Across USS Constitution‘s nearly 220-year history, the ship’s 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.”1
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.”2
Unfortunately, the Hercules figurehead had a very short life. On September 12, 1804, while on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea, USS Constitution and USS President collided, causing great damage to Constitution’s bow, or as Sailing Master Nathaniel Haraden noted in his log book, “our figure head broken to pieces.” Carpenters were hired to make repairs and by October 19, 1804 the new carving, a billethead, was completed.
“…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…”3
For the next two decades, USS Constitution would carry several different billetheads on its bow. A billethead is a scroll-like carving that is sometimes referred to as a “fiddle head” as it closely resembles the curled scroll at the top of a violin’s neck.
The 1804 Malta-carved billethead was replaced in 1808. It is this second billethead that was probably on Constitution‘s bow when the War of 1812 began. It appears, from the documentary evidence left behind, that Constitution did not suffer much, if any, bow damage in the battle with HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812. The 4th Auditor’s Settled Accounts, which details the payment of all bills, makes no note of bow or carving repairs to “Old Ironsides.”
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 its 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…”4 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 its name, and emblematical of war, navigation, commerce, &c.” [Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, William Burney, ed., 1815.]
The gallery of images below show the different carvings on Constitution‘s bow, from 1803 to 1833.
Andrew Jackson Figureheads
The first Andrew Jackson figurehead has been previously discussed in detail in an earlier blog post. The Jackson figure carved by Laban Beecher caused great controversy and was decapitated by a local captain named Samuel Worthington Dewey. The vandalized figurehead was removed and replaced in 1847 with, of all things, another figure of Andrew Jackson! The carvers J. and W.H. Fowle of Boston were commissioned to carve the second Jackson figurehead. What might have been the reasoning behind another Jackson carving on Constitution‘s bow? We don’t know for certain, but placing a second figure of the “Hero of the Battle of New Orleans” on the bow in 1847 might have been to honor the recently deceased former president (Jackson died in 1845). The second Jackson figurehead resided safely on the ship’s bow for the next 30 years.
As part of the 1872-1877 re-building of Constitution at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the second Andrew Jackson figurehead was removed and eventually sent to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. During the rebuilding, the 1820 billethead, which had been displayed on a lamp post at the Charlestown Navy Yard since 1833 and incorrectly identified as the War of 1812 billethead, was sent to the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1876. The intention was to re-install the 1820 billethead, but it proved to be too rotten to re-attach to Constitution‘s upper cutwater. A new billethead was carved, which, surprisingly, was not a replica of the 1820 billethead. New trailboards were also carved for the cutwater as part of the refurbishment of the warship’s bow area.
The first true “restoration” of USS Constitution took place between 1906 and 1907. Approximately $100,000 was allocated by Congress for a “cosmetic” rebuilding of the ship, including removing the receiving ship house over the spar deck, the re-installation of masts and yards, and 54 replica, but inaccurate, guns for display on the spar and gun decks.The 1876 trailboards were retained for Constitutioncutwater, but a new billethead was carved. The 1812 model of Constitution made by the ship’s crew for Captain Isaac Hull was a primary source for the 1906 restoration. The new billethead carved for this project was a sinuous dragon which may have been an interpretation of the dragon motif trailboards found the 1812 model.
The 1876 billethead was preserved and displayed belowdecks on USS Constitution for much of the 20th century.
Both billetheads, the 1876 one carved in the Philadelphia Navy Yard and the “dragon” carved for the 1906 restoration, are currently on display at the USS Constitution Museum.
The 1927 – 1931 restoration of USS Constitution was the most comprehensive rebuilding of the ship since the early decades of the 19th century. When the U.S. Navy removed the ship from Dry Dock 1 in the Charlestown Navy Yard in the late spring of 1930, it was reported that 85 percent of the vessel had been “renewed”, i.e. replaced. Included in the extensive rebuilding was the whole bow area, including the framing, planking, and cutwater. Once the structural work was completed, new decorative bow carvings were placed aboard.
William A. Bates, originally from Maine, but residing in Massachusetts by 1920, was a “pattern maker” at the Charlestown Navy Yard. In a letter dated August 13, 1951, Mr. Bates contacted the (then) Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts to offer to the museum USS Constitution‘s 1876 trailboards that had been removed and replaced in the 1927 restoration. According to Mr. Bates’ letter, “The scroll on [Constitution‘s] bow was replaced by one which had been made in my shop. The [1876-carved set of trailboards] was given to me…”5 Mr. Bates, in turn, donated the 1876 trailboards to the Peabody Museum.
The 1927 restoration billethead remained on Constitution‘s bow until it was replaced in 1978.
An interesting discovery in the 2015 restoration is that the 1927 trailboards, carved here in the Charlestown Navy Yard, were still decorating Constitution‘s cutwater! The relief-carved acanthus leaf motif that winds down the bow, terminating in a red, white, and blue shield, was cut from solid pieces of old-growth Douglas fir from the Northwest that measured over 5 inches in thickness. After serving their duty for 90 years on “Old Ironsides'” bow, the 1927 trailboards have been retired and will be replaced with newly created duplicate carvings.
1 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.
2 William Bentley. The Diary of William Bentley, D.D., Volume 2, January, 1793-December, 1802 (Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1907, reprint edition), 224.
3 Dudley W. Knox. Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume 5 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1939), 94.
4 “Statement of Repairs made upon the Frigate Constitution in 1820 & 1821”. Samuel Eliot Morison Memorial Library, USS Constitution Museum, Boston, accession 1567.
5 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.
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.
Questions or comments? Contact the USS Constitution Museum's Curatorial Department at firstname.lastname@example.org