Nantucket Quarterboards: Whitty & Whimsical

By Suzi Spring & Robin Slick, Published February, 26, 2020

Nantucket is known for its quaint cobblestone streets, shingled cottages, as well as its quarterboards. The jewel of all jewels, the crème de la crème, the final touch to ownership on Nantucket is to mount a quarterboard above your front door with a name that seems fitting.

A home holds much meaning. It’s the canvas behind which we experience our lives. Living in different homes throughout our lives, each one where memories were created. We name all sorts of important things in our lives: boats, buildings, and cars by way of vanity plates. So it's not at all surprising that we name our homes.

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The origins of Nantucket quarterboards go back to the height of maritime trade. "In 1815, maritime law made it a requisite that every ship have its name affixed to its stern. When the law also required that name boards or quarterboards be placed on the ships’ bows or quarters, the figurehead carver was often called upon to provide them." Figureheads & Ship Carvings at Mystic Seaport by Edouard A. Stackpole.

Because of the extremely dangerous shoals around the island, shipwrecks were common. In the days before electronic navigational tools, sonar, and radar there were lightships in Nantucket Sound, to mark the shallow waters. However, despite the efforts to keep ships safe, there were many shipwrecks due to weather conditions and human error. Vineyard Gazette, "Surveying the Sound" by Mark Alan Lovewell.

According to Sharon Hubbard in her book Quarterboards: A Unique Art Form, "The quarterboards collected from wrecked ships were huge, perhaps eight to ten feet long and appropriate to the scale of the ship. Due to their size and shape, the most likely place to store them was on the wall of a house or barn."

Quarterboards today are much smaller in size. Usually sized to the scale of trim boards, which are 5.5 inches on a typical house, the average quarterboard is then about 4.5 inches high. The length is generally 4 feet long, determined however, by the amount of text that is hand carved into the board.

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Some quarterboards are plain and simple exemplifying ownership - a single name for the house. While others have witty and whimsical names and sayings to tell the story of what matters to the homeowner. Islanders love a good pun on the word ACK. Many people refer to Nantucket by using ACK as a proper noun for the island. For those who may not know, ACK is the airport code for Nantucket.

In addition to the name, interesting to notice is the intricate carving and paint color choices. Nowadays quarterboards are mostly made by machines, however, here on the ACK, you can still get a hand carved quarterboard at Petty Folk Art & Carving, formerly Nantucket Carving & Folk Art.

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Quarterboards always have a good story behind them. For instance, a couple months ago, my husband and I had dinner at the bar at Pi where we met a lovely couple who had a home on island. He is a plastic surgeon so it is fitting that he named his home "Nip Tuck It." How cute!

Although David and I are not yet homeowners, we have our name picked for our quarterboard - "ACK III." The story behind our name choice comes from when we rented a home in Town for our wedding called "ACK II." Surmising it was the homeowners' second marriage we decided that "ACK III" would be the perfect motto for personalizing our wedding, because it's both of our third marriages. So keeping with the same theme, that's what our quarterboard will be someday. Makes for a good story, right?

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A super fun activity is to explore the island’s quarterboards. In Town you can simply walk around and see many homes with names that will keep you laughing-out-loud for sure! If you have a car, take a drive around the island and check out the quarterboards in the different villages. It’s an excellent way to explore the moors, beaches and different parts of the island while on your mission!

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If your interested in looking for a home to purchase to hang your very own quarterbaord, the Team at Congdon & Coleman will gladly help you in your efforts.

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Robin Slick

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