Figureheads guided ships to sea


A visit to Mystic Bay in Connecticut is a step back into the era of whalers and sea-going folk.

At Mystic Seaport Village is a re-creation of an early 1800s New England coastal village of 37 acres, with 60 museum buildings and historic square riggers. A visitor can sense the atmosphere of how it used to be.

On Greenville Avenue, some of the dwellings illustrate the diverse periods and styles of those eras.

Ships were key.

Without ships there would have been no industries, and without industries, agriculture would have waned. Society would have dwindled and the new states would have vanished.

The ships are the most outstanding feature at Mystic Bay. At the bow of the ship, under the bowsprit, where the sides come together, was placed the figurehead – the image at the prow – the symbol of the ship.

It had no practical purpose, similar to the nose art of WWII bombers, yet no ship sailed without one. The affection attached to it by the ship’s crew was almost superstition.

This was undoubtedly a belief carried down through the ages from ancient times, due to the fact most large vessels had human or animal shapes oil their prow.

About the figureheads. Since shipping or any waterway transportation was important for any industry – for export or import or even livelihood – it is no wonder the carving of figure heads near sea ports and ship building was of prime importance in American crafts.

The ship builder may have felt he was sending an American or personal emissary to foreign parts via the figure head. Since shipping in those yesteryears was a mark of a nation’s pride, those prow figures had to look their best.

American figure heads were often more unique than other nations. To appreciate the figure, it should be attached where it was designed for, on the prow of a vessel.

In a museum, the figure loses its charm, and in my opinion, looks like a detached artificial limb of a human.

Shapes and sizes.

The contour of it on a ship, the silhouette on a berthed ship, is very important for detail. A figure of a lady with outstretched arms, head held high, and a distant gaze seems to bring alive an anchored ship.

Figureheads were made of pine, carved, painted and gilded. Similar to carousels, the figures were constructed of several pieces and doweled together. Often, the outstretched arms could be removed, eliminating damage in severe weather.

Styles and characters changed very little compared to other forms of art. Ship carvings were usually accomplished by untutored workers, therefore can be considered folk art.

The figure head was often used on several types of waterborne vessels – rowboats, packets, clippers, whalers, river boats, etc.

Unknown artists. Most carvers were ordinary folks, so most records of the workers are unknown. A few are recorded, especially if they were wood sculptors or tradesman.

Boston was the base for many ship builders. Wood carvers there were Fowle, Drowne, Simeon and Skillin in the 1700s. McIntire, a well-known architect also made one surviving figure head.

On the riverboats, less pretentious figure heads were made when the fad for such began to wane. Carving ship figure heads was not an easy chore to accomplish since about 10 years was required to develop the needed skills. Characters for ship figure heads varied in selection, subject to the carvers’ and ship owners’ desires and skills.

Figurehead themes.

Ladies in various attire, national heroes, mythology and legends – even the owners – appeared in sculptured wood.

Many animals and mythological creatures were employed, and often the chosen name of the vessel was reflected in the figure head.

As stated before, changes were not often, usually when the vessel’s design changed. In the beginning, only busts were attached, but later the full figure was applied.

When the ships had rounded prows, the figures were erected. As the cut waters began to come at an angle, the figures were made to suit the slant.

As time progressed and ships changed in the 1800s, the figures were less and less on the prow. Simple billet heads, eagles and scroll work was the figure head in the late 1800s.

Beginning of the end.

As iron and steel became ship building materials, carved wood figure heads were not compatible. After 1900, the Navy ordered all figure heads removed from the ships and they were to be sent to the states the ships represented.

On private yachts today, traces of decoration often are seen on the ship fore or aft


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