A Porthole is So Maritime Chic
If my house were anywhere else than Nantucket, it probably wouldn’t have struck me that my shed door needed a porthole. For any practical purpose, it didn’t. The shed sits in the back of the yard, crammed from floor to ceiling with lawnmower, moped, boogey boards, beach chairs, shovels. You can’t squeeze into it to peer out, and peeking in to see what’s there yields no return but the teeth of a rake in your face.
The need for a porthole was purely aesthetic—too many vertical lines (the planks in the door) and square forms (the shed and the door) screamed for a circle. And this undiversified geometry stared back at me all day long, from morning through the kitchen window to evening on the patio. Until the day it hit me that a porthole was the perfect solution. It would create balance but also draw the eye back into a form of infinity --the perfect symbol for what was in my shed.
Nantucket houses are full of portholes, but nowhere can porthole scouters find better specimens than in the former fishing village of Sconset. Every other house has portholes in or next to the front door. Some even have flowers planted under them in porthole boxes. The original construction of the 18th century cottages often took advantage of shipwreck salvage that arrived below the bluff with unsettling frequency. Anyone who’s had a childhood can’t escape the allure of imagining yourself an early settler, finding a tarnished brass porthole half-buried in sand just when you were wishing you had a place to look out from while washing with lye soap in your wooden sink. But it seems that’s not what happened.
These fishing village portholes, like my own shed porthole, were mostly bourgeois folly, added to blank doors and walls in the twentieth century. It took just a little detective work to resolve this point. In Underhill’s 1888 inventory of “The Old Houses on Sconset Bank” he refers to the many ”stanchions, knees, spars, hatches and deck planks” that fierce gales and fogs contributed to the cottage builders. But he never mentions portholes. Nor does Henry Forman’s Early Nantucket and its Whale Houses document, either in his charming hand drawings or 19th century photos, any village cottages with portholes. Needing to see for myself, I scoured the NHAs archives of 19th century Sconset village photographs. I even shot off an email query to Michael May, The Nantucket Preservation Trust’s Director who is currently writing a book on Sconset’s history. His research confirmed mine. Early photos of the Sconset fishing cottages show plank doors and shingled walls that are as eyeless as my shed.
So ok, my porthole would not refer back to Nantucket’s early scavengers in a historically accurate way that pleased my nerdiness; it would just be imitating a maritime chic design trend, wherein incorporating the look of salvage became hip in a campy sort of way. I persevered anyway. I bought my “antique brass ship porthole” with “original glass and wing nut locking mechanism” on EBAY. I paid only $28.00 for it but its weight made shipping add $35.00 to the cost. Still I considered $63.00 to be a reasonable price to pay for the aesthetic focal point of my backyard. To insure this article’s relevance I have just checked current antique porthole listings on EBAY and see that my price still holds for auction items. “Buy it Now” prices for antique portholes are ridiculously high.
When my porthole arrived I took it with me to my equivalent of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, The Marine Home Center. To make an 18” diameter hole in my door, I thought I would need to purchase either a circular jig or the world’s largest router to attach to my drill. “You could do that,” said my sales assistant, with the perfect combination of calm, wisdom and friendliness that must be in the company’s drinking water, “or you could buy this large drill bit for $11. Make four holes with it on your perimeter and then connect them with your jigsaw. That’ll save you a lot of money.”
A carpenter would have taken the shed door off and done this operation laying the door over two saw horses. I drew a circle on my hanging door, drilled my four anchor spots and just jig-sawed my way around the circle until the center plopped onto the ground. The hole wasn’t perfect but a porthole is a very forgiving object; it has a wide rim that extends far beyond the deep trunk plugging your hole so this lovely patina-ed feature will mask all manner of amateurism. To make matters even sweeter, generous holes for securing screws are part of its design. Within minutes I had an operable, lockable porthole to gaze at.
Two months after our first email exchange, Michael May sent me news that he had found evidence of a late 19th century porthole in one of the Underhill cottages. The NHA archived photograph (MS337) gives the porthole very minor billing as it focuses on a party of thirteen mostly young people, crowded on a front porch, having a jolly good time. But if you look carefully you can spy the outer ring of a porthole, circling a young man’s handsomely parted hair like a halo. It is apparently affixed at head height to the cottage’s plank front door. Being an early, great admirer of Sconset’s fishing shacks, Underhill imitated almost everything about them when he built his own three-lane village of rental cottages in Sconset (on more spacious grounds than the originals). The Underhill cottages were small, irregular, rustic and outfitted like ships cabins with ladders for stairs, pegs for closets and ship lanterns whenever he could find them. So in adding a porthole it seems Underhill merely chose to do the fishing shacks one better, including salvage they had apparently overlooked or…perhaps avoided.
We who no longer make our livings on ships, Underhill included, are quite happy to blur the lines between land and sea, between form and function. But is it surprising that while we think having evidence of ship wreckage in our house is a boast, an 18th century home builder might have been earnestly trying to disguise this fact. He probably wanted his house to look like a home and his ship to look like a ship. Salvaging windows from all over the island, including, as Underhill claimed, from outhouses, still maintained a domestic vernacular. But affixing a porthole to your house jumped the track into eccentricity.
Everyone has his/her line in the sand. I realized my taste for maritime chic had stretched itself to the limit with a porthole in a shed that needed no light. I saw listings on Ebay for portholes that substitute a mirror for glass so you can hang them over your sink. Now that I would never do!
Sherry Lefevre teaches in the Creative Writing Program at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia where she has taught film writing, creative non-fiction and storytelling. She has spent summers in Nantucket since 1963 and in 2009 bought and restored an early 19th century house on Pine Street. Her iBook, The Nantucket House That Ebay Built, is available here.