Across USS Constitution‘s nearly 220-year history, her bow has been graced with several different carved decorations. An examination of those figureheads, billetheads and trailboards illustrate the changing look of “Old Ironsides” across the centuries.
When Joshua Humphreys drew the plans for the 44-gun frigates for the new United States Navy in 1794, he did not illustrate the figurehead that would decorate the bows of each warship. The top of the cutwater was left blank on his plan (above), awaiting the decision of which figure would be carved to match the name assigned to the individual vessels. Originally known either as the “frigate building in Boston” or frigate D (each frigate was assigned a letter in the alphabet as a placeholder until the official name was assigned), by 1795, Constitution was the warship’s name and William Rush, a carver in Philadelphia, suggested the Roman god Hercules as the figurehead. In an April 30, 1795 letter to Humphreys, Rush wrote:
As the Constitution of the Empire is the result of the Union of the States, and Union begets Strength, it ought to be represented by an Herculean figure, standing on the firm rock of independence, resting one hand on the fasces which was bound by the Genius of America, and the other hand presenting a scroll of paper, supposed to be the Constitution of America, with proper appendages, the foundation of Legislation.
The full figure of Hercules was carved by the Skillin brothers, John and Simeon, who had their shop in the North End of Boston. The only eye-witness description that we have of the figure comes from the Reverend William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts who visited the Skillin’s shop on May 31, 1797:
Went round the Town [Boston] to finish the walk of yesterday. Saw the new Ship & the beautiful draught of Col. Claghorn. Saw the Head, called Constitution, finished by the Skillings [sic]. It is an Hercules with the [ ] of the United States & the Constitution, standing upon a rock, & his baton lying beneath him. In the same place were the Capitals for the Corinthian Columns of the State House.
…discharged this Afternoon the 12 Malta Carpenters They have been employ’d (Sundays Excepted) since the 24th of September last in repairing the Cut water fitting the Billet head & making other necessary alterations, The Constitution had before a Hercules head, which with the Cut Water was destroyed on the 12th of September last…
After the much longer and more physically damaging battle with HMS Java on December 29, 1812, the Auditor’s account does mention that Constitution‘s trailboards–decorative carvings that followed the graceful sweep of the frigate’s cutwater–were replaced by Isaac Fowle of Boston, who had apprenticed under Simeon Skillin. But as there is no explicit mention of a new billethead it is assumed the 1808 billethead remained intact on the ship’s stem.
“Old Ironsides” was victorious in her third War of 1812 battle against HMS Cyane and HMS Levant on February 20, 1815, and the ship returned to the Charlestown Navy Yard at the end of the war. In 1820, repairs from the Cyane and Levant battle were finally executed and a “Statement of Repairs made upon the Frigate Constitution in 1820 & 1821″ listed the following work for the bow: “Galleries, Head, Cutwater, & Carved work on Stern, all new…” Although the “Statement of Repairs…” does not go into great detail, it is possible that the work on the bow might have included the replacement of the ship’s billet head. A contemporary definition of the term “head” leads us to believe the billethead was replaced at this time:
HEAD, an ornamental figure erected on the continuation of a ship’s stem, as being expressive of her name, and emblematical of war, navigation, commerce, &c. [Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, William Burney, ed., 1815.]
– “CONSTITUTION,” attributed to Michele Felice Corne, c. 1803. [U.S. Navy Loan. USS Constitution Museum Collection.]
– “Constitution & Guerriere,” by George Ropes, Jr., 1813. [USS Constitution Museum Collection.]
– “U.S. FRIGATE CONSTITUTION, of 44 GUNS,” by Abel Bowen, 1815. [USS Constitution Museum Collection.]
– Stereoscopic photograph of Charlestown Navy Yard, c. 1850-1870 showing 1820 USS Constitution billethead displayed on lamp post. [USS Constitution Museum Collection]
Andrew Jackson Figureheads
– In this c.1930 photograph, a woman stands beside Laban S. Beecher’s original Andrew Jackson figurehead with the second head carved by Dodge & Sons of New York in 1834. [Courtesy Boston Globe Library]
– 1875 copy of an 1849 spar plan of USS Constitution showing the second Andrew Jackson figurehead. [Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration]
– Detail, salt paper print of USS Constitution at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine, 1858, showing the 1847 Jackson figurehead carved at the Fowle shop in Boston. Photograph by Albert Gregory. [USS Constitution Museum Collection]
– Photograph of the second Andrew Jackson figurehead on USS Constitution, c.1860. [Courtesy Library of Congress, LOT 4182, No. 10]
– Oil painting of USS Constitution under sail, with the second Jackson figurehead on her bow, by Xanthus Smith, c. 1870. [USS Constitution Museum Collection]
– Second Andrew Jackson figurehead currently displayed at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. [Courtesy Margherita M. Desy]
The 1876 billethead was preserved and displayed belowdecks on USS Constitution for much of the 20th century.
 William Rush to Joshua Humphreys, 30 April 1795. Humphreys Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, as quoted in “Notes and Queries”, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 31, issue 2, 1907, 239-240. http://ojs.libraries.psu.edu/index.php/pmhb/issue/view/1675.
 William Bentley. The Diary of William Bentley, D.D., Volume 2, January, 1793-December, 1802 (Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1907, reprint edition), 224.
 Dudley W. Knox. Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume 5 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1939), 94.
 “Statement of Repairs made upon the Frigate Constitution in 1820 & 1821”. Samuel Eliot Morison Memorial Library, USS Constitution Museum, Boston, accession 1567.
 Copy of ALS William A. Bates to the Trustees of the Peabody Museum, August 13, 1951, accession 12527, Peabody Essex Museum.
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.