It is exciting to announce that one of my favorite collections at the Phillips Library, MSS 470 – Sailing Ship Card Collection, 1852-1894, 1918, 1990, is now fully processed and open for research. Processed with funds from the NHPRC, this collection includes 1,295 cards printed in the late 19th century between 1850 and 1900. Ship owners and shipping lines announced the departure of their ships by means of printed cards instead of advertising in newspapers or via broadsides, as they had previously done. Despite the many years that cards were used, the ephemeral nature of the sailing cards makes them quite rare.
The collection at the Phillips Library is one of the largest, if not the largest collection in the world. We continue to purchase cards as they become available; in fact, three new cards were added while we processed the collection; cards were acquired for the ships Emerald Isle, Freeman Clark, and Memel.
Collectively the advertised ships were referred to as clipper ships, which identified their speed. Built at the height of the California Gold Rush, these ships had three or more masts and a square rig, with a large sail area; they were built to travel faster than any ships before them, and to reach the West coast as fast as possible; they were called “clipper ships” because they appeared to clip the waves rather than ride through them. Prior to the design of this vessel, the journey between Boston or New York to San Francisco could take as long as 300 days; the increased speed of the clipper ship shortened these journeys to between 100 and 120 days.
The cards were printed to advertise commercial ship sailings from wharves in Boston, New York and San Francisco with destinations to San Francisco, New York, London, Melbourne and Sidney in Australia, Christchurch, Dunedin, Lyttleton and Wellington in New Zealand, and Hong Kong and Shanghai in the Pacific.
Although clipper ships are strongly represented, there are also cards for barks, barkentines, brigs and schooners. The collection also includes cards for packet boats, which originally carried mail between ports; and steamships, which eventually replaced sailing ships because they were not at the mercy of the weather to complete their journey nor did they need as large a crew to manage the vessel.
Typically 4-5 inches by 5-7 inches, these cards were distributed to shippers and potential passengers to advertise upcoming journeys. Due to the uncertainty of the amount of time to fill the vessel with a full cargo, departure dates were rarely printed on the cards, though several cards in the collection do include these dates. Cards also include the number of days for a particular journey; to compete cards also compared the lengths of their journeys with other ships.
In his book Clipper Ship Sailing Cards, Bruce Roberts indicates that these cards were used more than any other advertising card in the mid to late 19th century; as the cards moved away from black and white presentations to those printed in color, the cards represented “the first primary use of color in American advertising art.” Typically the cards were printed on coated stock using letterpress techniques with wood engravings to create the images. As chromolithography techniques progressed, cards could use as many as seven different colors. Some of the cards in the collection used embossing techniques to create the images. Several cards in the collection have no images and creatively use color to enhance the printed design of the card.
Images on the cards were chosen to represent the name of the ship or its captain. In their book, Yankee Ship Sailing Cards Allan Forbes and Ralph Eastman note that “it was never safe to name a vessel for one of the family or anyone then living” but suggested the selection should be “one whose excellence is vouched for by a tombstone.”
Images included company flags, company logos, or nautical images, such as ships sailing at sea overprinted with the name of the ship. Knights, warriors, Native Americans, Arabs and Asians were also frequent images on the cards.
Women were portrayed as maidens, young damsels, or objects of desire. Images from mythology, literature and legends were presented in scenes illustrating a specific tale. It was common to name the ships after historic figures; several cards depict the namesake of the ship. Queens and princesses were depicted in their royal garb complete with scepters pointing to the ship sailing at sea. Several cards in the collection include the same image but were printed to advertise the journey for a different ship.
One wood engraving became known as “Watson’s Eureka.” Printed by Watson’s Press, the image was typically a black-and-white engraving of a Roman soldier holding a spear, sitting in a chariot, next to a bear, overlooking a harbor. The image included the work “Eureka” printed on the top of the image and sometimes the word “California” was printed below. Occasionally the image would be overprinted in color and sometimes it was signed by the engraver, J. H. Bufford, a lithographer from Boston.