There Once Was a Dildo in Nantucket

Photo: Doug Butchy (CC BY 2.0)

Nineteenth-century Nantucket brings to mind whaling ships, harsh weather, and austere morality. So when a Victorian-era dildo was found in the chimney of an old Quaker home, back in 1979, it quickly became the subject of local lore.

In an essay at Literary Hub, Ben Shattuck traces the provenance of this unlikely sex toy (called a “he’s-at-home” by Nantucketers). Along the way, he also reflects on the tricky art of reconstructing intimate histories, and the ways that the objects we leave behind define us:

Mattie died at seventy-eight, in 1928, from a stroke. She had chronic myocarditis, an inflamed heart. At some point in the thirty years since James had passed, it seems, she’d gathered what she had left of him and stuffed it up the chimney, along with her dildo. All of it was small enough to fit on a damper ledge, and later inside a pink dress box. James and Mattie didn’t get to curate what they left behind, didn’t get to clean up.

Often, in death, you exit in a rush, with your things scattered about, your life exposed, your desk drawers a mess. That will be the case for all of us — leaving behind more than what we’ve accounted for. The valuables and debris of your life reach equal status at death. They are simply everything that’s left behind. Everything that was once yours. You will have thought of money, jewelry, maybe car or house, but you will not have thought of your toothbrush, your old slippers, letters from your first girlfriend you could never bring yourself to throw away, a favorite book, your child’s baby teeth. These items will be found, puzzled over, and either tossed out or kept in the back of a drawer to follow the next generation and maybe the one after that. There will also be those items you always intended to throw out but which your death will have safeguarded. I recently found in my great-grandmother’s correspondences a few letters from the secretary of state talking about the kiss they’d shared in her bedroom (she was sixteen at the time). Burn this letter, he’d written in red ink on the top of each one she saved.

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