USS Constitution has four complete decks–spar, gun, berth, and orlop–that combine to make her about the height of a four-story building. The spar deck, or top deck, was originally made from a combination of white oak planking (to support the heavy weight of the carronades) with Carolina pitch pine flanking the hatches. The gun deck just below was similarly made of a combination of white oak and pitch pine. The berth and orlop decks, however, were made exclusively of the strong yet light-weight pitch pine. Each deck requires constant upkeep to maintain both cleanliness and watertightness, a requirement that is as important today as it was 221 years ago.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Constitution‘s sailors began their day by cleaning the ship with the unwelcome task of holystoning the decks. A hand pump wet the deck with seawater, and men with buckets cast sand over the planks. The watch then scoured away the previous day’s dirt and grime with soft white stones and stiff brushes. Some believe “holystoning” got its name because scrubbing sailors looked as if they were kneeling in prayer. Smaller stones were called “prayer books” and bigger stones were called “bibles.” This was the “most disagreeable duty in the ship,” wrote Samuel Leech, a sailor aboard during the War of 1812, especially “on cold, frosty mornings.”
Once finished, the men rinsed the decks and left them to dry in the sun, or flogged them dry using bits of rope or a “squilgee,” a T-shaped implement with a leather-edged crosspiece. This constant abrasion of the wooden decks left them a pale cream color and “so clean that a handkerchief might be swept over them without soiling its whiteness.”
At the USS Constitution Museum, visitors can try their hands at holystoning in the All Hands on Deck: A Sailor’s Life in 1812 exhibit.
“Her Decks Once Red with Heroes’ Blood”
It must never be forgotten that USS Constitution is a warship and carried a crew of more than 450 men and officers into battle. The cleanliness of the decks was obvious not only for hygienic reasons, but extremely necessary in the daunting clean-up following a bloody engagement. After taking HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812, Constitution Midshipman Henry Gilliam revealed the carnage, “…[Guerriere‘s] decks presented…pieces of skulls, brains, legs, arms & blood Lay in every direction…” And Midshipman Pardon Mawney Whipple had a similar description for the decks of the defeated HMS Levant, “…teeth, pieces of bones, fingers and large pieces of flesh were picked up from off the deck…”
The aftermath of battle was gruesome, both for the victor and the vanquished. Constitution‘s Captain Isaac Hull had great sympathy for his crew who had fought so valiantly against Guerriere. After the battle, he wrote: “…the day after [battle] is fearful; it is so dreadful to see my men wounded and suffering.” The surviving crew were tasked with bringing the vessel back to order, which included washing down the decks with sea water, scrubbing with mops, and holystoning away the blood stains. After reaching Boston, Constitution received necessary repairs, which included replacing damaged decking, shattered rigging, and repairs to her hull.
Ship decks are not just “floors.” In the case of Constitution‘s design, the decks also serve an important structural purpose by helping to lock the bow and the stern together. Joshua Humphreys, the principal designer of the six frigates, wrote in 1794 a guide entitled “Dimensions and sizes of materials for building a Frigate of forty-four guns” [as seen on page 10 of the American State Papers]. Therein, he delineated the specifications for all major parts of the frigates, including the “thick strakes” to be installed on the gun and berth decks. By definition, thick strakes are planks exceeding four inches in thickness. On the gun deck, Humphreys called for “two strakes [of] white oak plank six inches thick, and not less than ten inches wide, bolted and joggled into each other, and over and into the beams and ledges two inches, running all fore and aft along side of the hatches.” In addition, he called for a second pair of thick strakes fitted halfway between the waterway and the hatches. The interlocking nature of the thick strakes in Humphreys’ design provided additional longitudinal strength to the ship’s body.
Sometime between the 1820s and 1870s, the thick strakes were removed from Constitution‘s decks. During the 1992-1996 restoration they were recreated per Humphreys’ design and installed on both the gun and berth decks.
In addition to the thick strakes in Humphreys’ design, the berth deck structure was further reinforced with the addition of “two…white oak knees to run from the mizzenmast to the stern post, joggled over and into each beam…one other [pair of knees] to reach from the stem to the foremast, worked in the same manner.”
Deck Maintenance During the 2015-2017 Restoration
Constitution‘s decks haven’t been holystoned since probably the late 19th century, when she was making her last cruises for the U.S. Navy as a sailing training ship. In modern times, as the ship hosts approximately 500,000 visitors each year, maintenance of the decks consists of caulking and waterproofing to keep the decks tight. Selective plank or full deck replacement is accomplished only when necessary. Most recently, the spar deck was completely replaced in 2009 and mid-ship gun deck planks were replaced in 2015.
In early July 2015, NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorers prepared Constitution‘s gun deck for another busy summer by applying an annual coating of Storm System Category 4 solid stain. The spar deck is treated twice a year with Storm System’s Category 1 transparent stain. This yearly waterproofing maintenance helps to alleviate the infiltration of fresh water through Constitution, which contributes to the rotting of her structure.
As a result of Constitution‘s regular repairs, the deck planks walked by visitors today may be a few weeks, months, or even decades old. Nevertheless, everything about “Old Ironsides”–from her new hull and deck planks to her original 221-year-old keel–resonate with the ship’s powerful legacy. This regular upkeep allows hundreds of thousands of visitors to tread her decks each year and personally experience the extraordinary strength of America’s Ship of State.
The activity that is the subject of this blog article has been financed in part with Federal funds from the National Maritime Heritage Grant program, administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, through the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin, Chairman. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of the Interior, or the Massachusetts Historical Commission, nor does the mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Department of the Interior, or the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Margherita M. Desy
Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command
Margherita M. Desy is the Historian for USS Constitution at Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.
Manager of Curatorial Affairs, USS Constitution Museum
Kate Monea is the Manager of Curatorial Affairs at the USS Constitution Museum.