around Cape Horn]] Dreadnought, a Fast Clipper Ship, circa 1860, print by Currier and Ives
"Clipper Ship Lightning" an American clipper ship of the 1850s
A clipper was a very fast sailing ship of the 19th century that had three or more masts and a square rig. They were generally narrow for their length, could carry limited bulk freight, small by later 19th century standards, and had a large total sail area. Clipper ships were mostly made in British and American shipyards, though France, the Netherlands and other nations also produced some. Clippers sailed all over the world, primarily on the trade routes between the United Kingdom and its colonies in the east, in trans-Atlantic trade, and the New York-to-San Francisco route round Cape Horn during the California Gold Rush. Dutch clippers were built beginning in 1850s for the tea trade and passenger service to Java.
The boom years of the Clipper Ship Era began in 1843 as a result of the growing demand for a more rapid delivery of tea from China. It continued under the stimulating influence of the discovery of gold in California and Australia in 1848 and 1851, and ended with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Origin of the nautical term "clipper"
"Opium clipper" Water Witch, a British ship built in 1831
The term "clipper" most likely derives from the verb "clip", which in former times meant, among other things, to run or fly swiftly. Dryden, the English poet, used the word "clip" to describe the swift flight of a falcon in the 17th century when he said "And, with her eagerness the quarry missed, Straight flies at check, and clips it down the wind." The ships appeared to clip along the ocean water. The term "clip" became synonymous with "speed" and was also applied to fast horses and sailing ships. "To clip it," and "going at a good clip," are familiar expressions to this day.
While the first application of the term "clipper" in a nautical sense is by no means certain, it seems to have had an American origin when applied to the Baltimore clippers of the late 18th century. When these vessels of a new model were built, which were intended to "clip" over the waves rather than plough through them, the improved type of craft became known as "clippers" because of their speed.
In England the nautical term "clipper" appeared a little later. The Oxford English Dictionary says its earliest quotation for "clipper" is from 1830. This does not mean, however, that little British opium clippers from prior to 1830 were not called "opium clippers" just as they are today. Cutler reports the first newspaper appearance was in 1835, and by then the term was apparently familiar. An undated painting of the British Water Witch built in 1831 is labeled OPIUM CLIPPER "WATER WITCH" so the term had at least passed into common usage during the time that this ship sailed.
Sovereign of the Seas]] set the record for World's Fastest Sailing Ship in 1854 Hornet]] an American clipper ship of the 1850s American clipper ship, painted in typical style by Chinese artist The first ships to which the term "clipper" seems to have been applied were the Baltimore clippers. Baltimore clippers were topsail schooners developed in Chesapeake Bay before the American Revolution, and which reached their zenith between 1795 and 1815. They were small, rarely exceeding 200 tons OM, and modelled after French luggers. Some were lightly armed in the War of 1812, sailing under Letters of Marque and Reprisal, when the type exemplified by Chasseur, launched at Fells Point, Baltimore in 1814 became known for her incredible speed; the deep draft enabled the Baltimore clipper to sail close to the wind. Clippers, running the British blockade of Baltimore, came to be recognized for speed rather than cargo space.
Fast speed was required for the Chinese opium trade between England, India and China. Small, sharp-bowed British vessels were the result. An early example, which is today known as an opium clipper, was the Transit of 1819. She was followed by many more.
Meanwhile Baltimore Clippers still continued to be built, and were built specifically for the China opium trade running opium between India and China, a trade that only became unprofitable for American shipowners in 1849.
The first attempt at building a larger swift vessel was in America with the Ann McKim, 494 tons OM, built on the enlarged lines of a Baltimore clipper, with sharply raked stem, counter stern and square rig. She was built in Baltimore in 1833 by Kennard & Williamson. Although the Ann McKim was the first large clipper ship ever constructed, it cannot be said that she founded the clipper ship era, or even that she directly influenced shipbuilders, since no other ship was built like her; but she may have suggested the clipper design in vessels of ship rig. She did, however, influence the building of the Rainbow in 1845, the first extreme clipper ship.
In Aberdeen, Scotland, the shipbuilders Alexander Hall and Sons developed the "Aberdeen" clipper bow in the late 1830s: the first was the Scottish Maid launched in 1839. The Scottish Maid, 150 tons OM, was the first British clipper ship. "Scottish Maid was intended for the Aberdeen-London trade, where speed was crucial to compete with steamships. The Hall brothers tested various hulls in a water tank and found the clipper design most effective. The design was influenced by tonnage regulations. Tonnage measured a ship's cargo capacity and was used to calculate tax and harbour dues. The new 1836 regulations measured depth and breadth with length measured at half midship depth. Extra length above this level was tax-free and became a feature of clippers. Scottish Maid proved swift and reliable and the design was widely copied." The earliest British clipper ships were built for trade amongst the British Isles. Then followed the vast clipper trade of tea, opium, spices and other goods from the Far East to Europe, and the ships became known as "tea clippers".
From 1839, larger American clipper ships started to be built beginning with the Akbar, 650 tons OM, in 1839, and including the 1844-built Houqua, 581 tons OM. These larger vessels were built predominantly for use in the China tea trade and known as "tea clippers". Smaller clipper vessels also continued to be built predominantly for the China opium trade and known as "opium clippers" such as the 1842 built Ariel, 100 tons OM.
Then in 1845 the Rainbow, 757 tons OM, the first extreme clipper was launched in New York. These American clippers were larger vessels designed to sacrifice cargo capacity for speed. They had a bow lengthened above the water, a drawing out and sharpening of the forward body, and the greatest breadth further aft. Extreme clippers were built in the period 1845 to 1855. From 1851 or earlier another type of clipper ship was also being built in American shipyards, the medium clipper. The medium clipper, though still very fast, had comparatively more allowance for cargo. After 1854 extreme clippers were replaced in American shipbuilding yards by medium clippers.
Clipper ships largely ceased being built in American shipyards in 1859 when, unlike the earlier boom years, only 4 clipper ships were built. That is except for a small number built in the 1860s, and the last American clipper ship from the East Boston shipyard of Donald McKay in 1869, the Glory of the Seas.
During the time from 1859 British clipper ships continued to be built. Earlier British clipper ships had become known as extreme clippers, and were considered to be "as sharp as the American" built ships. From 1859 a new design was developed for British clipper ships that was nothing like the American clippers. These ships built from 1859 continued to be called extreme clippers. The new design had a sleek graceful appearance, less sheer, less freeboard, lower bulwarks, and smaller breadth. They were built for the China tea trade and began with the Falcon in 1859, and finished with the last ships built in 1870. It is estimated that 25 to 30 of these ships were built, and no more than 4 5 per year. The earlier ships were made from wood, though some were made from iron, just as some British clippers had been made from iron prior to 1859. In 1863 the first tea clippers of composite construction were brought out, combining the best of both worlds. Composite clippers had the strength of iron spars with wooden hulls, and copper sheathing could be added to prevent the fouling that occurred on iron hulls.
After 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal that allowed competition with steam vessels, the tea trade then collapsed for clippers. From 1870 the clipper trade increasingly focused on trade and the carrying of immigrants between England and Australia and New Zealand, a trade that had begun earlier with the Australian Gold Rush in the 1850s. British-built clipper ships were used for this trade, as were many American-built ships which were sold to British owners. Even in the 1880s, sailing ships were still the main carriers of cargoes to and from Australia and New Zealand. Eventually, however, even this trade became unprofitable, and the aging clipper fleet became unseaworthy.
China clippers and the epitome of sail
Clipper ship Southern Cross leaving Boston Harbor, 1851, by Fitz Hugh Lane The most significant clippers were the China clippers, also called Tea clippers or Opium clippers, designed to ply the trade routes between Europe and the East Indies. The last example of these still in reasonable condition was Cutty Sark, preserved in dry dock at Greenwich, United Kingdom. Damaged by fire on 21 May 2007 while undergoing conservation, the ship was permanently elevated three meters above the dry dock floor in 2011 as part a plan for long-term preservation.
The Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud" off the Needles, Isle of Wight, by James E. Buttersworth, 1859 60.
Before the early 18th century, the East India Company paid for its tea mainly in silver. However, when the price of silver rose, the East India Company began to manufacture a product that was desired by the Chinese as much as tea was by the British: opium. This had a significant influence on both India and China. Opium was also imported into Britain and was not prohibited because it was thought to be medically beneficial. Laudanum, which was made from opium was also used as a pain killer, to induce sleep and to suppress anxiety. The famous literary opium addicts Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wilkie Collins also took it for its pleasurable effects. The Limehouse area in London was notorious for its opium dens, many of which catered for Chinese sailors as well as English addicts.
Clippers were built for seasonal trades such as tea, where an early cargo was more valuable, or for passenger routes. The small, fast ships were ideally suited to low-volume, high-profit goods, such as tea, opium, spices, people, and mail. The return could be spectacular. The Challenger returned from Shanghai with "the most valuable cargo of tea and silk ever to be laden in one bottom". Competition among the clippers was public and fierce, with their times recorded in the newspapers. The ships had short-expected lifetimes and rarely outlasted two decades of use before they were broken up for salvage. Given their speed and maneuverability, clippers frequently mounted cannon or carronades and were used for piracy, privateering, smuggling, or interdiction service.
The last China clippers were acknowledged as the fastest sail vessels. When fully rigged and riding a tradewind, they had peak average speeds over . The Great Tea Race of 1866 showcased their speed. China clippers are also the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever made. Their speeds have been exceeded many times by modern yachts, but never by a commercial sail vessel. Only the fastest windjammers could attain similar speeds.
The 24h record of the Champion of the Seas wasn't broken until 1984 (by a multihull), or 2001 (by another monohull).
Clipper ship sailing cards
Clipper ship sailing card for the "Free Trade", printed by Nesbitt & Co., NY, early 1860s
Departures of clipper ships, mostly from New York and Boston to San Francisco, were advertised by clipper ship sailing cards. These cards, slightly larger than today s postcards, were produced by letterpress and wood engraving on coated card stock. Most clipper cards were printed in the 1850s and 1860s, and represented the first pronounced use of color in American advertising art.
Relatively few (perhaps 3,500) cards survive today. With their stunning appearance, rarity, and importance as artifacts of nautical, Western, and printing history, clipper cards are highly prized by both private collectors and institutions. See the links below to learn more about clipper ship sailing cards.
Decline in the use of clippers started with the economic slump following the Panic of 1857 and continued with the gradual introduction of the steamship. Although clippers could be much faster than early steamships, they depended on the vagaries of the wind, while steamers could keep to a schedule. The steam clipper was developed around this time, and had auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of wind. An example was Royal Charter, built in 1857 and wrecked on the coast of Anglesey in 1859. The final blow was the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, which provided a great shortcut for steamships between Europe and Asia, but was difficult for sailing ships to use. With the absence of the tea trade, some clippers began operating in the wool trade, between Britain and Australia.
Although many clipper ships were built in the mid-19th century, Cutty Sark was, perhaps until recently, the only survivor. Falls of Clyde is a well-preserved example of a more conservatively designed, slower contemporary of the clippers, which was built for general freight in 1878. Other surviving examples of clippers of the era are less well preserved, for example the oldest surviving clipper City of Adelaide (a.k.a. S.V. Carrick). During the first and second World Wars, several battleships and aircraft carriers were built with a "clipper bow" for improved hydrodynamic efficiency. The clipper bow on carriers was an American peculiarity, Japanese ships did not feature it and British ships had the similar but differently-shaped "hurricane bow," whose purpose was, like the clipper bow, to improve hydrodynamic efficiency and, unlike the clipper bow, protect the hangar deck from spray. Diorama of clipper ships under construction
Modern clipper ships
In 2000, two new clippers were built: Stad Amsterdam and Cisne Branco (Brazilian Navy). They are not replicas of any one ship, but an attempt to combine what their builders consider the "best" qualities of clipper ships.
Notable clipper ships
Three famous clipper ships which can be seen as models are ''Comet'', ''Snow Squall'', and ''Flying Cloud.
People associated with clipper ships
- List of people who sailed on clipper ships
- Joseph Warren Holmes
- Samuel Hartt Pook
- William Jardine
- Blackwall Frigate
- East Indiaman
- Packet ship
- Russian navy steam clippers
Clippers in aviation
- Pan American World Airways
The above is incorrect. The Dutch word klepper does not mean fast horse. It means clatter, and was sometimes applied to a bell ringer.
- Carl C. Cutler, Greyhounds of the Sea (1930, 3rd ed. Naval Institute Press 1984)
- Alexander Laing, Clipper Ship Men (1944)
- David R. MacGregor, Fast Sailing Ships: Their Design and Construction, 1775 1875 Naval Institute Press, 1988 ISBN 0-87021-895-6 index
- Oxford English Dictionary (1987) ISBN 0-19-861212-5.
- Bruce D. Roberts, Clipper Ship Cards: The High-Water Mark in Early Trade Cards, The Advertising Trade Card Quarterly 1, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 20 22.
- Bruce D. Roberts, Clipper Ship Cards: Graphic Themes and Images, The Advertising Trade Card Quarterly 1, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 22 24.
- Bruce D. Roberts, Museum Collections of Clipper Ship Cards, The Advertising Trade Card Quarterly 2, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 22 24.
- Bruce D. Roberts, Selling Sail with Clipper Ship Cards, Ephemera News 19, no. 2 (Winter 2001): 1, 11 14.
- Villiers, Capt. Alan, 1973. Men, Ships and the Sea (National Geographic Society)
Overview and introduction
American clipper ships
- The definitive narrative history, useful for checking discrepancies between sources
- The comprehensive reference for design and construction of American-built clipper ships, with numerous drawings, diagrams, and charts. Gives examples of how each design feature varies in different ships.
- Articles on individual ships, broader coverage than Crothers
Clipper ships by type
- British and Australian clippers
- One of the few comprehensive books on these ships
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