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Figureheads and other carvings which decorated wooden ships in the Age of Sail are sometimes all that remain from the many vessels built in the 19th century. Just as carvings such as the Indians seen in front of cigar stores were used to advertise commercial enterprises on land, carvings on a vessel were meant to show pride and to capture the public’s attention. Commercial vessels were required to have a name and the carvings frequently reflected that name. Choosing a name that a shipping customer would remember, and having a figurehead that reinforced that memory, was important to ship owners.
The trade of creating carvings for ships was almost always separate from the shipbuilders’ business. In Mystic, at a time in the second half of the 19th century when there were six shipyards on the river, one local business did carving for most of those shipyards. They also took on other work, doing carvings for homes, making ornate fencing, and in one case, carving a statue of Justice for a courthouse. Our Ship Carver exhibit is meant to portray the shop of such an independent tradesman, and the staff who work in the exhibit carve nameboards, trailboards, figureheads, and sternboards for boats, as well as shop signs, tobacconists’ figures, and decorations meant for the home.