DEBORAH LYTTLE ASH
are carved wooden decorations usually representing real, mythological, or fantasy people or animals, attached to the bows of wooden ships. They served as a talisman for the ship, providing comfort to the sailors and intended ensure their safe return to their home port. As decorations they enhanced the beauty of the ship and often served as a pictorial or sculptural form for the name of the vessel.
While the proliferation and popularity of American ship figureheads reached their zenith in the early nineteenth century, ship decoration began with the advent of maritime vessels. Norsemen and the early Mediterranean people seem to be the earliest practitioners. They also have been traced to the locations of the islands of New Guinea, China, and India.
French figurehead carvers of the seventeenth century set the ideal for subsequent generations of all nations, especially England, Holland, Sweden, and Denmark. The French navy was founded in 1668 by Louis XIV's finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert who hired notable sculptors to execute ships' decoration. In search of expanded trade and bigger empires, naval activities (merchant ships and war ships) increased, as did shipbuilding and figurehead decoration. Over time the bow was either decorated with a single figurehead or a grouping of figures. Most wooden ships have sunk to the ocean floor where they have rotted, or they have succumbed to fire, but many ships' figureheads remain, as monuments to fallen sailors and memorials to past voyages.
Immigrant English ship carpenters initiated American ship carving in the early seventeenth century, but ship carving did not become a specialized trade until almost 1700. As in England, the lion was initially a popular figurehead, but lost its appeal in favor of images of horses and seahorses. Soon in vogue were individuals carved as figures, heralding the ship's name, the owner, his wife, or national heroes. British drawings of captured or sunk American vessels illustrate figureheads of Sir Walter Raleigh, who developed the first English settlements in America; John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1777; and Native Americans figures. United States Customhouse files also record ship descriptions attesting to the popularity of the female figure. The artistic style corresponded to the fashion of the day, with the eighteenth century Baroque style of carving giving way in the next century to Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and Realism. As designs of ships changed, so did the styles of the figureheads.
Family ties and master-apprentice relationships were prevalent among the American carvers who primarily practiced their trade in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and other East coast port cities. The best known and most competent early American ship figurehead carvers were William Rush (1756-1833) of Philadelphia, members of New England's Skillin family (active eighteenth century to early nineteenth century), Samuel McIntire (1757-1811) of Salem, Massachusetts, and Solomon Willard (1783-1861) of Boston, best known for his carving of President George Washington. The figurehead for the frigate Constitution (1797) was drawn by William Rush and executed by John Skillin (1745-1800). In writing to the naval constructor, Rush suggested that the figurehead for the Constitution be "represented by a Herculean figure, standing on the firm rock of independence, resting one hand on the fasces [a bundle of rods containing an ax with the blade projecting]…and the other hand presenting a scroll of paper, supposed to be the Constitution of America." A later figurehead added to the Constitution in 1848 represented the American hero and president, Andrew Jackson.
Pauline A. Pinckney, whose research is recorded in American Figurehead and Their Carvers, found that American figurehead carvers used accessible and abundant soft native pine for their figures. Carvers used either a single large block of pine for the body or smaller blocks, and carved individual body parts that were later fastened together using tongue and groove construction, and reinforced with brass or wooden pegs. The usual practice was for the apprentice to produce a rough-hewed figure from the wood and to leave the more exact detailing to the carver.
Elaborate decorations for both naval and merchant ships subsided from 1830 to 1850. The United States Navy economized and merchant shippers used less expensive and less weighty figurative busts. In 1850, with the arrival of clipper ships, a resurgence of ships' figureheads occurred, but since speed was the paramount consideration, figureheads of lesser weight and of a sleeker construction were required. A new generation of figurehead carvers accompanied the reign of the clipper ship, including the Fowle family of Boston (active 1813-1865), and the Dodge and