Pirates in Anglo-American Culture

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A Jolly Roger flag flown by the USS Ranger. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.

Hello again, readers, and welcome back to the Library blog. A quick look at modern popular culture will make it clear even to the most casual of observers that the Caribbean Pirates of the 17th and 18th century are icons in family entertainment. Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” series has been immensely successful, and the 20th century is full of films about swashbuckling heroes and adventures at sea. And yet, a sampling of our news headlines paints a very different picture of piracy: container ships are ransacked, crews held for ransoms, and tourists are kidnapped or killed. Indeed, the world recognizes this problem and has deployed dozens of warships to counter the pirate threat to commerce and personal safety. Why is there such a dichotomy on the subject of piracy?

As a historian, it seems to me that the issue of piracy meets its natural response in the modern headlines: piracy has been reviled and combated since time immemorial, as it should be. The catch is that people also like stories of adventure, romance and rooting for the underdog. English (and by extension, American) culture especially has always had a bit of a rebellious streak, with heroes like Robin Hood robbing the superfluously rich and thumbing their noses at a corruption. For the Anglo-American world, pirates served as an excellent source of rebellious fun once they had faded into the past a bit, and books like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island capitalized on this fun in the late 1800s. About two centuries had passed since the buccaneers had last prowled the Caribbean, and it seemed safe to feature pirates as a source of adventure.   Read more

A Few Humble Words

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Said liner, swiftly cutting her way through the ocean. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.

Hey there folks, and welcome back to the Library blog. In the past few posts of ours, we mentioned a variety of topics covering SS United States designer William Francis Gibbs, including both Steven Ujifusa’s book “A Man and his Ship” and Gibbs’ own design plans for the SS United States. But what did Gibbs himself think of the ship? In the December 1953 issue of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, Gibbs was awarded the prestigious Franklin Medal in recognition of his innovation, perseverance, and dedication in the pursuit of his shipbuilding projects. When he gave a speech during the formal medaling ceremony, Gibbs revealed quite a bit about his personality and how he felt about creating the fastest ocean liner in history.

First and foremost, Gibbs was humble. The first things he said was how moved he was to be honored with the Institute’s trust, and frequently hoped the esteemed members of the audience would excuse his “feeble talk” and “poor understanding.” The rest of his speech was spent explaining that he accepted the award for the sake of his brother and everyone who worked on the SS United States with him. Gibbs insisted that not only did his brother do more work for the ship than he did, but all he did himself was push everyone to strive for perfection. Gibbs intercut all of his short, 9-minute speech with copious amounts of humor, almost all of which was aimed at his own person. The speech therefore offers an appealing glimpse of Gibbs – his use of humor and humility show a man comfortable and confident in his self, while his insistence that others were just as responsible as he was for the success of the SS United States shows a humble man sharing the glory with his team. And the truth is, the creation of the noble SS United States was indeed a team project on a massive scale: all Gibbs did was demand perfection, and American workers stepped up and created a masterpiece. In today’s climate of economic uncertainty, the image of Americans rallying together to make the fastest ship in the world is one worth keeping – and perhaps we should strive for perfection a little more frequently in our endeavors.   Read more

Your Very Own Tube

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This picture can be seen in Ujifusa’s video at about the 1:20 mark. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.

Hello again, and welcome back to the Library blog. For those of you who may not be aware, Historian Steven Ujifusa’s new book “A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS United States” has just been released. Ujifusa posted a video on youtube that introduces the book, and after watching it I have to say it is both informative and moving. Ujifusa exudes warmth and geniality as he talks about the importance of the SS United States as a symbol of American ingenuity. Click HERE for Ujifusa’s video on youtube.

It has been mentioned on this blog before that Ujifusa did much of his research for the book right here at The Mariners’ Museum Library. This influence can be seen in his video, since many of the images shown by Ujifusa came from the Library’s archives. The Library has a wealth of knowledge in its stacks: if Ujifusa found large amounts of material here for his book, just imagine what treasures you could discover here! You don’t need to be a professional historian or a book author to enjoy The Mariners’ Museum Library. All you need to do is share the same fondness for discovery. If you want to hear the tale of a man and his ship, maybe Ujifusa’s new book is right for you. If you want to see what Ujifusa sought to discover, come see us.   Read more

A Pressing Issue

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The Leviathan. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Library blog. The Daily Press just printed an article by Michael Welles Shapiro reviewing the new book by Steven Ujifusa, “A Man and his Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and his Quest to Build the SS United States.”  The book explores the tenacity displayed by SS United States chief designer William Francis Gibbs in his efforts to get the ships he designed built over the years, with great emphasis given to the SS United States. In order to highlight Gibbs’ determination Ujifusa covers an incident early in his career, when a great deal of friction erupted between Gibbs and the shipyard president Homer Ferguson over the redesign of a ship called the Leviathan after World War I.

Ferguson made a below-cost bid on the shipbuilding rights to the ship and wanted to make up his deficit by charging money for a boatload of design changes to the ship specifications. Gibbs would have none of that – he designed the Leviathan with a specific set of specifications and refused to allow any alterations to her blueprints that would increase her cost. Ferguson ended up getting in trouble for losing money on the Leviathan, but his resignation was not accepted. As for Gibbs, his determination in getting his ships built paid off for him when he designed the SS United States.   Read more

Remembering our Good Fortune

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To Ms. Eliza Guinan, Michael's sister. The letter was not sent until Michael arrived in Washington DC on July 30th. From The Mariners' Museum Collection.

Hello again, and welcome back to the Library blog. I hope everyone had a pleasant Fourth of July and a weekend spent with friends and family. Sadly, during the Civil War hundreds of thousands of young men could not share in this simple joy. Separated from their loved ones, the only merriment many soldiers had was what they could create for themselves. Private Michael Guinan of the 128th New York Volunteers Co. A wrote to his sister a letter several days after the Fourth, recounting the somber celebration he and his unit had produced.

“We passed the Fourth of July in camp with no amusement of any kind whatsoever only in the evening (Bill?) Forster got a couple of barrels of beer and called us all up and we all drank a glass in honor of the day… at taps we all went to bed, to dream of times gone by and of those to come again: to dream of the Fourths of July we passed at home, and of those we will pass if God spares us to return again.” – Pvt. Michael Guinan, July 1864.   Read more