Victorian Treasures

Yankee Clipper Ship Cards

June 4, 2013

The Yankee Clipper!
Just to mention the name is enough to conjure up visions of sleek-hulled ships, with huge billowing sails in the wind, knifing through the icy blue waters carrying passengers and goods to a thousand ports around the world.
And they had such exotic names: Syren, Queen of the Pacific, Emerald Isle, Bostonian, California, and Bunker Hill. The seamen who sailed them boasted of their speed, beauty, and grandeur wherever they made landfall. The pride of pre-Civil War America, the Yankee Clipper ship brought our nation to the attention of the world.
Notwithstanding the romanticism and heroic nostalgia they always seem to invoke, the Yankee Clippers, when all is said and done, were merchant ships carrying cargo and passengers in order to earn huge profits for their owners. Though they easily eclipsed the traditional and pedestrian naval shipping competition of their time, the rivalry among themselves was fierce. Various means were employed to gain the upper hand.
Advertising soon became the main difference. At first, plain handbills were used, but clipper ship cards came into very heavy use around 1850 to the middle of the 1860s. These were usually 4 x 6.5 inches in size on cardboard stock, and were distributed to all possible customers and shippers. They were also openly placed in shops, inns and public buildings of all sorts.
Such cards became more and more detailed, and more attractive, as competition among shipping lines increased. Lithographed in beautiful colors, a commodity not to be commonly seen for another half-century, they featured large illustrations of the ship itself, the merchant line’s flag or motif, and all sorts of promotional messages. These emphasized the low insurance rates available because of their safety record, the reputation of the commander, and the speed records broken. They also announced departure dates and destinations.
A number of companies, such as Watson’s Press and Fred Roger, printed the cards used by ships sailing out of Boston Harbor. The situation was somewhat different in New York City, where the firm of Nesbitt & Co. did most of the business.
Thousands of these Yankee Clipper ship cards survived, and today they are eagerly sought by collectors and historical buffs alike. Even though a large portion of them are in a couple of dozen historical societies and public museums, they do occasionally show up at antique shows and at auctions, including eBay. Of these thousands of surviving relics from the golden age of American sail, less than 1,000 different designs are known to exist and concern approximately 400 Clippers. A significantly small number of such cards continue to remain in private hands, and there are undoubtedly many more buried and forgotten, awaiting discovery.
The Yankee Clipper was an important participant in the saga of early American merchant marine history. Many generations ago, these famed vessels enjoyed a brief moment of glory sufficient to forever insure their place in the annals of the seas.
As befitting a new nation straddling two of the world’s greatest oceans, eyes were cast upon these waters and interest in commerce and shipping became one of our nation’s dominating passions. America’s desire to rule the world’s shipping lanes culminated in the development of the mail packets, and then the clippers - sleek ships destined to outdistance the European competition. Packets were first developed by shipbuilders in the Chesapeake Bay area, but soon these schooners gave way to the famed Yankee Clippers.
In January of 1845, the first true Clipper ship, Rainbow, hit the waves. She was the creation of naval architect John Griffiths, and weighed 750 tons. Other Clippers followed quickly, each heavier and faster than its predecessors, finally culminating in the Great Republican, which boasted of 4,000 tons and over 15,000 yards of sail.
Speed records kept being set and broken as Clippers tried beating each other and increasing their own reputations. The Lightning ship made Liverpool in only 13 and one-half days, and Flying Cloud went from New York to San Francisco in just under 90 days.
New England yards constructed Yankee Clippers with fast, trim lines that made full use of their sails. The Clippers led the nation and, indeed, the world. They were marvels of scientific technology and Yankee know-how.
Discovery of gold in California in 1849, and later in Australia, gave the greatest impetus to the design, construction and heavy usage of Yankee Clippers. The need to transport both passengers and huge quantities of supplies and equipment from the East Coast to the West was critical, and they filled the bill. Usually the profits from two or three voyages to California were sufficient to pay the full cost of the ship. Travel from Boston or New York around Cape Horn to San Francisco took less than 100 days. This compared so favorably with the six months that conventional ships required.
The era of the Yankee Clipper was surprisingly short, a duration of only about twenty years from the mid-1840s to the mid-1860s. Many remained sea-going for years afterward, but profits were small or nonexistent. Competition from steamships, which, though short on the romanticism the Clippers evoked, traveled faster and carried larger freight loads far more cheaply, was too strong. Clippers were eliminated in the harsh world of economics.
As early as 1855, the swift windjammers had begun to lose money. Speed for speed’s sake had ceased to be all-important. Lower shipping costs and greater capacity, combined with the increasing speed of the steam-powered merchant ships, caused their doom. The steamship revolution wrought by John Fitch and Robert Fulton eventually brought about their demise.
Today, all that remains of the famed Yankee Clippers are memories and a few relics, such as the advertising cards once used to promote them.


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