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Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Figure Heads from the Mystic Seaport Museum Collection

Carol Olsen
Thesis: May 1984
Chair: van Doorninck
Nautical Archaeology Program

For over 5,000 years the bows of ships and boats have been decorated, yet the history of ship decoration is scarcely examined. This thesis presents examples of the variety of bow decorations from around the world from the 3rd millennium B.C. to current times and shows several of their different meanings.

An especially close look is taken at 20 of the 19th and 20th century figureheads at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. Several of those carvings have been identified through this research, and documentation of Mystic Seaport's collection has otherwise been considerably improved. The methods used by researching Mystic Seaport's carvings are shown and a vocabulary has been developed for their stylistic and technical aspects. This vocabulary facilitates comparing similar figureheads, which is a central theme of this thesis.

Additionally, the 19th century shipcarvers' trade is outlined including training, work environment, materials and how they were used, preparing and delivering figureheads, fastening carvings to their ships, and finally, the payments and contracts involved in shipcarving.

Figureheads throughout history have reflected the social, political, economic, and artistic climate of their day. They are often symbols of national importance or show a culture's past or contemporary heroes. In this sense figureheads become an important mirror of their time and their importance in history should not be overlooked.

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