Home > The Captain's Clerk > Captain's Clerk > Discover Constitution's History > Collections & History > The Captain Speaks > Figureheads and Billetheads in "Old Ironsides"

Figureheads and Billetheads in "Old Ironsides"

By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)

The decoration of ships and craft, particularly at the bow, has been traced to the earliest records. Such ornamentation reached its peak in the 17th Century, when units of newly created national navies were heavily encrusted with statuary and other intricately carved decorations from bow to stern — often with much of it gilded as an indication of the power and wealth of the reigning monarch. By the middle of the 18th Century, England had established itself as supreme on the world’s oceans. As the ruler of the seas, she felt less and less called upon to demonstrate that superiority in fragile and expensive decoration. The evolution of Constitution’s bow ornamentation clearly follows this decline in ornamentation.

Having authorized the construction of six frigates in 1794, Congress relied upon the British practice in deciding many of the patterns to be followed in organizing and operating a navy. In the matter of figureheads, those bow ornaments commonly partial or whole figures of real or allegorical figures, it was decided that each of the ships should have rather ornate figures representing the attributes in their names. Constitution was to have “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.” Designed by William Rush of Philadelphia, it was carved by Simeon and John Skillen of Boston. The only contemporary representation known of it is to be found in a painting of the ship done by Michel Felice Corne about 1803. In the picture, the figurehead is about the size of a postage stamp, but an enlargement of that section is clear enough to show that the Skillens faithfully carried out the verbal description provided by its designer.

The “Hercules” figurehead rode ahead of Constitution throughout the Quasi-War with France and through her first year of service in the Barbary War. Then, in the early morning of 12 September 1804, as Constitution was sailing with other units of the American squadron a dozen miles north of Tripoli (Libya), a gust of wind took her all aback and left her unable to maneuver. In that condition, she was struck by her near-sister, President, carrying away her flying jib-boom, jib-boom, and spritsail yard, and splintering Hercules, the trailboards, and upper cutwater. The damage, while obvious, had little effect on the ship’s ability to fight. Nonetheless, she sailed the next day for Malta, where she remained for two months while repairs were effected.

Contrary to a story that she next was given a figurehead of Neptune, the big frigate actually received nothing more than a very plain billethead: a curlicue of wood that provided a neat upper end to the projecting cutwater. No-one at the time seems to have bothered making a drawing of it, so we have no further information about its appearance. It seems to have served well, for Constitution carried it for the remainder of that tour of duty in the Mediterranean and, indeed, until she next was being readied for service in the winter of 1809.

Commodore John Rodgers, in charge of the ship’s overhaul at New York, had the Dodge brothers of that city prepare a new billethead and trailboards for her. It was these decorations that she carried throughout the War of 1812, and a representation of them has come down to us in a model of the ship made for Captain Isaac Hull by crew members. Today, it is in the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The billethead itself, as can be seen in the picture above, is a simple expanding spiral that opens aft and down to connect with the flowing trailboard. In addition to the classic trailing vine, the center of each trailboard featured a fearsome dragon with tongue or flames lashing out.

By the time the War of 1812 ended in February 1815, ships of the line — battleships — had begun entering the U. S. Navy for the first time. The Board of Naval Commissioners, recognizing that the use of figureheads in other navies had become largely restricted to the capital ships, decreed that from then on only the liners would be authorized figureheads or half-figureheads (busts). For the next decade and a half, Constitution continued to carry the decorations she had received at New York in 1809.

In May 1833, Captain Jesse Duncan Elliott became Commandant of the Boston Navy Yard, slightly more than a month before Constitution was scheduled to enter the drydock there for her first restoration. The restoration had been ordered, in part, because of a public outcry resulting from an erroneous report that the ship was to be scrapped — a report that had led Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., to write his famous verses about “the eagle of the sea.”

Captain Elliott, always a contentious individual, thought he saw a way to bring praise upon himself and to honor a personal hero while restoring the ship. Even before the ship was drydocked, he privately contacted a 28-year-old local woodcarver named Laban S. Beecher. He wanted the young man, who never had done a figurehead before, to do a full-length one of President Andrew Jackson. Beecher agreed — for $564.

The work proceeded quietly until mid-February 1834, when a handbill began circulating around Boston calling upon the citizenry to prevent the desecration of “their” frigate with the likeness of the hated “Old Hickory,” nemesis of the Second United States Bank. Beecher called upon Elliott and told him of threats to his person. The brouhaha forced Elliott’s hand, and on 1 March he wrote to the Navy Commissioners reporting the near-completion of the object of loathing and claiming ignorance of any regulation barring figureheads in frigates. The Board, predictably, found Elliott’s action inexcusable, but, since the thing was nearly finished, he either could put it on the frigate or save it for one of the two liners then slowly building in the Yard. On 21 March, the Captain had his figurehead moved into the Navy Yard, where Beecher could work in safety. It finally was put on the ship in April.

On the night of 2 July, by which time Constitution was out of drydock and moored between two other ships, a young merchant ship skipper named Samuel Worthington Dewey accepted a bet and rowed himself out to the ships. It was pitch black and raining cats and dogs. Silently, he managed to get aboard and out in the bows, where he cut off Jackson’s head between lower lip and chin. He got cleanly away, and the next morning Elliott was beside himself. Unable to get any assistance in arresting the culprit, he grumpily covered the headless figurehead and waited until he had taken command of the ship and sailed her to New York in March 1835 before having a new head installed.

This Beecher figurehead was by any measure crude and stiff. It hardly seems to have been worth all the effort and upset, and certainly did nothing to enhance the reputations of its contractor or its creator. (Beecher never attempted to carve another figurehead and, indeed, a year later he sold his business and moved to Wisconsin -far from the sea.) Its presence at Constitution’s bow gave her a ponderous “nose” for more than a decade. Wearing it, she served another tour in the Mediterranean, a tour off the west coast of South America, and made a 29-month voyage around the world. As she was completing that trip in September 1846, Midshipman John E. Hart noted, “The Old gentleman [i. e., Jackson] looks hearty and hale as he did in his prime days I got the Painter to give his standing collar a ‘dab’ of red to make him look ‘a la militaire’…”

When the ship was being returned to active duty two years later, a new version of the Jackson figurehead was done in a style close to the Greco-Roman by Boston carvers J. D. and W. H. Fowle. Its lines were fluid and majestic, very flattering of the late President, who was posed a la Napoleon with his left hand inserted into his coat front. It made a cruise in the Mediterranean and another on the west coast of Africa, and then adorned the ship throughout her days as a stationary school ship for the Naval Academy before being removed in the early 1870s as the ship underwent her second restoration at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Whereas the first Jackson figurehead soon dropped from sight, the Fowle version was installed as a statue at the Naval Academy, where it remains.

Constitution’s Philadelphia restoration was driven by the intention to employ her as a major patriotic symbol during the national centennial in 1876. To restore her to something approximating her earlier appearance, a simple curlicue billethead replaced the second Jackson, and the curling vine on the trailboards featured an oval shield in the center, a blue field over thirteen red and white vertical stripes, the design she continues to carry to this day.

(During this same restoration, her stern was refurbished to the design of simple beauty featuring an eagle with spread wings and a red, white, and blue shield on his chest accompanied by white five-pointed stars. This, too, she still wears.)

The return of Constitution to Boston from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the time of her one hundredth birthday, renewed active interest in the ship. This interest resulted, in 1906-07, in a partial restoration of the ship to her 1812 appearance. In addition to furnishing her with a new billethead of the simple curlicue design, Naval Constructor Elliot Snow also had carved one that ended, at the point where the billethead connected to the top of the cutwater, with a dragon reminiscent of the one carried during that war. It was said the intent was to have the dragon placed on the ship whenever the country went to war.

Both versions exist day, but the “war billethead” is in the custody of the USS Constitution Museum and periodically is placed on display for all to see.

Some sources:

Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.

Pinckney, Pauline A. American Figureheads And Their Carvers. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1940.

A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM