Nautical Figureheads

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Sometimes referred to as "Neptune's wooden angels" (Hansen i), Nautical figureheads have been in use since antiquity for various purposes. This article is about sculpted wooden figureheads, particularly those with human subjects which were in favor between 1500 and 1900. These human figureheads are telling of attitudes popular in their day regarding sailing, exploration, and international trade. As the popularity of wooden boats waned in the 19th century, so too did the popularity of wooden figureheads. New forms of transportation and ornamentation replaced wooden ships and figureheads as signifiers of industry and progress in the 20th century as the wooden figurehead began to take up residence in galleries and museums.

History Pre-1700

The figurehead tradition can be traced from antiquity. While its origins are shadowy and span various cultures, the earliest seafarers likely carried the head of an animal sacrificed as an offering to the gods on board to guarantee a safe journey (Jeans 307). Heads were eventually placed at the bow of the ship “where their eyes could keep a lookout ahead”(Jeans 308). In some derivations sailors began to paint eyes on the sides of their ships and eventually carved animal figures appeared at the bow of most ships. Lions were the most popular motif throughout Western Europe until the eighteenth century when human figures began to appear more frequently. By the 1760s animals had gone out of style and human figures representing ships’ names or otherwise symbolic became popular (Brewington 8). Throughout the period of wooden sailing vessels nearly every ship was decorated with a figurehead; some sailors even believed that voyage on a craft without a figure could be fatal (Laughton 63). Curiously, the heads have been removed from many wrecked vessels, in an attempt to keep other ships from carrying a talisman that was unsuccessful in its duty (Jeans 308).

Human Figureheads

Baroque Era and Group Figureheads

Rendering of a group figurehead. Click for full-size image and more information.

During the Baroque era, it was common for high-ranking ships to be decorated with elaborately designed groups of carvings. These sculptures, which included figures such as gods, goddesses, monarchs, putti, horses, winged horses, and mermaids, were often life-sized and full of symbolism for the fleet to which the ship belonged. Charles Le Brun, Jean Berain, and Pierre Puget are some of the most notable ship artists during this period and decorated ships that largely occupied the Mediterranean ports of Marseilles and Toulon. Pierre Puget, in particular, became notorious for the scope, weight, and expansiveness of his designs. According to Ralph Sessions, Puget's design for the stern of a boat named "Madam" “featured four large figures flanking a central relief of a fashionable woman in an interior. Above and below the panel, putti and other decorative devices are combined with ornately carved balustrades and galleries" (17).

Sculptures of lions, unicorns, and dragons remained popular as figureheads in England until the 1600s, at which point larger ships began hosting life-sized renderings of horses being ridden by the members of royalty the ship is question was named after. Trends quickly changed to include group figureheads with sculptures of "knights in armor, double headed horses, and other related elements" (Sessions 18). For example, a ship from the mid-1600s named "Naseby" was described as "having a figurehead of 'Oliver' (Cromwell) on horseback trampling six nations underfoot: a Scot, Irishman, Dutchman, Frenchman, Spaniard and English, as was easily made our by their several habits. A Fame held a laurel over his insulting head: the words 'God with us'" (Sessions 18). The presence of animals sculptures within these human-centric designs remained and were allegorically relevant to the ship.

Group Figureheads Legislation

The beginning stage of creating these elaborate designs was extremely unconventional by todays's standards. The British Admiralty's main concern when commissioning a ship carving was not the actual quality of the carving. After setting a price for the design, they focused on the ideas and themes that they wanted illustrated in the carving. These ideas were communicated to the carvers verbally, who were then left to their own devices to "translate these ideas into wood" (Sessions 19). Unsurprisingly, these immense wooden sculptures were often simply too heavy to allow the ships to operate properly. Because of this, in 1703, The Board of Admiralty created legislation to control the weight and size of the figureheads. These new rules were considered effective but were usually not applied to extremely large ships. More orders were issued by the British Admiralty in 1737 and then again in 1773. These restricted the amount of money that could be spent on a ship carving. They also created legislation in 1742 that required the sculptures to be "as small and light as possible" (Sessions 20) This lead to a huge shift in the ship carving industry as hardwoods were replaced with pine in all of the carvings. This is a "a custom that was followed until the end of the era of wooden ships" (Sessions 20).

Female Figureheads

While contemporary imagery like the Pirates of the Carribean franchise commonly call to mind buxom wenches and mermaids when historical figureheads are mentioned, in reality it was not until the late eighteenth century that female subjects began to appear on the bows of ships (Lewis 836). Sailor superstition dictated women, or their effigies, on board, would engender bad luck. As late as 1916, after nearly capsizing, the captain of the vessel Inna Bentley cast its figurehead of a young girl into the sea (Lewis 836). As women became a more common presence on sea voyages, as well as, in public life, their figureheads became more common. By the early eighteen hundreds mermaids were common subjects, as were female mythological figures, queens, and the wives and daughters of ship-owners.


Traditionally, sailors thought of mermaids as sirens, dangerous seductresses whose song could lure them to shipwreck on coral reefs and rocky coastlines. Oddly, a concurrent myth, in existence at least since the time of Pliny the Elder, claimed that a nude or semi-nude woman would calm turbulent seas (Jeans 307). By the mid nineteenth century, it seems sailors had widely forgotten the siren myth and frequently adopted the bare breasted mermaid figurehead as a talisman to fair weather (Lewis 838). The mermaid eventually became the most common female figurehead.

Wives,Daughters,Queens, and Divas

Clothed women also made popular figureheads in the 19th century. British ships often carried figures of female royalty like the Queen Victoria figure commissioned by Junius Smith (1780-1853) for his famous paddle steamer British Queen; a depiction of the queen in her coronation outfit, that she reportedly found quite flattering (Lewis 838). Shipbuilders and masters also commissioned becoming portraits of their wives and daughters for their own ships. Sometimes, these women were portrayed as neo-classical goddesses or as personifications of a ship’s homeport like the carving on the grain transporting craft Queen of Oregon (Lewis 837). Most likely because of her frequent contributions to sailor’s homes and maritime benevolent institutions the Swedish diva Jenny Lind appeared on over thirty five figureheads in the eighteen hundreds. Though, undoubtedly certain sailors clung to superstitions about women and the ocean, during the nineteenth century feminine figures became sailor’s mascots rather than harbingers of bad luck.


Legislation restricting the size and weight of figurehead sculptures and the amount of money designated for their creation combined changing fashions and aesthetics, transformed the style of figureheads from the baroque to the “more austere Neo-classical style” (Sessions 20) towards the end of the 18th century. Instead of multiple figures and characters, sculptors began creating “full-length, single figureheads on larger vessels and bust portraits and billetheads on smaller ships” (Sessions 20).

Greek goddess figurehead

Even when depictions of actual Greco-Roman mythology became less popular, sculptures of political figures or monarchs were usually still done in the style of neo-classicism. For example, as seen in a design drawing of a French ship of the line “Royal Louis”, the figurehead of Louis XV is shown “framed by lush tendrils in the transitional style between Rococo and Classisism, and with the whole figure in Roman dress, conforming to the taste of the time.” (Hansen 22).

The mythological figures represented in the carvings were usually the same as the name of the ship it belonged to. “Apollo, Zeus, Mars, Mercury, Achilles, Andromeda, Venus, Naiad, and, naturally Neptune and Poseidon”(Hansen 21) are all examples. Neo-classical aesthetics remained popular with until wooden ships became obsolete in the 19th Century and were still seen “around the turn of the last century in the countless merchant ships which bore the names of classical gods and heroes” (Hansen 21).

Religious Figures

The genre of human figurehead carving emerged at “the intersection of shipcarving with the fine arts of Western Europe that began during the Renaissance” (Sessions 15), and intensified when “Europe entered a period of maritime expansion fueled by the exploration and colonization of the New World” (16).

The figureheads of this era possessed a “basic narrative value”, when read the products and signifiers of imperialism, which Patrick B. Mullen asserts imbues them with religious meaning as folklore (413). The doctrine expressed is “a value or norm of society” (413) which increasingly oriented itself around commerce rather than the church.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the most popular subjects in French and English sailing were mythological figures such as greco-roman deities, mythical animals, and portraits of contemporary subjects (Sessions 17-8)-- not Christian subjects, despite the prominence of Christianity in Western Europe.

In North America, however, “...shipcarvers produced a wide range of work, from figureheads, to shop signs to architectural and Church decorations” (Sessions 125). Business provided by churches “remained a mainstay for carvers for years after orders for shipcarving fell off towards the end of the 19th century” (125).

By this time, the value of most carvings with religious subjects had come to be defined by the market and not by their value as cultic objects. The religious value of a figurehead, when placed on a commercial or imperial ship, is at least as closely tied to the mythology of world trade and the expansion of empire as it is to its actual subject matter.

Political Figures

Figureheads of prominent political figures habitually ornamented the bows of both national and privately owned ships. Well-crafted carvings were as important to national prestige as were well -engineered vessels. Whaling Ships like the Thomas Jefferson and steamer ships like the Abraham Lincoln and the Henry Clay believed that statues of powerful men would bring them luck and wealth. American and European naval ships named for or simply hoping to flaunt their most prominent citizens carried the likenesses of politicians and military officers (Sessions 45). In one American case such a carving even played a significant role in political life.

The Andrew Jackson Figurehead

The U.S. Constitution was one of the first ships built for the American navy. By the 1830’s it had fallen into disrepair and the navy proposed abandoning it. Oliver Wendell Holmes headed a sentimental and patriotic campaign to restore it with his poem “Old Ironsides” (Sessions 56). Under public pressure, the Navy, encouraged by president Andrew Jackson, had the ship rebuilt in Boston. Though the Constitution had originally been decorated with a figure of Hercules, because of his encouragement and a visit to Boston during the repairs, ship-carver Laban Smith Beecher was commissioned to build an Andrew Jackson figure for the restored ship. Anti-Jacksonians offered Beecher the enormous sum of $1,500 to steal the carving. Eventually, in July of 1834, Jackson’s woodenhead was cut off and stolen by a young hooligan named Samuel Dewey (Byvanck 254). The story made it into every American newspaper providing anti-Jacksonian papers like the Daily Transcript and the Columbian Centinel with endless satire and outraging Jackson supporters in papers like The Evening Post (Byvanck 257).

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Reunited pieces of the Andrew Jackson Figurehead. Click for full-size image and more information.

Caricature and Stereotypes

The prevalence of racial stereotypes in nautical sculpture first emerged in the mid-18th century as “fairly straightforward references to foreign places or products” (Sessions 27), which originated “beyond the borders of Christendom” (29). These depictions took the form of signs and statues advertising imported goods for port side businesses, often created by European artists who had never seen a person from Africa or the New World.

In the New World, where “over 75 percent of the total value of goods exported” (sessions 34) from some colonies was derived from tobacco, most sculptors carved both figureheads for ships as well as promotional statues and signs for tobacco stores. These sculptors were usually “the only artisans in a particular locale who were capable of producing skilled ornamental work in wood” (37).

When the art of wooden shipbuilding and figurehead production fell out of favor around 1850, “shipcarvers continued to collectively exercise their talents and creativity … in a final burst of creativity seen particularly in shop and cigar-store indians” (Sessions 83).

For artists in the 17th and 18th century, “identifying contemporary types and applying stereotypical identities to them was considered an appropriate way to characterize and differentiate humanity” (Session 148). As a result, a wide diversity of stereotypical sculpture appeared on ships, signs, and as statues wherever foreign goods were trafficked, promoting otherness as a quality being shipped from overseas.

Derivative Forms


In the mid-19th century, both the role and subject matter of nautical figureheads were changed dramatically by the growth of the carving industry and decline of wooden shipbuilding. By 1890, most sculptors relied heavily on show figures for their income, and show figures were no longer dominated by the racist images of Indians and Turks. Instead, “an emphasis on change and variety began to replace the older concepts of familiarity and traditional association that had dominated earlier forms of marketing and advertising” (Session 141). Common subjects included Baseball players, Firefighters and

The public imagination was no longer as fascinated with images of imperial trade's new subjects as it had been when global shipping expanded so dramatically in the centuries before. New signifiers of technological and imperial progress emerged in both shipbuilding and sculpture, replacing wooden figureheads as the cult objects of global empire.

The U.S. Navy commissioned their first figurehead-free fleet in 1825 (Pinckney 99), motivated by economic and performance factors. A similar shift in priorities occurred in the shipping industry which the emergence of small and nimble “Packet” ships. Pinckley writes: “each vessel tried to make better time than its competitor. This eagerness for speed kept the packets continually under repair and often resulted in their loss” (118).

During this era, many figureheads were removed from ships and displayed as sculpture in an artistic context. In 1893, the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago played home to “several zinc show figures, including thee Indians, a Gambrinus, and a 'Moorish Girl,'”, which “were not shop signs, but rather were designed for use as decorative pieces in the interior of a fashionable urban store” (Sessions 187). The decision to use zinc instead of wood is evidence of aspiration to sit among fine artists and not craftsmen like shipbuilders.

By 1915, wooden figureheads and shop sculptures alike had fallen almost completely out of use before being “'discovered' by modernist artists searching for forms of expression that they considered to be uniquely American” (Sessions 200). Figureheads became valued as pieces of folk art, representing America's history.

Cigar Store Indians

Cigar Store Indian. Click for more information and full-size image

Depictions of Native Americans were popular as figureheads as early as the sixteenth century, functioning to symbolically represent “European discovery and conquest” (Sessions 86). By 1810, statues of Indian figures in the Neoclassical style began appearing in port town Tobacco shops, carved by nautical artists. As the ship building and figurehead carving industries contracted throughout the 1800's, commercial sculptors increasingly relied upon cigar store indians and other show figures to provide income.

In the mid-19th century, after the “first reservations had been created and the official policy of removal to the West” was placed in action, Indian figures in art took on increased meaning as “picaresque details that evoked visions of the primeval bounty of the promised land of America” (Sessions 94).

During this period, images of Native Americans remained signifiers of expanding enlightenment-era liberalism and international commerce, all while taking on the “melancholic personality of a romantic hero on an inevitable course of destruction” (89). The 19th century was a time of great transition-- Indians in nautical sculpture shifted from representing the exotic bounty of New World exploration to representing the unstoppable power of Western imperialism.

“If the Indian had previously stood apart from the decadence of Western civilization and offered a model for its salvation, he was now caught in its clutches, a hapless victim of progress” (Sessions 89).

The 'melancholic' qualities ascribed to Indian figures in 19th century sculpture may be related to the changes occurring simultaneously in commercial sculpture at large. The same unstoppable 'progress' which stripped Native Americans of their land and lifestyle was also responsible for nautical carving industry's increasing reliance on business derived from non-figurehead carvings.

Hood Ornaments

Rolls-Royce Hood Ornament, 1928. Click for full-size.

By the turn of the 20th century, wooden ships and figureheads had fallen almost completely from favor as symbols for technological or market potential. They were replaced first by steam powered ships, and later by automobiles, airplanes, and space, among others. The use of figurehead-like ornamentation, however, lives on today in various remediated forms.

According to Sheila Gibson Stoodley, the first example of a figurehead-like carving on an automobile “when he affixed a statue of St. Christopher to his 1899 Daimler”. Continuing through the 1920s, many motorists attached custom decorative radiator caps to cars. The “Uncouth tastes” (Stoodley) of male motorists were often reflected in these individually commissioned sculptures, which included “underdressed women and figures that thumbed their noses”.

In 1911 Rolls-Royce was manufactured with a factory-designed radiator-cap hood ornament in order to displace the custom ornaments which were “spoiling the [radiator's] beautiful lines” (Stoodley).

By 1928, According to Stoodley, “cars were reconfigured to render radiator caps obsolete, and ultimately most countries outlawed them for fear of the injuries they could inflict on pedestrians in a crash”. Factory ornaments continue to characterize some luxury cars today, but they are designed to recede on impact and they are no longer connected to the cars' mechanical systems.

Figureheads Today

Stuffed toy attached to truck.

Since the 19th century, the demands of speed, reliability, and light weight have rendered sculpted figureheads more or less obsolete. Two-dimensional art has replaced sculpture as the ornamentation of choice on airplanes, spacecraft and missiles. This transition began as early as 1900, when technological advancements in canal boating led to both a decline in sculpted figureheads and an increase in painted adornments (Lewery).

Other contemporary descendants of the nautical figurehead include the stuffed toy animals attached to numerous automobiles, particularly commercial vehicles. These plush ornaments bring domestic and childhood associations to the vehicles while the build-up of road grit and exhaust on their fur presents a visual measurement of the filth and residue deposited by a working life on the road. Plush figureheads present a collision between personal and commercial life, their filthiness calling to mind the alienation of their owners by industry.

Works Cited

Brewington, M.V. Shipcarvers of North America Barre, Ma. : Barre Publishing Company, 1962.

Byvanck, Valentijn “The Jackson Figurehead” Winterthur Portfolio 35:4 (Winter 2000): 253-267.

Hansen, Hans Jurgen. Ships' Figureheads: The Decorate Bow Figures of Ships: Schiffer Publishing, West Chester PA, 1990.

Jeans, Peter Seafaring Lore and Legend: A Miscellany of Maritime Myth, Superstition, Fable and Fact New York: Mc Graw-Hill, 2004.

Laughton, L.G. Carr Old Ship Figureheads and Sterns London: Halton & Truscott Smith, LTD., 1925.

Lewery, Tony. "Rose, Castle and Canal: An Introduction to the Folk Art of English Narrow Canal Boats". Folklore, Vol. 106 (1995), pp43-56.

Lewis, Tony “Her Effigy in Wood: Figureheads with Feminine Subjects” The Magazine Antiques 150:6 (1996) 834-841.

Mullen, Patrick B. "The Relationship of Legend and Folk Belief". The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 84, No. 334 (Oct. - Dec., 1971) pp 406-413.

Sessions, Ralph. The Shipcarver's Art: Figureheads and Cigar-Store Indians in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 2005.

Pinckney, Pauline A. American Figureheads and Their Carvers. Kennikat Press, Port Washington NY. 1940.