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The Shipcarvers' Art:
Figureheads and Cigar-Store Indians in Nineteenth-Century America
Ralph Sessions

Winner of the 2006 John Lyman Book Award in Reference, North American Society for Ocean History
Winner of the 2006 William E. Fischelis Award, The Victorian Society in America

Hardcover | 2005 | This edition is out of print | ISBN: 9780691120812


Among the most popular and ubiquitous sculptures in nineteenth-century America were the ship's figurehead and the cigar-store Indian. The vast majority of these engaging human figures were created by shipcarvers-highly skilled artists celebrated for their masterful figureheads but who collectively made tens of thousands of shop figures as well, from fanciful representations of American Indians to firemen, baseball players, and fashionable women.

Shaped by nineteenth-century Anglo-American values, this artwork reflects the tenor of the times, including racial and gender stereotyping, America's emerging popular culture, and the birth of modern advertising techniques.

The Shipcarvers' Art is the first book to assess the artistry and history of these two closely related genres in a single volume. Richly illustrated and elegantly written, it reveals the intertwining of art, commerce, and shipcarving in nineteenth-century America. On March 22, 1856, for example, only four months after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Hiawatha was first published, the clipper Minehaha was launched at an East Boston shipyard. Its figurehead depicted a renowned English actress in her role as Hiawatha's wife, Minehaha. Central to the festivities surrounding the event were poet, actress, and shipbuilder--and a fictional image of the Native American.

Ralph Sessions not only highlights the work of shipcarvers throughout the eastern United States and Canada but also presents new information on carving workshops in New York City, America's key shipbuilding center from around 1820 until after the Civil War.

Just as they were vanishing from the bows of ships and city streets around the turn of the twentieth century, figureheads and shop figures began to experience renewed interest as museum pieces and collector's items. Representing a milestone in scholarship on the subject, The Shipcarvers' Art magnificently brings them alive once more for art lovers of the twenty-first century.


"[A] clear-sighted survey of an area of art which is in danger of slipping into neglected obscurity. . . . This is another beautifully produced volume from Princeton. The illustrations are both handsome and informative in their own right. . . . I think this is an important book in that it brings to light a subject which can be seen as a genuine folk art within an industrialized society and which was in danger of disappearing completely."--Ian Charnock, The Art Book


"Beautifully written, meticulously researched, and well-presented, The Shipcarvers' Art represents a major contribution to our understanding of nineteenth-century American visual culture. There is simply no other book out there that covers this material. It succeeds marvelously at understanding the material on its own terms, and presenting it in the context of American social history. That is a superlative achievement. All scholars of American art history and folk art, as well as collectors, will want this book."--Janet Catherine Berlo, author of The Early Years of Native American Art History

"The Shipcarvers' Art will have an important and lasting impact on our understanding of shop figures. Ralph Sessions seeks to elevate the lowly 'Cigar-Store Indian' concept from offensive, maligned cast-off to a transcendent figure representing specific roles of American craftsmen as artisans and as mirrors of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century popular culture. He explores new ground using an intensity not yet visited on this class of folk art. His engaging and approachable writing style coupled with many illustrations make this work available to a wide readership, which will appreciate this detailed look at a rather hidden--very neglected--class of folk art."--David H. Shayt, museum curator in American cultural history

File created: 3/10/2015

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