Skip to main content

Sailing Ship Card Collection

Sailing Ship Card Collection

1 of 2
Open Finding Aid
small (250x250 max)
medium (500x500 max)
Extra Large
large ( > 500x500)
Full Resolution

SAILING SHIP CARD COLLECTION, 1852-1894, 1918, 1990

Collection Summary

Repository:The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 161 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-948-6012
Title:Sailing Ship Card Collection
Dates:1852/1894, 1918, 1990
Quantity:5.5 Linear feet (11 boxes)
Abstract:Sailing ship cards have been identified as the earliest form of multi-color advertising in the United States. Printed to announce the departure of commercial ship sailings for both passengers and freight companies, the ephemeral nature of these cards makes them very rare. Scholars consider the collection in the Phillips Library to be the largest in the world, housing 1,296 cards, 1,193 of which are unique, and 103 of which are duplicates.
Collection Number:MSS 470

Series List

SERIES I. Clipper Ship Cards
SERIES II. Steamship Cards
SERIES III. Shipping Lines
SERIES IV. Ephemera

Scope and Content Note

Sailing ship cards have been identified as the earliest form of multi-color advertising in the United States. Printed to announce the departure of commercial ship sailings for both passengers and freight companies, the ephemeral nature of these cards makes them very rare. Scholars consider the collection in the Phillips Library to be the largest in the world, housing 1,296 cards, 1,193 of which are unique, and 103 of which are duplicates. The collection is international in scope, including cards advertising journeys to San Francisco, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sidney, Melbourne and Sidney, Australia. Most of the cards are unique in design and demonstrate a broad range of printing techniques. The collection is organized into four series. Each folder contains one card, unless otherwise specified.

Series I. Sailing Ship Cards is the largest series in the collection. It consists of 10 boxes of cards, with one folder for each ship represented in the collection. The date listed on the finding aid identifies, if known, the date the card was printed. Series II. Steamship Cards includes cards printed to advertise steamship sailings. Series III. Shipping Lines includes cards designed to advertise a specific shipping company rather than a specific ship. Series IV. Ephemera includes card base mockups; fragments of graphic images found on the cards in Series I; an illustrated lecture on clipper ship cards; a news article; photographs of sailing ship cards; and other items of ephemera.

Historical Sketch

In the late 19th century, between 1850 and 1890, ship owners and shipping lines announced the departure of their ships by means of printed cards instead of advertising in newspapers or via broadsides, as they had previously done. These sailing cards were typically 4 to 5 inches by 5 to 7 inches in size and were distributed to shippers and potential passengers to announce impending journeys. As mentioned by Bruce Roberts, in his book, Clipper Ship Sailing Cards, the "cards announced that Ship A would leave Departure Point B for Destination C on or before Date D and you should contact Agent E if you had goods and/or yourself to transport." (Roberts 1) Roberts also indicates that use of these cards was "the most substantial of any class of American advertising cards" during the mid-to-late 19th century. Aimed for a specific audience, very few of these cards were printed for a specific voyage. While some cards were printed in black and white, the majority of them were printed in color, representing "the first pronounced use of color in American advertising art." (Roberts 2)

Typically the cards were printed on coated stock, also known as enameled stock, utilizing letterpress techniques to print the cards and wood engraving for the images. Additional techniques included woodcut and lithography. As chromolithography techniques progressed with accompanying changes in machinery and ink, the need for coated stock was removed and the options for design and color advanced providing options to overprint as many as 7 colors. Some of the cards in the collection used embossing techniques to create the images. George F. Nesbitt from New York printed many of the sailing cards; other printers included A. E. Ivers, Stationer and Printer; Carr, Dunn & Newhoff Printers; Rand, Avery & Co., Printers; Blair & Hallet, Printers; Fred Rogers, Steam Job Printer; and Watson's Press. The Phillips Library collection includes cards printed by each of these organizations.

Typically the ships were referred to as clipper ships, which designated the speed at which the journeys were made. At the height of the California Gold Rush, ships were built to travel faster and faster to reach the West Coast; the clipper ships' sharp hull lines and heavy sparring enabled increased speeds of passage. Prior to this change in boat design, a trip from Boston or New York to San Francisco could take as long as 300 days; the increased speed of the ships shortened these journeys to between 100 and 120 days.

Examples of American, British, German, and Norwegian barks (barques) are included in this collection. The American clipper ship was considered to be faster than its British and European counterparts. Ports of origin included Boston, New York, and San Francisco, with destinations to San Francisco, New York, London, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia, Christchurch, Dunedin, Lyttleton, and Wellington in New Zealand, and Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Many of the cards announced the duration of previous journeys as an enticement to attract passengers and/or indicated the number of times the ship had made the voyage. The ship master's name was printed on most cards; many cards identified where the ship had been built, sometimes including the name of the builder. Several cards use the phrase Succeeding the (name of ship) to indicate the current vessel was traveling the same journey as the ship mentioned. Most cards do not include the exact date of sail because ship owners did not want to sail until the ship had a full cargo; others used the phrase To Sail positively on or before the advertised day. Rarely was the year of the voyage printed on the card so that the card could be used to advertise several voyages. However, many of the cards include the actual date the card was created by the printer. Allan Forbes and Ralph Eastman note in their book, Yankee Ship Sailing Cards, that Henry W. Peabody of Boston was one of the first ship owners to experiment with sailing his ships on a specific date to avoid the problems of a ship remaining in dock for weeks or months "to sail when laden." (Forbes and Eastman x) Other shipping companies represented in the collection include: Neal & Crowninshield Australasian Packet Line; Australian Commercial Line; Coleman's California Line; Henry C. Brooks and Co.; Brooks Australian Line; Vernon Brown & Son; Glidden & Williams; Merchants' Express Line; Samuel Stevens & Co. Australian Line; Sutton & Co.; Sutton's Dispatch Line; and Winsor's Regular Line.

The clipper ship trade started to decline with the introduction of the steamship. Although the sailing ships were typically faster than the steamships, the latter was not at the mercy of the wind and weather to complete their journeys. The Phillips Library collection also includes advertising cards for steamships in Series II.

Index Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in Philcat. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons, or places should search the catalog using these headings.

Advertising, Color in
Advertising--Shipping--United States--19th century
Cargo ships
Cargo ships--passenger traffic
Clipper ships
Clipper ships--History--19th century
Clipper ships--Pictorial works
Clipper ships--United States--History--19th century
Color in advertising
Color printing
Commercial art--19th century
Letterpress printing
Mail steamers
Merchant ships
River steamers
Sailing ships
Shipping--Advertising--United States--19th century
Shipping--California--San Francisco
Shipping--China--Hong Kong
Shipping--New York--New York
Shipping--New Zealand--Christchurch
Shipping--New Zealand--Dunedin
Shipping--New Zealand--Lyttleton
Shipping--New Zealand--Wellington
Steamboats--Passenger accomodation
Steamboats--United States
Wood engraving


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Administrative Information


Requests for permission to publish material from the collection must be submitted in writing to the Manuscript Librarian in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Preferred Citation

Sailing Ship Card Collection, MSS 470, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


This collection was created through purchase and gifts from several sources. Several cards were donated by Dr. Charles Goddard Weld on July 7, 1909 (acc. #4942) as were cards donated by L. W. Jenkins on November 7, 1917. Mrs. Ellerton James made a donation on May 14, 1928 (acc. #8104). Fourteen shipping cards for the Henry W. Peabody & Co. shipping line along with two cards from the Henry C. Brooks & Co. shipping line were donated by Henry H. Page on February 1, 1929 (acc. #8209). Mrs. Clayton Welch donated cards on June 3, 1938 (acc. #10,345) and 104 cards were donated by Frank G. Speck on June 9, 1948 (acc. #11,942). Sixty-nine cards were donated by R. S. Spears on February 17, 1949 (acc. #12,063). Three donations were received in 1955: ten cards were donated by David S. Smith on April 20; additional cards were donated by Mrs. Clarkson A. Cramner on October 17; and sailing cards for Three Brothers and Logan were a gift from the estate of Horace Follansbee, on November 7. A sailing card for the Thatcher Magoun was purchased on October 16, 1959. Two donations were received in 1960: one was a gift from Mrs. C. G. Hutcheson on February 29 (acc. #15,011); and three sailing cards for the Flying Cloud and Mary Whitridge were donated by Miss Zoulette Potter on September 1. Sailing cards for the John Land and Golden West were a gift from Mr. LaRue Brown in 1964 (acc. #16,517). A gift was received from Francis W. Dolloff on March 8, 1965 (acc. #16,888). Thirty-five cards were purchased on September 4, 1973 (acc. #20,208). Two cards for the Eliza McNeil and one for the Harvey Mills were purchased on June 7, 1976 (acc. #20,944). Three cards were purchased on October 8, 2007 (acc. #2007.024). An additional card was purchased on August 29, 2011 (acc. #2011.040). Five cards for the Messenger, Peruvian, Wizard King, Garibaldi, and White Swallow were a gift from Stephen D. Paine (acc. #25,334). Three cards for the Skylark, James R. Keeler, and Manitou were purchased on September 23, 2010 (acc. #2010.032 and 2010.033). Cards for the Look Out and Sancho Panza were purchased on November 29, 2010 (acc. #2010.044).

Processing Information

Collection processed by Barbara Pero Kampas; re-typed by Catherine Robertson, September 2013; updated by Tamara Gaydos, July 2018.

Related Material

Forbes, Allan and Ralph M. Eastman, Yankee Ship Sailing Cards, Volumes 1, 2, and 3. Boston, Massachusetts, State Street Trust Company, 1948, 1949, and 1952.

Kemble, John Haskel, ed. California "Clipper" Cards. San Francisco, California, The Book Club of California, 1949.

Roberts, Bruce D. Clipper Ship Sailing Cards. Bruce D. Roberts, 2007.

Henry Hastings & Company Records, MM 118

you wish to report:

Select the collections to add or remove from your search