Blog of the Collections Department

The Dead Horse Festival

While spending some time going through a stack of Harper’s Weekly articles we have, I found some really interesting subjects.  The one that stuck out the most was titled The Dead Horse Festival.  First mistake was looking at the imagery before reading the article.  I thought they were throwing a real horse from the ship; they aren’t.

Dead Horse Festival (1) Dead Horse Festival (2)


There is some text missing from ours, but I was able to find it online.  The first two columns read:

“This amusing ceremony often takes places on board of English ships sailing to Australia.  On joining a ship the sailors are advanced a month’s wages, with which they are supposed to have bought a horse, which dies at the end of four weeks.  A dummy steed is prepared in the forecastle, the body being an old flour barrel, the neck and head of canvas, stuffed with straw and painted.  In place of a saddle, a hole is cut throughout the body, large enough to admit the legs of the rider.

About half past seven in the evening a small procession, headed by a man who carries a baton, furnished with a rude imitation of a human face, issues from the forecastle.  Following him is a sailor with long white whiskers, who holds a can for penny contributions.  He is protected by a number of policemen, armed with canvas clubs like those used in pantomimes, with which they lay about them as freely as New York policemen, but with no other effect the eliciting shouts of laughter.  The procession is closed by a number of sailors who sing jolly sea songs during the march.  After the collection has been taken up, the party returns to the forecastle.

Shortly afterward a larger procession shown in sketch No. 1, issues from the forecastle, with a number of comic characters in addition to those just mentioned, among them the auctioneer, in frock-coat and tall hat, with a roll of papers in his hands, and attended by a clerk.  Immediately after the auctioneer comes the horse, ridden, or rather carried, by a sailor dressed as a jockey, and led by a groom.”

The last few words missing in the third column are “side, near the mainsail”

"The Ceremony of the Dead Horse" from 'Shanties from the seven seas' by S. Hugill (1961)

“The Ceremony of the Dead Horse” from ‘Shanties from the seven seas’ by S. Hugill (1961)

The origin of this comes from when a sailor would be given a month’s advance when signing on to a ship.  This was usually long gone by the time the voyage began, often sent to the sailor’s family.  At the end of the first month at sea the sailor would have worked off this debt and begun to earn money,  and it appears that this was their way of celebrating.  The dead horse is representative of the advance money they had been given and how they were free of that burden.

Running across interesting tidbits like this is what makes history so fun!

Returned stolen materials

And again I have another batch to share with everyone.  It is a small group of stereoviews, which are something I find very interesting as I had never heard of them before working here.   For those who are not familiar with them, they are those cards with two images.  The idea is that in a viewer, the photos line up to create a 3-D effect to your eyes, and so these were very popular when introduced.

No. IIII. Stockton City (1)

Stockton City

301.  Broadway Wharf & River Steamers (1)

Broadway Wharf and river steamers in San Francisco

Fort Lafayette, New York Harbor (1)

Fort Lafayette, New York Harbor

Grand Central Hotel, New York City (1)

Grand Central Hotel, New York

May Queen on Lake Minnetonka, Minn (1)

The steamboat May Queen on Lake Minnetonka,  Minnesota.

Mt. Desert Ferry terminal, Maine (1)

Mt. Desert Ferry Terminal, Maine


Way Back Wednesdays


While I don’t often post images that just show one object, I chose to do with this piece as the condition has drastically changed through the years.  This pictures shows the smallest model in our collection, which just happens to be in a flashlight bulb.  The pencil is great for comparison as it shows just how small the piece is.  We still have this in our collection, but the glass of the bulb has filmed over and the little model is barely visible now.

Sea Scouts from Baltimore, MD in front of main entrance May 1949

Here we have a group of Seascouts from Baltimore, Maryland in front of our then main entrance in May of 1949.  No doubt they come to tour the museum as we still have groups like this come and visit us from time to time.  If possible, we try to provide them with special behind-the-scenes tours, which are always a lot of fun.

Shipmodel Building Shop January 1937 - John Bader (left) Tilford Crandol (right)

From the 30’s until just after WWII, we had a ship model shop (shown above in January of 1937) on the property.  It was the men that worked in this shop that built many of the models showcased in our Great Hall of Steam Gallery.  They used plans from the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company to build these models, which means that the accuracy with which they were built is amazing.  The models are pretty fantastic.

Snow in the park March 9, 1947

And just as a reminder to everyone that summer is over, here is a picture from March 9, 1947 that shows snowfall in the park.  That’s right, winter is coming and it is projected to be pretty cold this year.  Hopefully Mother Nature won’t be too unkind.

Artifact of the Month – Great Eastern

As I continue to comb through and photograph our print/poster collection, I am constantly finding pieces that depict incredibly interesting bits of history.  In most cases, bits I never even knew existed, which spurs me to research and learn more.  One print I found earlier this week shows the steamship Great Eastern (1858-1888) on a sandbar covered in advertisements for all kinds of activities available on board, including horse races, a concert and the Swiss Giantess.  It’s quite amazing to look at and so I decided to make it the artifact of the month for October.



And if you look closely at the print, you can see that there are a massive amount of people on the ship with tons more trying to board.  When I find something like this I just have to know more and understand the purpose behind it.

Great Eastern was the brain child of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was famous for his work on the railway, but decided to get into the steamship designing business in the 1830’s.  His first work was designing Great Western, followed by Great Britain, both considered successes.  It was then that Brunel set his sights on building a third ship, one that would be the largest ship of its time (and indeed would remain the largest for a significant number of years to come) and would be used for voyages to and from India and Australia.  The reason to make the ship so massive is so that it could carry a significantly larger amount of coal and not have to make many (if any) stops along the route to reload, which was a problem with most of the contemporary ships.  The Eastern Steamship Navigation Company was formed to carry out this project.


Great Eastern at dock

Unfortunately, there were problems from the very beginning with the construction of Great Eastern (originally to be named Leviathan).  Construction began in 1854 in London at the shipyard owned by John Scott Russell and Company, who had previously worked with Brunel.  The project was so large that it caused Russell to go bankrupt, which delayed work on the ship for a time.  Brunel’s health was failing and the financial burden certainly didn’t help.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel against the launching chains of Great Eastern, photo 1857 by Robert Howlett, courtesy of Wikipedia

Isambard Kingdom Brunel against the launching chains of Great Eastern, photo 1857 by Robert Howlett, courtesy of Wikipedia

At the launching of Great Eastern; John Russel Scott (left), Lord Derby (middle) and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (on right with pipe), courtesy of Wikipedia

At the launching of Great Eastern; John Russel Scott (left), Lord Derby (middle) and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (on right with pipe), courtesy of Wikipedia

The original launch date was set for November, 1857, and a great many spectators arrived to watch.  The launch was a failure, one that cost the company dearly.  Work to get the ship launched continued for three months until finally, with the use of hydraulic rams, they managed to get Great Eastern into the water in July of 1858.  And this brings me back to the print in our collection.  Apparently Great Eastern was the butt of a few jokes because of the trouble caused when trying to launch her.  If you look at the balloons above the ship you can see that one is named The Brunel while the other is The Scott Russel.  I believe the print also refers to the fact that another problem facing the ship was the lack of docks that she would be able to stop at because of her sheer size.  Docks then weren’t built to handle ships that large.  It’s a shame because what Brunel was able to accomplish was amazing, but the world then just wasn’t ready for it.

It was published in January of 1858, right around the time of the successful launching, by Ackerman & Co.  The illustration (and I believe the note to the shareholders) was done by Watts Phillips (1825-1874) who was an illustrator as well as novelist and playwright.

Although that is where the story of the print ends, it is not where the story of Great Eastern ends.  In September of 1859 she made her maiden voyage and was visited by more tragedy.  One of the paddle engine boilers exploded, killing six of the crew.  It did not destroy the ship though, and she was fixed and sent back to sea.  She never made the voyages to the East that she was built for, but starting in 1860 she made transatlantic voyages.  In 1864 she was sold to a group wanting to use her to lay cables.  Although she never reached the fame that everyone hoped for as a trade/passenger vessel, she will always be known as the vessel that laid down the first telegraph cable to America, which is no small feat.  In 1888 Great Eastern was finally sold to be scrapped, which took well over a year due to her massive size.

Returned Stolen Materials

As always, I am happy to share items that have been returned to us after the theft in the early 2000’s.  So enjoy!

City of Paris photograph City of Rome photograph


The first picture is City of Paris and the second shows City of Rome.

IMG_20140807_0037 IMG_20140807_0038

Saloon passenger list for the Guion Line’s steamship Alaska, dated July 8th, 1890.

Inman Line ad (1) Inman Line ad (2)


advertisement for Inman Line

MS Italia booklet (4) MS Italia booklet (7)


booklet for MS Italia of the Home Lines

RMS Oceanic poster card (1) SS Baltic photograph, July 12, 1931


The first image shows a used postcard of RMS Oceanic, while the second is a photograph of SS Baltic

SS Homeric photograph SS Megantic photograph, January 5, 1930



These two images show SS Homeric passing New Jersey Central and SS Megantic

SS Queen Frederica booklet (4) SS Queen Frederica booklet (7)


Booklet for SS Queen Frederica of the National Hellenic American Line



Way Back Wednesdays

June 1934, objects on table in main room, scrimshaw display

In our early days, we often simply placed objects all over tables to show off as much of the collection as possible.  Of course this left them easily exposed to damage and theft, so we no longer display them like this, but it still looks neat.  This image is from 1934 and features a small portion of our scrimshaw collection.  The finest piece is that large panbone next to the paddle from 1857/1858 depicting the Civic Heroes of the American Revolution and the Washington Monument at Richmond.  It was made by Nathaniel Sylvester Finney, a veteran whaleman.

Jan 23, 1963, Channel 13 taping a tv program about the International Antarctic Exhibition, interviewing Admiral Dufek

I believe I have posted other photographs before of our International Antarctic Exhibition before, but this one (from Jan. 23, 1963) shows Admiral Dufek being interviewed by Channel 13.

Front of Gibbs Gallery, 1978

The Gibbs Gallery, dedicated to William Francis Gibbs, is another exhibition that we have a lot of photographs from (like the International Antarctic Exhibition).  This shot (from 1978) shows the entrance to the gallery with a model of SS America front and center.  No doubt there was a lot of information included about another famous ship Gibbs designed, SS United States.

Main entrance December 30, 1937


This image shows the front entrance to our museum on December 30, 1937.  Quite a bit has change since then.  This is now the business entrance, but the beautiful bronze doors are still there.  The cannons were removed from this spot and just a few years ago put out in the front of the museum on special stands.  The anchors aren’t there either anymore, but the vegetation around this entrance has grown up quite a bit.

Everyday is an adventure

One of the absolute best parts of this job is that I am almost always on some kind of treasure hunt, whether I know it or not.  Frequently I will be browsing through an object file and will find some random bit of information that is either hilarious or incredibly interesting, or sometimes both.  Today has been one of those days.  In the process of locating information for a researcher regarding an umiak that used to be in our collection, I came across a funny handwritten note that said, “the oomiak has unquestionably added atmosphere as well as smell to the museum.”  It was only after I started researching the umiak that is currently in our collection that I understand why someone may have stated something.

Umiak on display in International Small Craft Center

Umiak on display in International Small Craft Center

Looking through information from when the umiak came to us (the one in the picture above) it was written that “While in Alaska Mr. Woolworth, forgetful of our purchase, brought back an oomiak on the deck of his yacht as a gift for the Mariners.  The boats as already stated, are covered with walrus skins.  When the sun shone for days, the greasy fragrance from this particular craft – plus the stench of urine with which Eskimos saturate the hides to tan them – caused mal-de-mere, anything but pleasant for those on board.  No doubt it was a never-to-be-forgotten trip.  In fact we heard stories about it for several years.”

This is just the kind of information I always hope to find when I am browsing object files.

General Slocum in Powerships

I am very excited to announce that the article I had created earlier this year about the coin from the General Slocum that was donated to us has been published by the Steamship Historical Society of America’s publication, Powerships.  I am now a published author, woohoo!!  But truly, the tale of General Slocum is a very powerful story and the layout in the magazine is great.  So if anyone is interested in reading it, you can purchase a copy here:


Returned Stolen Material

As usual, I am excited to share the archival materials that are being returned to us, so enjoy!

Japan Mail Steamship Co booklet, 1915 (1) Japan Mail Steamship Co booklet, 1915 (10)

Japan Mail Steamship Company brochure from 1915, showing the ship SS Yasaka Maru

Grace Line, Santa Paula launching booklet 1958 (1) Grace Line, Santa Paula launching booklet 1958 (4)

Booklet from the launching of the Grace Line’s new ship Santa Paula in 1958 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company

Cunard Line booklet, Andania, Antonia, Ausonia (1) Cunard Line booklet, Andania, Antonia, Ausonia (6)

Cunard Line booklet featuring the ships Andania, Antonia & Ausonia

Anchor Line booklet, Eastern Service (1) Anchor Line booklet, Eastern Service (5)

Anchor Line booklet for their Eastern Service, featuring the ships Caledonia, Cilicia & Circassia

MS Britannic photogarph, August 2, 1931 Cretic photograph, 1915

Photographs of MS Britannic (1931) and Cretic (1915)


Posters, part 8

ln515 ln21 ln464

Thought it was time to share some more posters, so here we go.  The first one is from the 1960’s and encourages young people to stay in school.  As for the second poster, it was an effort to save the old USS Oregon.  The ship was scrapped in the 50’s, but pieces of it remain in the Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland Oregon, including the mast.  The third is a recruiting poster ca 1917 by artist Joseph Christian Leyendecker.

ln498 ln495 ln483


The first poster in this set is also WWI and encourages people to buy victory notes.  The second is WWII by artist Allen Saalburg and works at encouraging patriotism by reminding people of the lives lost in the Pearl Harbor disaster.  The third is also WWII (1944) and stands as a reminder that Americans were also fighting on the Pacific front, not just in Europe where the fighting was coming to a close.  It was done by artist P. Kolada