Sailing Ship Card Collection Open For Research

Dreadnought, Cremorne, and Audubon

Three examples of advertising cards for clipper ships: Dreadnought, Cremorne, and Audubon.

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 (1,197 of which are unique), 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.

American Barque, Abiel-Abbott

American Barque, Abiel-Abbott, journey to Dunedin and Auckland, New Zealand.

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.

Steamship, Montana plus clipper ship Bertha

One card, steamship, Montana, on recto, and clipper ship, Bertha, on verso.

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.

Clipper ships, Imperial and OceanEagle

Beautiful examples of cards with limited use of image and strong use of text and color.

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.

Clipper ship, Manitou

Sailing ship card for clipper ship, Manitou, sailing from New York to San Francisco.

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.

Clipper ships EllaNorton, Chariot o fFame, and Geo. Griswold

Women subjects on three clipper ship cards, Ella Norton, Chariot of Fame, and Geo. Griswold.

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.

Use of Watson's Eureka for clipper ship, Blandina Dudley

Black and white engraving, Watson's Eureka, signed by J. H. Bufford.

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.

While the majority of the collection includes individual cards sleeved in Melinex for protection, digital images of cards pasted into account books are also included.  MH 118, Henry Hastings and Company Records, includes 67 account books documenting the voyages of company ships between 1853 and 1895.  Two of these account books, one for the Charger and one for the Invincible, include several advertising cards for each vessel in the front of the books.  Images of these cards have been included in the folder for each ship, which also include additional cards.   Cards from this collection are regularly pulled to exhibit in the maritime galleries at the Peabody Essex Museum.

For more information, please visit Philcat. A digital finding aid for this collection is available at


4 thoughts on “Sailing Ship Card Collection Open For Research

  1. What an indulgence–1295 cards in one sitting. Thank you for using seldom seen images in your blog posting, and thank you Phillips Library for preserving these fragments of our national advertising and printing heritage, along with our maritime history.

  2. A terrific blog post, Barbara! I’m delighted that the Phillips Library’s clipper ship cards are now catalogued and resting comfortably in Melinex sleeves. These precious jewels deserve the best!

    I’m also happy to see the legendary Britta Karlberg offering her thoughts! Britta was always an advocate for the collection, and she helped me greatly in my research some years ago.

  3. Do you have any more information on the Bertha clipper ship card? I’m searching for a ship Bertha owned by E.E. Caine of the Pacific Clipper Steamship Company out of Seattle. He was operating there in the 1890′s. If this is an older ship, he could have purchased it for his company.
    Doug Capra
    Seward, Alaska

  4. Hi Doug,

    Unfortunately the Phillips Library does not have any further detail on the Clipper Ship Bertha. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Catherine Robertson
    Reference Librarian

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