Clipper Ship Cards

The publication of clipper ship sailing cards began in 1853 and continued through the Civil War, reflecting the enormous increase in commerce between the east and west coasts after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California. During the four years following the 1848 discovery, as many as 160 ships were launched and set sail as opposed to only two ships that regularly sailed from Atlantic ports to San Francisco before then. In the one and one half years after 1848, seven hundred vessels stopped in the California harbor with estimated cargoes of 100,000 people and supplies. Allan Forbes in his AAS Proceedings article provides a great deal of detail about the firms involved in this trade. Although most of the sailing cards advertised the departures of clipper ships from the east coast to San Francisco, other ports around the world were included in the ships' itineraries. The onset of steam transportation both by rail and sea caused the decline of the fleets of clipper ships. As the new modes of travel developed, the clipper ship industry faltered.

Clipper ship sailing cards featured full color illustrations illustrating the names of the ships, some of which created great opportunities for designers. For example, a ferocious tiger ornaments the card advertising the ship Bengal. A scene featuring a hot air balloon, a train on a bridge, bustling mills, and two sailing and one steam vessel under the spread wings of a bald eagle illustrates the advertisement for Comstock's clipper ship Enterprise. The imprints of the cards reveal that just three printing offices issued most of the hand-held advertisements: Nesbitt & Company and Watson & Clark of New York and John H. Bufford of Boston. Many lack an imprint. There is a pleasing mixture of styles that range from simple, but attractive, black and white letterpress printing to magnificent pictures of ships in full color. Generally, the cards were printed on one side of a piece of glossy card stock measuring 4 x 61/2 inches. Rarely is anything printed on the reverse, although occasionally information about the ship is continued.

Whether or not these advertisements were successful has never been determined. Employees of the shipping companies distributed them to commission merchants and exporters as soon as a ship's schedule was determined. Given the number of them, however, the owners of the ships must have thought that they would be useful. The total number of examples that were issued is unknown; they are, however, rare today and sought after by collectors.

James F. Hunnewell (1832-1910) donated most of the cards in the AAS collection. He acquired them in the course of his business in Boston from the owners of clipper ships.


The collection is fully cataloged online in the General Catalog.

All clipper ship cards in the collection are also digitally available in Readex's American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series I under "ship cards." This resource is available onsite at AAS and via subscription from Readex.


Bruce Roberts, "Selling Sail with Clipper Ship Cards," Ephemera News 19 (Winter 2001).

Allan Forbes, "The Story of Clipper Ship Sailing Cards," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 59 (October 1949).

Allan Forbes and Ralph M. Eastman. Yankee Ship Sailing Cards. (Boston: State Street Trust Company, 1948).

Allan Forbes and Ralph M. Eastman. Other Yankee Ship Sailing Cards. (Boston: State Street Trust Company, 1949).

Allan Forbes and Ralph M. Eastman. Yankee Sailing Cards. (Boston: State Street Company, 1952).

Quick Links

Catalog | Login | Digital A-Z


Monday: 9-5
Tuesday: 10-5
Wednesday: 9-5
Thursday: 9-5
Friday: 9-5

Keep in Touch

Link to AAS Facebook Link to AAS TwitterLink to AAS BlogLink to AAS Instagram   Link to AAS YouTube