In the wake of Hurricane Sandy we have seen a renewed interest in the Jersey Shore. Morven Museum & Garden’s “Coastal Impressions: Painters of the Jersey Shore” attracted 7,000 visitors during its six-month run in the past season — its most ever visited exhibition, according to development director Barbara Webb. Now the museum, with a mission to educate audiences about the cultural heritage of New Jersey, is presenting “The Age of Sail: A New Jersey Collection,” with an opening on Thursday, November 14, and continuing through Sunday, March 23.
Featuring more than 100 objects from the collection of historian Richard W. Updike, “The Age of Sail” explores the history of American shipbuilding, sail making, naval warfare, shipwrecks, and rescue, and shows the daily life of American sailors through such objects as sea chests and scrimshaw. Engravings and paintings by George Essig (1838-1926), Frederick Schiller Cozzens (1846-1928), and Gerard Rutgers Hardenberg (1855-1915) help to tell the story of New Jersey maritime history.
Shipwrecks, storms, pirates, rumrunners, shark attacks, lighthouses, and their keepers make up the stories of the New Jersey seacoast. Updike has been fascinated since his boyhood. Born in Trenton and a Hamilton resident since 1952, Updike developed an interest in nautical things while vacationing at the Jersey Shore. His father took him fishing in the ocean and the bay, and he read the novels of C.S. Forester about Horatio Hornblower, a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars. Beginning as a poor seasick midshipman, Horatio Hornblower, through skill and daring, goes on to adventures around the world. He becomes admiral of the fleet and is ultimately knighted. Updike was also fascinated by Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series, likewise set during the Napoleonic Wars. Updike considers himself an armchair sailor. “It’s all in my mind,” he says. “I’m not interested in yachting; my focus is on merchant vessels.”
Updike’s parents — his father was a newspaper reporter and editor and chief of Mercer County Detectives — also took their son to the Maine Maritime Museum where he saw the Wyoming, the largest schooner ever built. From 1909, the six-masted schooner was 330 feet. “It was bigger than a football field,” says Updike, who was so excited, it inspired him to study nautical history.
While in high school, and later while at the College of New Jersey (then Trenton State College), Updike began his investigations of lighthouses. He received a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission in the 1960s to study New Jersey shipwrecks, and spent two summers in intensive graduate programs through the Munson Institute of American Maritime History at Mystic Seaport. He started a database of shipwrecks on 5-by-8-inch index cards in the pre-computer era. After earning a master’s degree in American History from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, Updike taught history in Hamilton high schools for 32 years.
He wrote his master’s thesis on Winslow Lewis, a sea captain, engineer, and inventor who built 50 lighthouses in the 19th century. “Few survive today, and there are none in New Jersey,” says Updike, recounting how a congressman proposed a lighthouse, and poet James Russell Lowell wrote, “If you get me into the White House I’ll get you the lighthouse.”
Always interested in old things and the past, Updike began frequenting a Bucks County antiques shop in the late 1960s. “It was like a museum, with 11 rooms,” he says. Retired from teaching in the 1990s, he began volunteering in the antiques shop. The owner was interested in ceramics and paintings and would wander through Europe collecting. “He always phoned me when a container came in,” says Updike. “People came from as far as California and Kansas City to buy.” Learning all he could over 10 years, Updike started his own antiques business at the Shore Antiques Center in Point Pleasant. Specializing in nautical finds, paintings, and Early American glass, Updike ran the business for 18 years before opening up shop at the Point Pleasant Antiques Emporium. That business closed in 2012.
“I did it for the love of it,” he says. “It was a way to meet people and chat and expand my horizons.” It also enabled him to expand his collection.
A lifelong teacher, Updike says he is interested in promulgating information on nautical study. “Sailing lore is dying out,” he says.
Last year, when “Portrait of Place: Paintings, Drawings and Prints of New Jersey, 1761-1898,”was on view at Morven, bibliophile and book dealer Joseph J. Felcone, from whose collection that exhibition was drawn, invited Updike to Morven. The two had met through the New Jersey Historical Society, and Updike was introduced to Morven curator Elizabeth Allen, who became interested in showing Updike’s three-dimensional objects as well as paintings.
“The Age of Sail” refers to the period of sea-borne commerce from 1450 to the early 20th century. The artwork shows the sailing vessels, from schooners to square riggers, and helps to understand the lives of the sailors.
Sea chests also tell the stories of the sailors, whose worldly possessions would be contained in the trunk. A mid 19th-century “ditty box” is a smaller trunk that carried a sailor’s personal effects — tobacco, writing implements, a Bible and other uplifting tracts, and needles for patching sails. A till was a smaller box within a box. There are six sea chests from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as a Spanish captain’s chest, circa 1500, decorated with carvings of painted galleons. The lid is decorated inside by pen work and stippling. Chests of these dimensions were used to ship silver coins and cob pieces to Spain from mints in the colonies of the Western Hemisphere.
Many New Jersey ships had billet heads, according to Updike. This was a “poor man’s figurehead,” a decoration for the bow of the ship that was not as elaborately carved as a figurehead. Figureheads could be swept away in storms, says Updike, but even the billet heads were ornate with double carvings representing waves. The decorative touch was a carry over from ship carvers of the 1600s “who went wild with gilded decorations. There were famous ship carvers from England for war and commercial ships. But these were expensive and unnecessary and we gradually got away from them, so they are very rare.” Updike cites one that sold for $10,000, as reported in Maine Antiques Digest.
“The Age of Sail” includes navigating instruments, such as a 1790 single draw telescope. “You focus by pulling in and out.”
Dry card compasses were used until liquid compasses were invented in 1862. “It’s a card showing the compass points,” says Updike. “A compass rose spins on a pin with a magnet attached to where the north is. It takes a while to spin, and the pin gets worn out. A liquid compass floats in distilled water and alcohol, which works better.”
Among the objects in “The Age of Sail” are a grog tub, measure, and mug. Crew members of the vessels in Britain’s Royal Navy were accustomed to a daily ration of rum, we learn, and in 1740 Admiral Edward Vernon, out of concern for intoxicated sailors, ordered that the spirits be diluted with water — a policy that continued for more than 200 years. Vernon, because he habitually wore a grogram (a course silk-based fabric) cloak, was nicknamed “Old Grog,” and his name became attached to the diluted alcoholic mixture. Mount Vernon was also named for Admiral Vernon.
The exhibit includes cannonballs from the American Revolution and a bronze swivel gun. Rigging knives, tobacco, and snuff boxes evoke Captain Jack Sparrow.
Updike has a significant collection of scrimshaw, a folk art that originated with whalers and sailors and flourished in the 19th century. Bone, ivory, and teeth from sperm whale were carved into decorative objects.
A ship’s wheel from an 1823 shipwreck off Point Pleasant, another that was part of a rum-running schooner seized by the Coast Guard near Atlantic City during the Prohibition era, a medicine chest from the brig Philadelphia, 19th-century cast iron stoves and belaying pins, pulley blocks salvaged from the 1852 wreck of the Powhattan off the coast of Manahawkin — Updike collected well, and it’s all painstakingly documented.
“The English ran out of oak for the Royal Navy in the 18th century and wanted timber from the American colonies,” he recounts. “Hackmatack, a kind of a larch tree that produces a soft wood cheaper than oak, grows in Maine and was used for ships’ knees, the L-shaped support under the deck. The last gasp of sail building in New England was 1890 to 1920, when wood and labor were cheap. New England supplied most of the world’s sailing ships. New Jersey built ships with oak until it ran out.”
Updike is not only a wealth of nautical information, but also a walking dictionary of expressions derived from nautical use. As ships were raided for materials, such as the fastenings that held the wood together, insurance became available in the second half of the 18th century. When insurance inspectors came to determine the insurance rate, “A1” referred to the top quality of the fastenings. “Barratry” is the deliberate wrecking of a ship for its insurance.
“By and large” is what a captain would tell the helmsman if he wanted him to sail near to something but not close to it (whereas “close and by” refers to sailing near and close). By and large, “The Age of Sail” at Morven is the most comprehensive collection of nautical artifacts this region has seen.
The Age of Sail: A New Jersey Collection, Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Opening reception, Thursday, November 14, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Free. Exhibition on view through Sunday, March 23, Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. $5 to $6. www.morven.org or 609-924-8144.