It remains an enigma. In the same way the basic design of its spermaceti press belies the intricate nature of colonial candle manufacturing, the simplicity of the Richard Mitchell and Sons manufactory (today known as the Whaling Museum) belies the role Nantucket played in Colonial America, Great Britain, and, to a lesser degree, France. To put it simply, when Nantucket spoke, people on both sides of the Atlantic listened. Those listening ranged from common citizens to national leaders. The speakers were whaling merchants, referred to as Nantucketers, or, as Thomas Jefferson called them, Nantucketois.
Whaling merchants were savvy businessmen, among the first in the colonies to recognize the value of expanding business interests vertically as well as horizontally. By the turn of the nineteenth century, several were either directly or indirectly involved in all aspects of the whaling industry.
The art of manufacturing candles from the headmatter of sperm whales began in America around 1748. It is generally agreed that Jacob Rodriques Rivera, a Sephardic Jew living in Newport, Rhode Island, introduced the process after immigrating either directly or indirectly from Portugal (Hedges 1968, p. 89). In 1749, Benjamin Crabb petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for the sole privilege of making Candles of Coarse Sperma Caeti Oyle. The petition was granted, but Crabb never acted on his grant. Instead, he moved to Rhode Island and by August of 1751 was involved in the manufacture of candles. It is believed Crabb's manufactory burned and by 1753 he was involved in the construction and operation of a manufactory for Obadiah Brown, in Tockwotton, now India Point, Providence (Macy 1972, p. 78). This arrangement lasted approximately three years, after which Obadiah Brown and Co. became a leader in the manufacture of spermaceti candles and Benjamin Crabb dropped from view. By 1760, at least seven works were in operation: five in Newport, Obadiah Brown and Co. in Providence, and Joseph Cranch and Co. in Braintree, Massachusetts (Kugler 1980, p. 163).
Once the manufacture of candles began, headmatter, sperm oil (oil from the blubber of the sperm whale), and whale oil (from all other whales) became separate products in the marketplace with headmatter commanding an average of three times the price of standard whale oil. Candles were considered a specialized element of the whale-oil trade and were priced as a luxury item. However, competition for headmatter made the cost of doing business equally high. In 1763, it was estimated that three-to-four manufactories operating at capacity could easily consume the average amount of headmatter brought in annually (Hedges 1968, p. 93). Complicating the picture, whaling merchants often mixed headmatter with sperm oil for shipment to Great Britain to avoid heavy English duties on the former. As a result, producers, i.e., whaling merchants, held the key to trade. They had the ability to evade the American market and ship directly to Great Britain, they could conspire to deny needed headmatter, or they could erect their own candleworks.
The need to be circumspect with Nantucketers was recognized as early as 1756. In that year, Henry Lloyd, a Boston factor, wrote to Aaron Lopez, a Newport candle manufacturer and merchant, warning against being too nice and critical with the Nantucket men for I can assure you that nothing can be done with them in that case; the only way is to make the best terms possible with them whenever you have occasion to purchase, but "tis vain to attempt to tie them down to any measures they do not like." (Byers 1987, p. 157).
Realizing their tenuous position in the marketplace, the candle manufacturers sought to do two things: prevent interested parties from entering into business and prevent Nantucket whalers from artificially inflating the price of headmatter. To do so they formed the United Company of Spermaceti Chandlers, generally referred to as the "Spermaceti Trust". The trust provided for eighteenth-century America its foremost example of attempted monopoly and price fixing (Kugler 1980, p. 168). At best, adherence to trust agreements was tenuous. By 1763 there were as many as twelve manufacturers in the colonies and accusation of pricing violations was commonplace. During this period, an unsuccessful attempt by John Hancock to wrest control of the oil market from Joseph and William Rotch kept the price of headmatter relatively stable. However, once Rotch secured his position prices rose as he turned his eye toward vertically expanding his business empire. Rumors circulated that he was in the process of building a candle manufactory.
William Rotch built Nantucket's first manufactory in 1770 at the head of Straight Wharf and began processing oil that winter. Trust agreements for 1774 bear his signature and show Rotch being allocated thirteen of every hundred and eighty-one parts of headmatter (Hedges 1968, p. 112). The entry of Nantucket whaling merchants into the candle market afforded them an advantage that was both strong and unique. Several were now directly involved in everything from building and fitting out ships to manufacturing raw materials into finished goods. The point was not lost on William Rotch, who, by 1775, was leveraging for a significantly larger annual allocation of headmatter.
The Revolutionary War ended large-scale candle manufacturing on the mainland and shifted the center of activity to Nantucket. By 1792, there were ten candleworks on island; within ten years the number jumped to nineteen (Starbuck 1964, p. 153; Byers 1987, p. 249). Among the early manufacturers was Richard Mitchell, Jr.