The age-old feeling that a ship has life was expressed for centuries in the practice of decorating ship's bows with carvings representing living things. Although some
ships had gracefully carved fiddle-scroll decorations, called billet heads, mounted on their bows, carvings of animate creatures were much more commonly used for this purpose.
Two stories illustrate how vividly, in the minds of the crew, the figurehead took on the personality of its model. In 1800 H.M.S. Royal George whose figurehead was in the likeness of the King, was forced to decline engagement with some French warships; and the bosun, to spare his sovereign the disgraceful sight of a British ship fleeing the enemy, lashed a hammock around the head - explaining that he was "only securing his peepers." During the War of 1812 the American ship ‘General Armstrong’, which had a carving of the General for its figurehead, had to be scuttled to keep it from falling into the hands of the British. As the crew left the sinking ship some bold sailors decided that the General must be saved; so, under fire, they cut away the figurehead and took it ashore. Clearly, these figureheads were more to the men than mere ornaments. It is said that sailors chipped off bits of the figurehead to carry as landlubbers carry a rabbit's foot, for good luck; and that a sailor would hesitate to sail on a vessel which did not carry one. A mishap to a figurehead was an ill omen. When a part of the head on the carving on H.M.S. Brunswick was carried away by a stray shot, a tar asked the captain for his cocked hat. With the hat nailed upon the head throughout the engagement, the vessel acquitted herself honorably!
Animal life frequently provided subjects for figureheads. The eagle was very popular; and the lion, although most frequently used on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century vessels, was often used on vessels of the later period of sail. So were such imaginary figures as dragons and mermaids, whose traditional association with disaster does not seem to have precluded their occasional use.
The human form was often used. A dark Oriental which may have come from the bow of the American ship ‘Asia’ of 1855 is now preserved at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut. The head of an Arab and a ferocious Moorish pirate are at The Mariners' Museum at Newport News, Virginia. There are many American Indians, the best known of which - "Tamanend" from the U.S.S. Delaware - is preserved in facsimile at the United States Naval Academy. It is known as "the god of the 2.5" (the Academy's passing grade) and is "worshiped" by the students.
In cases of ships named after definite personages or animals, the name often dictated the subject for the figurehead. The names ‘Flying Fish’, ‘Charger’ and ‘Stag Hound’ suggested the figureheads on the vessels of those names; so did ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Rembrandt’, ‘Commodore Perry’ and ‘General Putnam’, ‘Benjamin Franklin’ and ‘Andrew Jackson’. It was natural that shipping personages - masters, builders, owners, and merchants - should be used. A likeness of the famous builder Donald McKay was carved for one of the largest clippers ever built, which bore his name. A full-length figure of Samuel Appleton, merchant, ornamented the bow of the ‘Samuel Appleton’. "It is a good likeness and is well proportioned," says a contemporary description.
Unfortunately many of the figureheads still preserved are unidentified as to the vessels from which they came or the persons they represent. Most of these have been given descriptive names such as "Warrior with Helmet," "Lady with Rose," or "Bust of a Naval Officer." One such figure was called "Georgian Gentleman." The name and features attracted a visitor who pronounced it a carver's attempt to portray his ancestor, John Forsyth of Georgia, who had represented his state in Congress and was Secretary of State from 1834 to 1841.
We have spoken so far principally of male subjects, but women actually were more generally portrayed. Obviously the female form was more attractive to male crews, and the figure of a woman seems more appropriate upon the bow of a graceful ship, traditionally referred to by the feminine pronoun. A reward for having achieved the position of bosun's mate was sometimes the job, envied by the fo'castle hands, of painting the figurehead. To judge by the numerous coats of paint some figureheads carry, the most was made of this privilege. Of course the artistry of the bosun was not necessarily guaranteed, and results were sometimes painful to those aware of the more refined delicacies of taste. The man before the mast, however, did not fall into this class. It is said that the captain of a British ship was made uncomfortable by the jeers of his friends at the gaudy paint job on his ship's figurehead. Knowing that his men admired it, he tactfully gave no direct orders. Instead, he had the figurehead gilded as a reward for some fine work of his crew. This pleased the men immensely and accomplished the captain's purpose.
Women were not so active in public life in the nineteenth century as they are in the twentieth, and few well-known figures have been preserved by the ship carver. Queen Victoria must have been used frequently; her likeness, with orb and scepter in hand, can be seen at The Mariners' Museum. There is also a masterful carving of a Queen of Sheba, dark of skin and with a crown upon her head. Other queens were carved, such as Queen Caroline at the Buffalo Historical Society. There are "Ladies," too - Lady Edmonton at Newport News, and Lady Lancashire at the Marine Museum of the City of New York.
Women of Greek mythology were popular subjects. The vessels ‘Dione’, ‘Astrea’, and ‘Aphrodite’ undoubtedly carried carvings of those goddesses, and there are existing figureheads of Semiramis, Ceres, Galatea and Circe. Galatea came from a medium clipper of that name, built in 1854. In 1882, battered by gales off the Cape of Good Hope, the Galatea put in at Capetown for repairs; but her damages were so great that she was reduced to a hulk. Her figurehead decorated the grounds of a hotel at Simonstown, Union of South Africa, until it was acquired by The Mariners' Museum. Circe, sorceress of Greek legend, was originally the figurehead on a British ship built in 1855. This ship attained the remarkable age of more than sixty years, and was probably the last cargo-carrying full-rigged ship to round the Horn. Her figurehead was sent to this country in 1949, when, as the ‘Calbuco’, she was scrapped at Genoa.
Some recorded ships' carvings were simply of anonymous female figures, and we shall never know which of many Ediths, Lizzies, Mauds, and Marthas were persons in real life. The feverish clipper-ship period seemed to produce the figure of the unknown woman - there wasn't time to model an actual person. A good number are known, however, and occasionally we have a case like that of the figurehead from the schooner ‘Irma Bentley’. The Mariners' Museum has a letter from Irma Bentley herself, saying that she was its subject. Many more, like Irma, were the well-loved wives and daughters of shipping men:
And at the bows an image stood,
By a cunning artist carved in wood,
With robes of white, that far behind
Seemed to be fluttering in the wind.
It was not shaped in classic mould,
Not like a Nymph or Goddess of old,
Or Naiad rising from the water,
But modelled from the Master's daughter!