Published: March 6, 2001
Myths and Legends at The Mariners’ Museum
NEWPORT NEWS, VA. – For centuries, the battle to survive the elements and sail the world’s waters was depicted as a struggle between men and the sea. The Mariners’ Museum reveals a different story in its new temporary exhibition “,” on display from March 17 through January 6, 2002.
From the myths and legends of mermaids and Greek goddesses to the remarkable heroics of female lighthouse keepers and “firsts” for women in the navy, this interactive exhibit takes a look at the role of women in maritime history. Artifacts, paintings, lithographs, photographs and recreations of a harbor town, tavern and ship carver’s workshop will show the dramatic impact of women on the maritime world and economy.
“Women and their interaction with the sea has mostly been a silent topic. But women have always been part of the sea, from myth and legend to today’s maritime careers. Women were usually left behind when sailors went to sea, which forced women to survive by working in a variety of professions, from seamstress to washerwoman. The first women to break this mold went to sea disguised as men. Their experiences paved the way for women to join their husbands and participate in a life on the oceans in the 1800s,” said associate curator Tracey Neikirk. “These exposures to the sea encouraged new generations of women to become river pilots, yachtswomen or members of the US Navy or Coast Guard. Today, women are still trying to dispel these myths. With every new generation, more women are turning to the sea as professionals, not as observers.”
“Legend and history would suggest that women have had no place in the rigorous trade of plying the seas in merchant ships, much less a navy man-of-war,” said museum CEO and president John Hightower. “As so often happens, history, when one examines her muse more carefully, is often misleading. Women have always been part of the legend, and they have certainly been a presence in maritime history as well as in today’s navies.”
As early mariners set sail to explore untamed seas, they often sought supernatural protection against natural forces that could easily destroy them. Greek mariners were the earliest to associate female mythological creatures with the sea. Over hundreds of years those myths have evolved into the mariners’ belief in mermaids and sirens. Reports of mermaid sightings by explorers and sailors were surprisingly common. Described as creatures having the torso and head of a woman, but the tail of a fish, mermaids were depicted alternately as kind servants of the sea and as malicious animals with powers to entrap seafarers.
The exhibition takes visitors back thousands of years to the start of women’s involvement with the sea. Watercolors, engravings, and artifacts present the myths and legends behind the mermaids, sirens and a woman’s power over storms at sea. Throughout the exhibition, carver Bob Harvey will work in his shop on weekends to demonstrate and recount how seafarers used women as models for beautiful wood figureheads that were mounted on the bow of a ship to ward off harm at sea.
As visitors leave the ship carver’s area, they will encounter storefronts, business windows and a home commonly found in a port town. As men journeyed out to sea, women were often left at home with children but no income until the man’s return. This portion of the exhibition explores how women over came the months and sometimes years they were left vying for themselves.
The first storefront features the motif of the sailor’s departure and return, often depicted on ceramics and in prints of the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Visitors can also peer through a window to view a home filled with souvenirs brought back by male relatives and sweethearts after time at sea. An ivory spool holder, a carved seashell from the ship Africa, a glass rolling pin showing the vessel Leonora, a scrimshaw, a sewing basket and a glass egg with an ivory-framed photograph are some of the many artifacts that adorn this makeshift home. Actual letters from USS Monitor sailor George Geer to his wife Martha during the Civil War give visitors a look at how women struggle to survive while their husbands were away at sea.
Visitors will then make their way past a business front and into a tavern learning how women ran shops and inns during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
During the early Eighteenth Century, women began disguising themselves as men to get aboard vessels in hopes of being near a loved one, financially supporting themselves, or finding adventure. To accomplish this feat, women would take advantage of the forward-most section of the ship, called the fo’c’sle, where they hid all gender-related rdf_Descriptions from the rest of the crew. Here women would also change clothes or bathe in secrecy,
The Mariner’s exhibition provides visitors with an interactive look at what it would have been like to be a woman living as a man on a ship. Visitors can walk aboard a re-created fo’c’sle and try on sailors’ attire to get a sense of what women had to over come to get away with their secret. Visitors will learn about courageous women sailors like Hannah Snell, Mary Anne Talbot and Mary Lacy, who fought and worked aboard ships as men for years. The famous story of Eighteenth Century female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who pillaged local fishing ships, is also conveyed in this portion of the exhibit.
Life on board a British man-of-war was hard for the wife of a sailor: she shared her husband’s hammock and his daily ration of slated beef, dried peas, hardtack and cheese while staying out of the way of daily activities. One of the most difficult inevitable consequences of wives following their husbands to sea was childbirth. The term “son of a gun” resulted from the firing of a ship’s guns to hasten a difficult birth.
Sea travel was a rough and desolate life for the men of a ship’s crew; for the wife of a sea captain, it was even more confining and socially isolated. Much of the time women were expected to remain below decks in the cabin and would often help with navigation, making sails, or keeping the logbook and accounts. Unfortunately, not many of the journals or letters of these women have survived.
Also on display are artifacts and records borrowed from Susan Lamm of Massachusetts. Just 12 years ago, Lamm found the personal possessions of Mary Ann Hathaway Tripp (1810-1906) in a pile of trash sitting in front of a neighbor’s yard. Tripp was one of the first American women to travel around the world. She circumnavigated the globe three times with her husband Captain Lemuel Carver Tripp, a merchant mariner in the China trade, between 1833 and 1845. These intriguing remnants of Tripp’s life include her silk hat, a tiny portrait in a golden locket and china and silver. Visitors will get a glimpse of life at sea in the re-created captain’s cabin featuring furnishings from actual ships.
Though not always recognized, lighthouse-keeping was often performed by women. Heroines such as Grace Darling and Ida Lewis have been forever etched into history for enduring the lonely life of a lighthouse keeper to save hundreds of lives from ferocious storms and deadly accidents.
In this portion of the exhibition visitors can read the stories of these timeless women, catching glimpses of their lives through photographs and artifacts.
By the mid-Nineteenth Century, new roles for women began to open up along the waterfront. During this period, more women began working the water in partnership with their husbands. Some even found success carrying on the family business after their husbands died. Yachting, fishing, trading and even serving in the navy, women have stepped into a wide variety of roles.
Several women became known as competent pilots along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers during the late Nineteenth Century. Callie French and her husband, Captain A.B. French, operated several floating theaters. Callie piloted the vessel New Sensations and took charge of every aspect of entertainment – from food preparation to acting, writing jokes and playing the calliope. After her husband died in 1902, Callie continued to pilot boats for five more years until she retired. She boasted that she had never lost a boat.
As early as 1811, women served as nurses in the “man’s navy.” By World War I, women were called on to “free a man to fight” by taking the place of men in administrative positions on the home front. By World War II, the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and Coast Guard SPARS (from the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus,” Always Ready) became a vital part of the war machine. This portion of the exhibition pays tribute to the active and vital roles women have played in the navy from the Nineteenth Century to today. Visitors can learn about these important roles as well as read a long list of “firsts” for women in the navy.
No longer are the rivers, lakes and oceans of the world dominated by males. Today, women run successful fishing business and compete against men in international yacht racing. Women such as Dame Naomi Christine James, the first woman to sail solo around the world and Cape Horn; Gertrude Vanderbilt and Phyliss Sopwith, the first two women to compete against each other in an America’s Cup race; and Dawn Riley, captain of the first all-women America’s Cup team are just a few of many who have helped pave the way for more women to play an active role in recreational, military and economical aspects of the sea. In this last section of the exhibit, visitors will see and read stories about these historic women, s well as watch video interviews with women currently working in the fishing industry, Coast Guard, navy and government.
To produce this exhibit, The Mariners’ worked with guest curator Dr David Cordingly. Former keeper of pictures at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, England, Cordingly has written extensively on marine painting and organized a number of major exhibitions including “Painters of the Sea, The Art of the Van de Veldes,” and “Pirates, Fact and Fiction.” Cordingly’s book Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates won critical and popular acclaim for bringing to life the fascinating human side of history. Cordingly will be publishing a new book through Random House, Women Sailors and Sailor’s Women scheduled to debut with the opening of The Mariners’ exhibition on March 17. Cordingly now works privately as a writer and maritime historian and resides in Brighton, Sussex.
The Mariners’ Museum preserves and interprets maritime history through an international collection of ship models, figureheads, paintings and other maritime artifacts. The museum is open from 10 am until 5 pm daily. For information, 757/596-2222.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm