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HettyThe Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon
By Slack, Charles
A sleigh cut through the snowy streets of New Bedford, Massachusetts, during the early 1840s. People could not help but turn their heads as it passed. They all recognized the sleigh, the powerful black horse, and the man at the reins. Edward Mott Robinson was not a New Bedford native, but he had married into the richest whaling family in town. He had a dark, stern face with hawklike features. Black Hawk Robinson, they called him. He was known as a tough businessman, shrewd, unsentimental, thrifty, and cold. He spared little in the way of greetings to his fellow townspeople as the sleigh hurried along.
Sitting next to him, all but obscured under the folds of a thick buffalo robe, sat a girl of nine or ten. The sharp air flushed her cheeks. Her eyes were blue and lively. Lost amid the dark, arrogant ensemble of man, horse, and sleigh, the little girl was happy. She inhaled the fresh winter air and the smell of tobacco on her father's clothes. For all his wealth, he did not smoke good cigars. They were cheap four-centers. When an acquaintance offered him a ten-cent cigar, he declined. If he learned to like a ten-cent cigar, the four-cent variety would no longer satisfy him. But the smell was indescribably sweet to the little girl. Hetty Howland Robinson wished these rides, with her father sitting close to her, could last forever.
As the sleigh reached the lower portions of the city, near the waterfront, the aromas of winter air and tobacco were overwhelmed by something baser and more pungent. Whale oil, spilled and leaked a little at a time from untold thousands of casks, coated the piers that poked into the Acushnet River, the streets along the waterfront, the sidewalks, the steps of shops and factories. Under the summer sun the rotting oil gave off a funk that permeated everything. In winter the odor was more muted, perhaps, but it never went away. One backstreet leading to the wharves earned the name "Rose Alley" when some optimist planted rosebushes in a vain attempt to mask the smell left by wagons carrying casks of oil. But if the rancid smell offended delicate nostrils, the residents of New Bedford were savvy enough to recognize that whale oil smelled like money.
Within a few blocks of the waterfront, blacksmiths made whaling irons and harpoons, rivets, and nails; coopers made casks; boatwrights fashioned sturdy whaleboats from local timber. The air rang with the clank of hammers on metal and the rip of saw blades through wood. Outfitters stocked dried apples, codfish, corn, tobacco, paint, canvas, and rum in quantities needed for voyages that often lasted three or four years. An equally furious and busy industry dedicated itself to converting oil and whalebone delivered by returning ships into lamp oil, watch oil, candles, hairpins, and corsets. Language in this part of town was coarse, direct, and loud. Robinson's voice could be heard above the din, shouting at dockworkers to speed up, to load and unload faster. Hetty loved to follow her father here, when he would permit. It was her favorite part of town.
The headquarters of Isaac Howland Jr. and Company were in a three-story building at the foot of Union Street, next to the wharves. It was a serious, sturdy building of simple architecture, made of stone and brick. On the first floor was a store for outfitting the company's ships with supplies. On the third floor, artisans fashioned sails and rigging. But the second floor was the financial heart of the company -- the counting room. Here, Robinson and a small staff of managers and clerks tabulated profits and losses, expenses, insurance costs, and wages, and kept track of the ever-changing price per barrel of oil. Here, all of the blood, violence, romance, lore, and adventure of whaling on high and distant seas were reduced to a pure essence of dollars.
Perhaps the only thing about Black Hawk Robinson that could be described as weak was his eyesight. And so from a young age Hetty read the financial news to her father, and to her maternal grandfather, Gideon Howland, a partner in the firm. She read shipping statistics, tariff news, currency debates, the latest on securities and investments, and trade news from New York. She absorbed everything. By the time she was fifteen, by her own reckoning, she knew more about finance than many financial men. Occasionally she would detect in her father's stern face something like approval, some faint signal, almost akin to forgiveness, for her double sin of having been born a girl instead of a boy, and for having been healthy and strong and full of life when her infant brother died. Looking back on her childhood many years later, Hetty would recall, "My father taught me never to owe anyone anything. Not even a kindness."
Here, then, was New Bedford during the 1830s and '40s, when Hetty was a child. The first great oil fortunes in the United States were established not by Texans poking into the hardbaked earth, but by New England mariners roaming the seas in search of whales. The original whaling capital, the island of Nantucket, faded in the early i8oos when newer, larger ships outgrew the limitations of Nantucket's shallow harbor. The industry moved west to the mainland and New Bedford...Continues...
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