Vineyard was urgent because the Island’s isolated geography led the outside world to suspect the character of the populace. “More than once we have heard it intimated that we are social, free-hearted people but limited in intelligence and general knowledge.”
So it was on Martha’s Vineyard less than 60 years after the signing of the Constitution of the United States, a picture that is today, 200 years later, a small part of the history of this nation.
Compiled by Alison L. Mead