This Was Then: The manufactories

Eyes, ears, candles, and salt.

Circa 1837 view of Holmes Hole (today Vineyard Haven), showing one of the expansive saltworks on the shore at left. — Courtesy Chris Baer

Flipping through the “1907 Business Directory of Oak Bluffs,” you’ll find it’s arranged by category. One might look up “Boarding Houses,” for example (there were 14), or “Electricians” (there was only one). Many categories would be quite at home in any modern directory (Hairdressers, for instance, or Plumbers); while others seem a little dated (e.g. Harness Makers). Some seem oddly specific (Hammocks, Old China, Orchestras, Window Shades, Windmills). 

But one Oak Bluffs category gets a double-take: “Glass Eyes.” There is only one business listed under this section: Douglas H. Shepherd, Circuit Ave., glass eye manufacturer.

Vineyard entrepreneurs have manufactured quite a few unusual products over the years. In August 1883, for instance, the New York Herald announced, “There will be an artificial flower factory on Martha’s Vineyard.” Whether this enterprise ever came to fruition is a mystery.

Wool was the Island’s biggest industry by the end of the 18th century. Twelve thousand pounds of wool were processed locally each year. Fifteen thousand pairs of stockings, selling for 50 cents each, were knitted on the Island annually, as well as 3,000 mittens, and 600 “wigs for seamen,” according to visiting author James Freeman in 1807, together with flannels, blankets, and thousands of yards of cloth for export.

In his book “Martha’s Vineyard: A Summer Resort,” Henry Beetle Hough mentioned “a manufactory of beaver hats for captains” in colonial Edgartown.

Salt was another important commercial industry on the Vineyard. In the late 18th and early 19th century, seawater was evaporated by the sun in massive wooden vats built along the shore. By 1836, there were 11 saltworks in Tisbury alone. It took 50 gallons of seawater to produce one pound of salt.

A candle factory once stood on Dock Street, Edgartown. Owned for many years by Dr. Daniel Fisher, the factory employed more than a dozen workers. By 1850, the company was producing 118,000 pounds of candles a year from whale spermaceti, and claimed (without evidence) to be the largest such candleworks in the country. Nearby, waterfront bakeries mass-produced hardtack (ship’s biscuit), a product packed in barrels that would remain edible for years at sea.

There was the paint mill in Chilmark in the late 1840s. Ocher was ground into oil from local clay, and up to 46,000 pounds was shipped off-Island in barrels each year. Nearby, the brickyard at Roaring Brook was churning out 600,000 bricks a year in the 1850s, increased to 30,000 per day later in the century.

The Dukes County Boot and Shoe Co. opened in Edgartown in 1859. It produced 16,200 pairs of shoes in its first year, including “buff, kips, and split brogans.” Shoemaker Sherman Meara, famous for his daring escape from Andersonville Prison during the Civil War, also ran a “boot and shoe factory” in Vineyard Haven in the late 1800s.

An overalls factory operated in Vineyard Haven briefly in the late 1870s and 1880s. It employed 16 women, using steam-powered sewing machines.

There was Crocker’s infamous harness factory in Vineyard Haven, the largest employer on the Island during the 1880s, charged in 1884 with importing and exploiting orphans and reform school boys for free labor. Later, nearby, the Luxemoor leather company manufactured embossed leather products — ornamental draperies, upholsteries, pillow covers, book covers, slippers, belts, table covers, novelties, and other leather items. By some reports, this company hired as many as 75 workers.

In 1920, engineer Ralph Bodman came to the Island to develop a system to turn herring scales into artificial pearls. Ten pounds of scales, harvested from fish caught in Katama’s Herring Creek, produced one ounce of pearls. They processed up to 1,300 pounds of scales daily to produce an essence that when applied to glass beads, made inexpensive baubles that were indistinguishable from natural pearls. Until about 1938, they were sold in Edgartown in the Priscilla Gift Shop (among other Island and off-Island retailers), and were known as “Priscilla Pearls.” Some appear on eBay even today.

William Peakes of Vineyard Haven had a unique business in the early 1900s, manufacturing something he called “Rainbow Fuel.” As the late Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven recalled, this substance “would burn in the fireplace with pretty colors. I remember seeing him cooking that stuff. He had a great big copper kettle, almost like a tripod, as they used in the whaling days, outside of the building. He’d build a fire and put this stuff in there — whatever it was — and boil the wood in it, and pack it up in little boxes, called ‘Rainbow Fuel.’” Peakes’ concoction was a mixture of sawdust, salt, blue vitriol (copper sulfate), charcoal, sulfur, and copperas (iron sulfate), which Peakes patented in 1902 as “Artificial Fuel” to simulate the colors he saw when burning driftwood. The powder, as patented, was sprinkled over ordinary firewood just before burning. 

Hundreds of Island inventors have registered patents over the years, starting with the Vineyard’s first patentees, John Holmes and Abner West, who together patented a “bomb lance” (a flexible whaling harpoon launched with gunpowder) in 1846. But it’s unclear how many of these Island inventions went on to be mass-produced on the Island. One of Oak Bluffs’ first patentees was German immigrant Ulrich Kleiner, a Brookline piano teacher who filed a patent for an “Artificial Ear-Drum” while summering in Cottage City in 1902. He described a tiny cone of cotton, silk, and wax, which fitted inside the ear and provided hearing to sufferers of ear injuries. 

So who was that artificial eye manufacturer in Oak Bluffs? An immigrant from Birmingham, England, Douglas Shepherd worked for years with his father in Boston and Taunton in the family eye-making business, manufacturing both “artificial human eyes” as well as taxidermy eyes for mounting birds and animals, many for museum exhibits. In 1903, he married an Edgartown nurse, Anna Beetle, and opened his own eye-making shop on Circuit Ave. Business was terrible. He declared bankruptcy in 1908; his creditors explained to the court, “There are too few eyeless people.” His wife and infant son died two months later, and Shepherd left the Island permanently. He spent the last three decades of his life in Provincetown as the keeper of the Wood End Lighthouse.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.