Friday, December 20, 2013

A Letter to a Friend, 1876. A Homecoming, 2013.

When Sallie Smith went with her husband aboard the bark OHIO in search of whales in 1875, she would have rare moments of female companionship. To make up for that lack, she kept busy in a number of ways including working with her husband, Capt. Fred Smith, on creating scrimshaw pieces, writing a journal, and corresponding with friends at home. With no local post office available at sea, she counted on the vagaries of meeting up with other ships that would be heading into port where they could then post the letters. Weeks or months might pass before the opportunity to do so arose. In one letter to her friend Minnie Chace in 1876, she included a crude illustration of a whale hunt, utilizing a whale stamp to give shape to the whale being harpooned by her crew. In the illustration of her letters below, you can see the similarity between the actual whale stamp imprint on the left and her fanciful drawing on the right (which she signs with: "drawn by Smith the Artist").  The small clutch of letters were obtained by the Museum just a few weeks ago.

Letters from Sarah G. (Sallie)Smith to Minnie Chace, 1876.
VFM 2062, Manuscripts Collection, G.W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport.

The Museum has more than 150 things belonging to Capt. Fred and Sallie, including two journals from aboard the OHIO, numerous scrimshaw pieces, a newly-acquired lapdesk and much more. The following illustration is from one of the journals kept during the voyage of the OHIO beginning in 1875. This hand-written account of the voyage came to the Museum in 1941 and had attached to it a hand-carved, wooden whale stamp in the likeness of a sperm whale. The impression on the journal page from the stamp is identical to the one on the letter above. Reuniting the journal and the letters after almost 140 years, and more than 70 years since the journal arrived at the Museum is a very satisfying experience, as well as instructional as the appearance of the whale stamp on both pieces acts as historical verification for both. Not that there was ever any doubt!
Journal kept on board the bark OHIO, 1876-1878, Capt. Fred H. Smith, master.
Log 400, Manuscripts Collection, G.W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I'll Be Home For Christmas...So Don't Visit Until the New Year!

The Collections Research Center will be closed from December 23rd - January 7th. We will reopen Wednesday, January 8th. Happy Holidays

From Christmas in the Arctic Regions by J.H. Woodbury in
St. Nicholas: Scribner's Illustrated Magazine, January, 1876

Monday, December 2, 2013

At Sea with a Clipper Ship Captain and His Wife

When Captain Alexander Winsor, of clipper ship FLYING CLOUD fame, took command of the clipper HERALD OF THE MORNING in 1868 for a passage to San Francisco from New York, it was  to be in company with his second wife, Emily Pope Winsor. Capt. Winsor's first wife, Sarah, died in 1865 while Winsor was master of the clipper ship SEA SERPENT, and before long he took Emily's hand in marriage.
From Manuscript Collection 112 in the G.W. Blunt White Library at Mystic Seaport.
 A recent gift to the Museum by a descendant of the Pope family consisted of a number of items belonging to Captain Winsor and Emily. A sea chest, telescope and billy club were among the items belonging to the good captain, but some of the more interesting pieces come via Emily Pope, including a lap desk with her name inscribed on it, a fascinating journal of her travels with Capt. Winsor aboard the HERALD OF THE MORNING and the following item, a handle to an umbrella belonging to Emily. The little ivory hand clutching the handle clearly bears the owner's name.

Unlike the somewhat spartan accommodations aboard a whaleship that we are used to reading about, Emily states that living aboard the HERALD afforded her, "a handsome dining room, large after cabin, with double staterooms on each side, with French bedstead, lung, etc., etc.".

Emily's journal and the artifacts that accompany it will be available for research and exhibition in the coming months.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sea Serpents Abound....

In two separate instances within the last month, giant sea creatures have washed ashore in California. See for a description of the latest occurrence. Scientists are puzzled with the spate of strandings of giant oarfish, a species that usually spends its time in the water at depths of hundreds of meters.

The picture seen above was obtained from Wikimedia Commons and was originally taken near San Diego in 1996 and shows a 23-foot long specimen of an oarfish being held aloft by a group of U.S Navy sailors.

This drawing of "Banks's Oarfish" appeared in an 1877 book entitled "History of Fishes of the British Isles" and appears online courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries' Digital Collections. Notice the hair-like frill that runs along the back of the fish.

When Captain Peter M'Quhae of HMS DAEDALUS first spotted a sea serpent to starboard in August of 1848, he was very analytical in his description of the creature. It passed close enough to the ship that M'Quhae stated that if it was a human acquaintance, "I should have easily recognized his features with the naked eye." He continued in his report that, "The diameter of the serpent was about fifteen or sixteen inches in diameter behind the head....It had no fins, but something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back." The painting below is one of two in the collection at Mystic Seaport of Captain M'Quhae's sea serpent. An engraving almost exactly representing this image appeared in the Illustrated London News in October of that year. Whether the newspaper image came first or the painting (which was purchased for the Museum in Scotland in 1960), is unknown, but M'Quhae's description of the size of the creature and the "mane" that appeared on its back is oddly similar to that of the oarfish. 

Mystic Seaport Museum. Accession number 1960.207

The current events in California have caused quite a stir as evidenced by the national media coverage. No less a commotion was in evidence in the autumn of 1848 in London. Was the good Captain's sea serpent an unknown, undiscovered relic of ages past or was it a lost visitor from the deep in the guise of an oarfish, which have been reported to grow as long as fifty feet? Unfortunately, we can only speculate.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

U.S. Charges Back to Win America’s Cup!

Looking at the title above, you would be justified in thinking this was about the miraculous comeback of Oracle Team USA in beating New Zealand in San Francisco recently. The truth is that it relates to the 1920 America’s Cup race that took place off of New York.

Sir Thomas Lipton challenged the New York Yacht Club for the fourth time and brought his SHAMROCK IV across the pond in 1914 for a scheduled September race. While in transit, SHAMROCK IV learned of Germany’s declaration that began the First World War, thus postponing the race until July of 1920. Leaving the boat to sit six years in a cradle in New York did not deter Lipton from continuing his quest after the War was finished.

The American boat, RESOLUTE, was skippered by Charles Francis Adams, the great-great grandson of President John Adams. Adams was hailed as America’s best sailor in 1920 and took on the challenge of defending the Cup. And he did…..just barely.

For the first and only time in his five challenges, Sir Thomas’ boat won a race. And then he won the second race in the best of five challenge. And all of a sudden the Americans were one race away from losing the Cup. Thanks to the handicap rule then in place, and Adams’ experience at the helm, RESOLUTE came back to win the final three races to keep the America’s Cup at home in the New York Yacht Club.

NYYC certificate honoring Charles Francis Adams as the successful skipper of the 
1920 America'sCup challenge. HFM 7. G.W Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport.
The picture shown is of a certificate in Mystic Seaport’s collection. The exquisite document praises Adams as the club member who had “such unusual qualities and nautical skills as top accomplish this difficult defense with unqualified satisfaction to both Club and Country.” Lipton would challenge one more time in 1930, but would go home once again without the “Auld Mug.” Click on the image to read the entire document.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

When Krakatoa Blew its Top

    Exactly 130 years ago, when the island of Krakatoa, located in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, erupted on August 26th, 1883, the shock was felt (and heard) for thousands of miles. The extreme seismic event killed tens of thousands of people from both the initial explosion and the earthquakes and tidal waves that followed and affected global weather for years to come.  Mystic Seaport’s collection of The Nautical Magazine includes copies for the period. Because of the strong British naval and commercial presence in the area, the magazine carried a number of reports about the devastation surrounding the explosion. “This remarkable disturbance of the sea made itself felt in various parts of the world…notably in Australia and Southern Africa, also at Karachi in India. The vast amount of pumice which lay upon the surface of the sea, in some places many feet in thickness, gave an appearance as if the ocean bed had appeared above water.” More important to the Schuit family, proprietors of the Anjer Hotel that appears in the accompanying image of an advertising card from the Museum’s collection, “A succession of earthquake waves swept the shores of the strait, utterly destroying the towns of Anjer, Merak, Tyringin and Telok Betong, together with some of the lighthouses on both shores.”

Mystic Seaport, Accession # 1994.99.5 

Enhanced image from front of 1994.99.5

    The London and China Telegraph for Feb. 27, 1868 lists G. Schuit as the proprietor of the Anjer Hotel in Anjer in the Sunda Strait. When Krakatoa erupted 15 years later, another member of the Schuit family, H. Schuit, was the proprietor, and other reports tell us that the hotel, which was set above a seawall, was ripped from its foundation by the waves. An issue of Popular Science for 1884 states that while Mr. Schuit survived the incident, his family did not. This earlier picture is one of the few reminders of the idyllic setting of the Anjer Hotel before 1883.

    This business card, showing Mr. Schuit’s multiple enterprises, was probably obtained by Capt. Timothy Benson in the 1870’s or ‘80’s while on trading voyages to the Orient. There is evidence in our manuscript collection that Capt. Benson visited Anjer as late as 1881, 2 years before the Krakatoa cataclysm.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Coat Rack Like No Other

Between 1874 and 1878 Captain John Orrin Spicer of Groton, Connecticut commanded the whaleship NILE on four voyages to the Eastern Arctic bringing back, primarily, whalebone (or baleen) and whale oil. On at least one of those voyages Captain Spicer brought back tusks from the narwhal, a small arctic whale. These he had fashioned, along with walrus tusk ivory and exotic wood, into one of the most unusual coat racks you are likely to encounter. It was made as a gift for his wife and after quite a number of years, and at least one other owner, it was donated to Mystic Seaport in 1964. The tusks are fitted into four wooden ball-shaped feet that support a wooden platform from which sprouts the central wooden column, topped by a crown of walrus tusk spindles. The narwhal tusks are connected to the central column with more ivory pegs supporting a ring of ivory. The tallest of the tusks is just over seven feet high.
Doug Currie, Randy Wilkinson and Chris White prepare the coat rack for an X-Ray.

Unfortunately, the coat rack has not been on exhibit for many years due to its poor condition. It was once again pushed into the spotlight, however, when Dr. Stuart Frank of the New Bedford Whaling Museum did a thorough examination and detailed report of the scrimshaw collection at Mystic Seaport. While not a piece of scrimshaw, the unusually constructed piece of furniture does incorporate a number of ivory elements. Stuart calls this a masterwork that is a “unique survivor of what must even in its day been a rare form…” Interest in the coat rack has continued to grow. Obviously, the time to act on repairing, or at least stabilizing, this artifact has come. With that in mind, we have contracted Fallon and Wilkinson Furniture Conservators to assess the piece and suggest treatments that will enable us to once again share this unusual object with our visitors.

As a first step, our Collections manager, Chris White, and Randy Wilkinson transported the coat rack to Fallon and Wilkinson’s studio with a four hour layover at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The stop at Mashantucket was essential in helping us determine what treatments we might be able to perform because the Research Center there has an X-Ray facility large enough to examine all elements of the item. Doug Currie, the Head of Conservation at the Mashantucket Museum, maneuvered the tools of his trade to get internal views of the fittings used to keep the coat rack together. Doug’s work confirmed a number of suspicions about the piece that tries to meld narwhal tusks, walrus ivory, exotic wood and iron fittings into a single entity. Unfortunately all those materials are not very compatible as they expand and contract at different rates and react to each other in ways that are less than beneficial to the object, resulting in a now wobbly construction that needs to be remedied.
Notice of acquisition in the January, 1965 Log of Mystic Seaport. 

As can be seen in the picture taken at the Mashantucket facility, this is just the beginning of the journey for this nearly 140-year-old relic. The second picture is from the January, 1965 Log of Mystic Seaport. 

Wish us luck and look for it to be on exhibit in the not-too-distant future.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sleuthing a Sailor-made Object

Back in November of 2012 we posted an item about a piece of scrimshaw done by a person known as the MECHANIC artist, so-called because the work was done on the whaler MECHANIC of Newport. Spencer Pratt was identified as that artist in that posting. Since then, Richard Donnelly of Rhode Island, an avid sleuth where Spencer Pratt and his handiwork are concerned, delivered a paper about Pratt at the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Scrimshaw Weekend. A new development in his presentation was the fact that Mystic Seaport also owns a whalebone swift and inlaid box made by Pratt. The box is almost identical to one owned by the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society in Bristol, Rhode Island. Not only has Mr. Donnelly made an almost fool-proof case that Pratt is the MECHANIC artist, he has made just as strong a case that these two swift boxes, and another four boxes held elsewhere, are from the same hand.

Mystic Seaport Accession #'s 1964.1134 and 1964.1135 

The box (with swift attached)  is the Mystic Seaport object. The other is from Bristol. The size of the box, method of construction, motif and more give a solid indication that they were built by the same person. Additional evidence from other known boxes all point to the same hand. Not only was Pratt an accomplished box maker, but as existing sperm whale teeth attributed to him attest, a talented scrimshander as well. Thanks to Richard Donnelly for the research and photographs and for adding depth to the understanding of our collection. 

Unsure of the actual use of a swift? Visit YouTube and search for swift and wool for a tutorial on how a swift works. Consider that the swift pictured above is all hand made. A coin dated 1830 is inserted into the end of one of the swift's knobs, shown at the base of the box.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Stormy Weather....

“If it should thunder as it did before, I know not where to hide my head…”
-          William Shakespeare, The Tempest

     The tornado that recently devastated Moore, Oklahoma reminds us of the fickle and furious temperament that Nature can exhibit. While tornadoes are few and far between in New England, the same cannot be said for hurricanes. Take as an example the destructive 1938 hurricane that rampaged through New England, killing hundreds and leveling, it is estimated, up to two billion trees. In this image taken at the time of that hurricane, it is quickly discernible that boats are not supposed to be traveling along the railroad tracks in Mystic, CT. This image is from the Post Collection of Photographs at Mystic Seaport.

Mystic Seaport Accession # 1987.58.523

     Texas has the unfortunate geographical location that puts it in the path of both tornadoes and hurricanes. The second picture shows the remains of a church in Galveston, Texas after the deadly hurricane that swept through there in 1900. This storm took an estimated 8,000 lives and is still the worst natural disaster on record in the United States. This photo is part of the Merrit-Chapman & Scott collection of marine salvage photographs at Mystic Seaport.

Mystic Seaport Accession # 2008.28.3.159

Thursday, April 25, 2013

First Responders on the Water

The week of April 15, 2013 was one that will not soon be forgotten. The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas were the two major events of the week that required extraordinary action on the part of American first responders.
Mystic Seaport. Rosenfeld Collection. Accession number 1984.187.27083
This photo showing two New York City Fire Department fireboats reminds us that firefighters and police work on the water as well. The two boats, JOHN D. MCKEAN in the foreground along with FIRE FIGHTER, are pictured with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The two boats were not only the most powerful fireboats in the NYFD fleet pumping 19,000 and 20,000 gallons per minute, but also the most famous. FIRE FIGHTER responded to more than fifty fires, including the fire that destroyed the NORMANDIE in 1942. Among other incidents, the JOHN D. MCKEAN, named after a marine engineer killed aboard the fireboat GEORGE B. MCLELLAN, was quickly on the scene in Manhattan after September 11 and rescued passengers from U.S Airways Flight 1549 in 2009, the crash that became known as the Miracle on the Hudson.
To read more about these extraordinary boats and the exceptional people involved with them, visit the Marine 1 FDNY website.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Imagine That! Whales!

Imagine! That's exactly what Conrad Gesner seems to have done in his depiction of these two whales in his 1560 epic work entitled Nomenclator Aquatilium Animantium. Gesner was a Swiss naturalist with an extremely curious mind. Although he only lived for fifty years (1516-1565), he was exceptionally productive in his studies. For example, he attempted to name every known animal (and some unknown); he wrote extensive treatises on botany; he tried to identify all existing languages; he published a catalog of all the known authors to that time, and much more. If Gesner had not died of the plague in 1565, who knows what else he might have accomplished?
A depiction of whales in Nomenclator aquatilium animantium, published in 1560.
While his book on aquatic animals does contain mythical creatures such as mermaids, he tried to describe as many animals as he could from direct observation, not just from hearsay as was the custom of the time.

In this picture of the two bizarre-looking whales, the strangest part is not the whales themselves, but the man standing at the rail with what looks like a trumpet, obviously blowing it in the direction of the beasts. Is he trying to call them or scare them or communicate with them? If your Latin and German are good enough, you can try to find out when you go to this link at to read the work in its original format. Click on the picture to get a larger version.Mystic Seaport is fortunate enough to have this extremely rare book as part of its research collection in the G.W Blunt White Library.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Bathing Beauties....

MSM Accession Number 1939.1301
This whimsical illustration of a couple narwhals basking on an Arctic beach appeared in the "Mammalia" volume of the 1837 series entitled The Naturalist's Library published in Edinburgh, Scotland. The title of the print is "The Narwhal or Sea Unicorn."  These marine mammals are related to the Beluga whale and, like them, have no dorsal fin. The tusk is actually a tooth that extends through the upper left lip of the male and is unusual in the fact that  it grows in a counterclockwise spiral from the left side of the face, although two-tusked animals have been reported and the occasional female exhibits a tusk as well. Scientists apparently are still unsure of all the uses of the tusk, though there are many unusual theories, the most likely being that it signals dominance among males. While the mythical unicorn was a solitary animal, the swimming variety is very social and can be occasionally seen in large groups in its Arctic habitat, especially in the Atlantic arctic region. Mystic Seaport has a large collection of Narwhal tusks brought back by whalemen from the Eastern Arctic. One unusual object in the collection is a coat rack constructed from wood, narwhal tusks and whale ivory. Now, get off the beach, beauties, and back into the brine.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Slow Boat to England....

Artist Charles Raleigh moved to New Bedford in 1877, the same year that Capt. Thomas Crapo made the decision to seek fame and fortune by sailing across the Atlantic from that port to England in a boat just under 20 feet in length. Raleigh captured the event and the painting now lives at Mystic Seaport.

Capt. and Mrs. Thomas Crapo. Painting by Charles Raleigh. MSM accession # 1955.965

The strange event was made stranger yet when Crapo acquiesced to his wife's request to join him. The two set off in their modified whaleboat built especially for the trip in June of 1877. After 56 days at sea, with the expected trials and tribulations behind them, they arrived in England to great fanfare. Returning home to New Bedford the next year, the Crapos took their show on the road and attracted thousands to hear their story. Twenty-two years after their voyage, Capt. Crapo once again got the urge to do something unusual to attract attention. In 1899 he left Newport in a boat less than 10 feet in length in an attempt to sail to Cuba. This time the ending was not so happy. Caught in a storm, Crapo capsized and drowned, having made it as far as South Carolina. He lives on through the work of Charles Raleigh.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Crossing the Line!

A crossing-the-line ceremony is something that many naval and merchant seamen have experienced over the centuries. Traditionally when a vessel passes over the equator, any sailor aboard that is also crossing for the first time is initiated into the brotherhood of shellbacks by King Neptune himself, attended by his lovely court, of course. Duckings, being “shaved” with giant implements, dosing with some sort of medicinal potion and being smeared with tar are just some of the events that might take place during a mandatory appearance at the good King’s court. Nowadays, certificates of such a graduation into the ranks are even made available to the “lucky” inductee.

The accompanying image is a plate taken from a rare book in the G.W. Blunt White Library’s collection at Mystic Seaport. “Crossing the Line” is from A Picturesque Voyage to India : by the Way of China, by Thomas Daniell and William Daniell published in London in 1810 by  Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme [etc.]

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