Shooting across the bow

It’s really no surprise to me that if an object in our collection is roused from storage or display and brought to our photo studio it’s likely to be something significant; but I’m constantly delighted and amazed at what I see and learn when I get to spend “quality time” with such “stuff.”

When I read recently that the USS Constitution Museum is featuring its annual prizewinning ship model exhibition it brought to mind two recent photo shoots. A month or so ago a ship model showed up on my shot list, and days later I found myself face to face (or lens to figurehead?) with a large antique model of an American merchant sailing ship: an incredibly detailed construction enshrouded in a spider’s web of intricate delicate dark rigging.


Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

As it stood waiting to be immortalized in an exhibition catalog for our upcoming Nathaniel Gould show, I noted that in nearly seven years of photographing our collection, this was the first model ship to come before my lens; a bit surprising considering the vast number of models we seem to have. There are a few notable examples on view in the Putnam Maritime Gallery and East Indian Marine Hall, but like most museums there’s only space enough to show a selection of our holdings.

Well, I may not be an aficionado of miniaturized mizzen masts, topgallant yards and the like, but this was obviously something special; with its complexity, craftsmanship, detail and an overriding somber antique gravitas. As I contemplated how to make visual sense of it, our maritime curator Dan Finamore filled in the blanks.

We know it as object # M85, its object database ID number, but the only other info I had was “18th Century merchant ship model.” Dan surprised me with the fact that right there under our studio lights stood what is likely to be the oldest model of a merchant ship built in America!  Not only that, but back in the day — the 1760s — barely any real American ships had showy figureheads, let alone scaled down models; however M85 has one, making it that much more rare and interesting.

Shiver me timbers, for crying out loud!

Not surprisingly, Dan added, the figurehead is of a Scottish Highlander, kilt and all, a popular motif at the time. Check out PEM’s highlander in the large figurehead group on display in East India Marine Hall.


Photo by Walter Silver/PEM


Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

 No sooner had we finished up M85 that word came in that another ship model was headed into our studio port. This time it was good old M47, a model of the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, on view year-round 24/7 up in East India Marine Hall.


Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

Well, how many models of that famous ship have been made over the last two hundred years? Thousands I’m sure, but this one is undoubtedly the most special of all. The inscription painted across the length of its bow gives up a hint:


Photo by Walter Silver/PEM


Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

Obviously it was old and notable, but once again Dan Finamore came in for a consult and gave up the fascinating back story:

This model of the Constitution was actually built on-board the USS Constitution in 1812 by members of its own crew as they sailed off to battle the British navy early in the War of 1812. Intended as a gift to their commander, Isaac Hull, it must have been stowed away safely in time for said commander and crew to fight their historic engagement with the British warship HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia; the very battle from which the Constitution earned its nickname Old Ironsides.

Check out our paintings by Corne of that battle in the Putnam gallery.

M27847-2 InAction

Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

Putnam Gallery Installation Documentation

Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

After the fight, they sailed to the ship’s home port of Boston to drop off hundreds of British POWs (adding the vanquished to the victorious had pushed the size of the company on board to nearly 500 sweaty guys!) and Commodore Hull headed up to Salem to join with the members of the East India Marine Society in a glorious celebration.

Dan noted that during another festivity to celebrate William Bainbridge taking command of the ship in 1813, some fellow had the grand idea of taking one of the cannons from our model of the Friendship (which are actually bored cast bronze with fuse holes), filling it with gunpowder, and firing it at Constitution, causing some of the original rigging to disappear in flames before being doused.


PEM’s model of the Friendship. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

Shortly after, the rigging was repaired by British POWs who were being held in Salem. We know the East India Marine Society members were happy with the work because they paid them $15 – yes, our library still holds the receipt for that payment. Since the 1880s the US Navy has repeatedly studied the model as they have conducted repairs to the ship, bringing her back to her 1812 appearance.




  1. gail spilsbury says:

    Inspiring to read and reminds me how this area of the museum was least known to me when I arrived and soon became tangibly alive and appreciated because of PEM’s setting in Salem and its steeping in its history. The Marine Hall’s figureheads mesmerize me, but the charming, beautifully preserved figure on this model wins my heart instantly. Thanks for sharing such multi-leveled inspiration!

  2. A lovely piece, Walter. My dad has made a number of model ships over the years, the first when I was just a wee lad, but I’ve never forget the compelling quality of intricate miniatures. Maybe that’s why, after getting my theater degree, I became a puppeteer!

  3. Gordon Thompson says:

    Thanks, Walter, for making this fascinating history so accessible.

  4. Al Para says:

    I really liked the original merchant ship model. I have just uncovered an antique, original, American builder’s model of a US ship of the line. An Eckford design it is currently being analyzed and will be published shortly.

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