This past August the Curatorial Department was contacted by the Woburn Public Library‘s Archivist regarding a USS Constitution souvenir in their collection that was slated to be deaccessioned. The souvenir, a hanging plaque, is a rough, handcrafted melange of materials removed from the ship during the 1927-1931 restoration. Pinned by copper nails to two slabs of painted pine are part of an oxidized copper sheet, a copper bolt, and a loop of Manila rope. This recent acquisition is just one of many souvenirs in the USS Constitution Museum’s collection.
USS Constitution souvenirs have long been popular collectibles. The tradition began in 1833, when the ship entered the newly completed Dry Dock 1 in the Charlestown Navy Yard for restoration. By this time “Old Ironsides” had made her mark as a famous ship, and throngs of Bostonians and dignitaries gathered as Constitution, once again under the command of her old captain Isaac Hull, gently glided into dry dock for a period of repair.
Hull, who made the long trip from the Washington Navy Yard where he was commandant, ordered all the wood and copper removed from Constitution during the restoration sent to Washington for reuse. He had canes, boxes and other “souvenirs” made from the materials, and sent the trinkets to friends and public officials throughout the United States.
Since then, there has been a longstanding desire for items produced from the timbers and fastenings of “Old Ironsides.” Each subsequent restoration was and still is followed by a flood of souvenirs, ranging from unfinished slivers of oak and jagged copper bolts, to bookends and furniture, to an entire carriage made for President Andrew Jackson.
In particular, souvenirs made from the ship’s copper sheathing are a common favorite. Over the years Constitution has been recoppered at least 12 times. Throughout the 19th century, Constitution’s copper sheathing was periodically replaced and, beginning with the 1833 docking of the ship in the Charlestown Navy Yard, souvenirs were fashioned from the copper sheathing (for example, the miniature copper kettle shown above).
USS Constitution’s 1927-1931 restoration was the first time souvenirs made from discarded materials were sold to the public to raise funds for repair work, as part of the campaign to reestablish “Old Ironsides” as an important historic icon. Discarded copper sheets were turned into a wide variety of souvenir items, including ashtrays, bookends, and plaques.
The refashioning of discarded copper and other materials continued through the 20th century and lives on today as the ship undergoes yet another restoration in dry dock. Visitors to the Museum can take home a piece of USS Constitution history by purchasing a commemorative copper medallion or piece of copper jewelry from the USS Constitution Museum Store. Throughout the 2015-2017 restoration, visitors can also sign their name to a sheet of copper that will be installed on the ship.
Over the past 40 years the USS Constitution Museum has accumulated an extensive souvenir collection in an effort to document Constitution‘s significance in American culture over time. Whether in the form of medallions, decorations, or fasteners taken right from the ship, these small pieces of “Old Ironsides” have helped shape an important aspect of the ship’s proud history.
Manager of Curatorial Affairs, USS Constitution Museum
Kate Monea is the Manager of Curatorial Affairs at the USS Constitution Museum.
Collections and Exhibits Manager, USS Constitution Museum
Harrie Slootbeek is the Collections and Exhibits Manager at the USS Constitution Museum.