A Manuscript Volume

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Title Page.
VF145 .I6 Rare O (Mariners’ Museum Library and Archives)

The call number is VF145.I6. The work is entitled Instruction d’artillerie, 1818-1839. The volume was first encountered as a partially cataloged item in the Museum Archives and encountered purely by happenstance. The 38 centimeter-tall bound manuscript’s text is hand lettered, done in a bold style with almost mechanical precision. 

The book’s decorative embellishments are folksy, yet almost modern in their whimsy. The drawings are superlative. Perhaps the work was copied from another source, but never allow that consideration to detract from its wonder.    Read more

Hamlet’s Man Cave

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Cronenberg Castle, Denmark, 1808. Watercolor, Thomas Leslie, artist. Mariners’ Collections 2007.0023.000022

Sailor Made

Among my favorite past Museum exhibitions is Sailor Made, an amazing showing of the artistic talents of sailors, objects ranging from scrimshaw tusks to sea chests, knot boards to knitting needles, and carved coconuts to cameos. I was fascinated by what these mariners constructively and creatively chose to do with their spare time at sea.

I was glad to assist my Museum colleagues, Jeanne Willoz-Egnor, director of collections management, and Priscilla Hauger, director of exhibits, in researching and editing the text labels for this charming exhibition.

When I first reviewed the object list, I was immediately struck by the title of a watercolor: Cronenberg Castle, Denmark, 1808. I knew that Cronenberg had something to do with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This English major and lifelong theater lover said, girl, you gotta get a close look at this one!

The Artist  

Thomas Leslie served as a midshipman aboard HMS Centaur during the Anglo-Russian War of 1807 to 1812. The British were attempting to maintain their naval prowess in the Baltic region. Centaur, under the command of Captain William H. Webley, likely sailed the waters off the coast of Denmark where Cronenberg Castle towered over the Ore Straight, one of two entrances to the Baltic.

Thanks to the Lily Lambert McCarthy Foundation, the Museum was gifted a 26-page scrapbook and a larger watercolor, compiled by Rear Admiral William Webley-Parry’s daughter. Works by Webley and Leslie are signed and dated (1790-1814).

Matted, Cronenberg Castle measures 33” long x 21 1/8” high. Within this space lie many tales to tell. The work is inscribed at its center, Cronenburg Castle, Denmark; and at far left, is HMS Salsette and Leslie’s signature. The frigate Salsette (1805-1874), built in Bombay for the Royal Navy, appears under full sail at the left of the painting. In 1808, this ship was in service in the Baltic, under the command of Captain Bathurst. It saw action, capturing a Danish privateer, and later surrendering to a Russian cutter, but I digress…

Back to the inscription on the watercolor…. Just a bit to the right of the ship’s name is written: Hamlet’s Bower. What? Why, this was exciting! I remember studying Shakespeare, reading, and often reciting the Bard’s words. And right here, Hamlet’s man cave — close, but not too close to his family’s castle, a great view of the wide-open waterways out front; huge grounds to wander pensively about, and his own separate, private, secretive spot. Just what every brooding Dane needs!


 Location, Location, Location     

The setting for Shakespeare’s (and many say the world’s) most performed drama, Hamlet, is the town of Elsinore; also, the name he gave the castle. Cronenberg (Kronborg) Castle is a prominent spot in Elsinore (the English spelling of Helsingør), on the eastern coast of Denmark. A castle has stood in the town since 1420. After being burned, Kronborg Castle was rebuilt in 1574. An important military location in Shakespeare’s time, Denmark’s King Frederick ruled there, controlling a narrow (and strategic) stretch of the Baltic. He required ships to pay tolls, making the town an important, successful maritime spot.

The Shakespeare Connection

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in London, ca. 1600-1602. It was performed for the first time in 1601 at the Globe Theater (the first place I had to visit after Harrod’s!). The playwright more than likely never visited Elsinore, yet, it is thought that Will Kemp, a member of Shakespeare’s acting company, had been to Helsingør to perform for King Frederick. Rumor also has it that a pair of Danish noblemen, Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstern, met the Bard during their stay in England in the 1590s. Anyway, word got out in London about the goings-on at Kronborg, the largest castle of its kind in Renaissance Europe. The town became famous as a cultural hub, the talk of sailors and royalty alike.

In 2000, Kronborg Castle was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take a virtual tour of the castle (currently closed because of COVID-19, as we are), here:

(An internationally renowned Shakespeare Festival is normally staged each summer.)


A lot takes place in the confines of Elsinore Castle, making Hamlet’s issues and angst even more pronounced. The girls, Gertrude and Ophelia, have their “closets” – AKA she sheds. Claudius has the private chapel.  And Hamlet, his bower (AKA man cave) up on the hill. These secluded spots are ripe for spying and perfect for delivering those passionate soliloquies.


After what I discovered in my quest to learn how Hamlet’s man cave was part of this watercolor’s story, Kronborg is now on my bucket list. And the fact that Denmark’s M/S Maritime Museum, is located there too, gives me another reason to visit (what do you say? A business trip – tax deduction?!). Be sure to check out this museum’s awesome architecture here:

‘Til next time, as Hamlet would say, remember, “The play’s the thing.”


References and more information:

“Hamlet at Kronborg – Castles and gardens – Royal castles,” kongeligeslotte.dk




World Heritage Center, whc.unesco.org




A Toy’s Surprising Maritime Connection

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Image credit: Roger McLassus

A lot of the research that is done to create an exhibit never makes it into the final product that visitors see in the museum.  The research eventually gets whittled down and fine-tuned until final decisions are made on the subject matter, story lines, artifacts, text and labels.  Many times the finished exhibit has very little in common with the original idea. So what happens to all that beautiful research that didn’t end up being used? It is saved in digital and paper files that are used to answer inquiries, create educational events and presentations, and as a starting point for other possible exhibits.  And in the case of our Toys Ahoy: A Maritime Childhood exhibit, the research files provides some great content for a blog post.

Initially some of the exhibit research looked for toys that were, or might have been, used on ships. As it turns out, Slinkys have ended up on military ships, private yachts and possibly even in the children’s nurseries on cruise ships. And the Slinky has another surprising maritime connection.

The idea for the Slinky toy began in 1943 when a mechanical engineer named Richard James was experimenting with springs. His goal was to find a way to stabilize and protect the delicate equipment on Navy ships from the rocking of the waves. One day he accidentally knocked one of his samples off a table and was surprised to see that the springs “walked” to the floor instead of falling. He may not have been too impressed, but when he told his wife Betty about the incident, they decided that the springs would make a great novelty toy. Which was a good idea because Richard’s experiments using springs to stabilize ship instruments failed to produce the results he wanted.

Richard experimented with different types of steel wire for about a year before he determined the perfect size, number of coils and how tightly they should be wound. He invented a device that could make one of the toys in just a few minutes and Betty consulted her dictionary to find the perfect name for their invention. She decided to call the toy a “Slinky” because it was graceful and sleek.

In 1945, they got a $500 loan and co-founded James Industries to mass produce the toys, but initial sales were slow. Their breakthrough came at Christmas that year after the couple got permission to demonstrate their Slinks on the end of a sales counter at Gimbal’s Department Store in Philadelphia. The Slinkys sold for $1 each and their entire stock of 400 toys sold out within 90 minutes.

Their business flourished, but by the 1950s Richard was somewhat uncomfortable with the material success they had achieved.   As time went on, Richard gradually lost interest in the business, and in 1960 he turned his attention to a religious cult in Bolivia and then left to join them. Years later, Betty would report that at the time Richard left, their business was a mess and they were on the verge of bankruptcy because Richard had given so much of his time and their money to the religion. In order to support her family, Betty had to become the driving force behind James Industries.

After several tough years, Betty decided to take a big risk in 1963, mortgaging their home and taking the Slinky to a toy show in New York to help revitalize her business. Her gamble paid off, renewing interest in the Slinky, and leading to the first TV commercials with the catch jingle “It’s Slinky, It’s Slinky. For fun, it’s a wonderful toy. It’s Slinky, It’s Slinky. It’s fun for a girl and a boy.” Under Betty’s leadership, James Industries also created other Slinky toys including the Slinky Train and the now famous Toy Story movie character Slinky Dog.

Since 1945, over 400 million Slinkys have been sold. Not only have they been to sea, they have been used as classroom teaching tools, in Physics experiments by NASA, and on radios during the Vietnam War because they were easily carried and could be tossed over tree branches, creating a longer antenna capable of producing a clear signal. And in 1985, a Slinky even took a trip into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery where astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon demonstrated the effects of zero gravity on the Slinky. As Dr. Seddon reported, Slinkys don’t “slink” in zero gravity.

And in case you wondered, the plastic version of the slinky was also originally a failed experiment for another product. It was invented by Donald Reum while trying to develop a spiral hose for watering plants. His kids pointed out the result looked more like a plastic Slinky than a hose. Reum agreed, so he perfected his prototype design, took it to Betty James and ended up manufacturing the plastic Slinkys for James Industries for a few years.

While we don’t have a Slinky in our museum collection, we all have a shared connection with the toy.  Because the Slinky has a connection to the water, and we are all connected to each other because we are all connected to the water, those of us who have played with Slinkys over the years are all connected, too. #iamaMariner

Thanks for reading!

Patten Down the Hatches!

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Image: National Portrait Gallery, Mary Ann Brown Patten 1857

We often hear about adventures at sea involving storms, mutinies, accidents, and illness. More often than not, the storyteller goes on to talk about the heroics of a crew member who is, usually, a man. But what if it were a woman? An amazing 19-year-old woman? A woman who happened to also be pregnant?

The story of Mary Patten was well known when it took place in the 19th century. It appeared in many newspapers because of the sheer novelty of the incident. Women in 19th-century society were considered the “weaker sex,” and whose sole purpose, in middle class America, was to support their husbands and families at home.  I grew up in New England and never heard a word about Mary. 

Mary Ann Brown was born in Boston, Massachusetts, into a large seafaring family. Her father George and mother Elizabeth immigrated from England before Mary was born, after they’d already had several children. George was a seaman by trade and several of his children also went into maritime-related work, including caulkers (if you don’t have caulkers, your ship sinks!).

Mary, at 16, married Captain Joshua Patten, originally from Rockland, Maine. As you can see from the document below, he was already listed as a Master Mariner at age 26! 

The clipper ship where our dramatic story took place was Neptune’s Car. It was launched in April 16,1853, from the Page & Allen shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia, for Foster & Nickerson of New York. It was the largest clipper ship ever built in the commonwealth. Clipper ships were commercially popular during this time as they made excellent speed which meant money for the investors. These ships were able to travel to Hong Kong and were able to sail from the east coast to California during the gold rush, carrying supplies and passengers. These ships were very profitable, although highly risky. 

Neptune’s Car left New York for San Francisco on October 15, 1853, and arrived February 9, making the run in 117 days under command of Captain Forbes. In 1854, it sailed from San Francisco to Singapore, then from Calcutta to New York in 109 days. These were record setting voyages.

Due to unforeseen problems with Captain Forbes of Neptune’s Car falling ill, Mary’s husband Joshua was signed on as the new captain of this fairly new ship. As they had only been married for a year, Mary joined Joshua aboard.  She was determined to be useful, reading all the books in the ship’s library, and teaching herself shipboard medicine and navigation. She also learned how to use sextants and compasses. The first trip went smoothly, but the second voyage in 1856 did not.

With this second journey on Neptune’s Car, there was a huge difference. Mary was 19 and pregnant with their first child. As always, because who doesn’t love a fun gamble, there were also several other clipper ships setting sail at the same time, for the same journey. It was considered a friendly little race, and two other ships that took part were Romance of the Seas and Intrepid. The winner could get a purse of anywhere from $1,000-$3,000!

Problems started immediately when the first mate broke his leg and couldn’t continue. There was a schedule to be kept so the company made Mr. Keeler the first mate. He ended up in irons for neglecting his duties. And I mean, REALLY neglecting his duties, including falling asleep during his watch, setting courses through reef beds, refusing to do tasks, and more. The second mate, Mr. Hare, had no experience in navigation. Joshua tried to fill both roles even while feeling ill upon the start of the journey. He soon was feverish and delirious. 

The greatest threat continued to be Mr. Keeler. He actually sent Mary a letter offering to act as captain if she would release him from the brig. He tried to get the crew to mutiny but thankfully, they refused. But the first mate had an ulterior motive and was not keeping to course. He argued with Mary and Joshua and said that he could not keep the ship headed to San Francisco. He continued trying to set the ship for Valparaiso, Chile. With $300,000 worth of cargo aboard the ship, the first mate was once again confined.(He was a big, huge jerk.) 

Just watch this video below. Can you possibly imagine being aboard the ship as it journeys around Cape Horn, with frigid waters washing over the deck? Mary spent 50 days, she later said, in the same clothes without undressing. One can only imagine her level of fear and worry, surrounded by a difficult crew and a very sick husband. She felt that she needed to be in command of the ship and know what was happening at all times. Joshua had developed pneumonia which only exacerbated his undiagnosed original ailment: tuberculosis meningitis. He spent the majority of the time completely out of touch with reality.

When the ship arrived in San Francisco, Mary stood at the helm and navigated the ship into port. Onlookers were stunned. She was an instant celebrity in the press due to her gender and what she had accomplished, something for which she was not prepared. Captain Joshua Patten happened to be a Mason and they received help from the California Masonic Temple, because he was so ill. They also received help getting back aboard a ship, George Law, that would take them to New York and on to Boston. 

Mary wrote a letter to the insurance company explaining what had happened during the journey. It was published in many newspapers (gotta love www.newspapers.com). Just like any other newspaper interview, many of the “facts” were wrong. She received a $1,000 bonus from the shipping line, but they refused to pay Joshua’s wages. It was only after public outcry that the insurance company even gave her that. Of course, being a 19th-century Victorian woman, she wrote to sincerely thank them and asked that they also give credit to the supportive crew members of  Neptune’s Car. A Boston newspaper set up a 19th-century style “go fund me” to defray the costs of caring for her very sick husband. Remember, she’s also pregnant with their first child during all of this. 

Unfortunately, Joshua never recovered. He died in July 1857 at the age of 30 at the McLean Asylum in Boston. He ended up blind, deaf, and completely incoherent at the end, and never even knew that Mary had given birth to their son, Joshua Patten Jr. 

Sadly, Mary never really recovered from the experience. By 1860 she too had contracted tuberculosis and on March 17, 1861, at the tender age of 23 years, 11 months, and 11 days, she died. Her entire life took place in just a few blocks in  Boston. No wonder she jumped at the opportunity to go to sea. She is buried in Boston next to her husband. 

As an aside, her son Joshua didn’t fare too well. He was raised by his maternal grandmother and as an adult, briefly lived with two of his uncles, making his money as a carriage painter. He then headed to his father’s homeland, Rockland, Maine, and was a laborer, living in the local Alms House (a nice name for the poor house). He died in a freak accidental drowning in 1900 at the age of 41. (I’m telling you, research is divine.)

Mary Patten isn’t completely unknown. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY,  opened a hospital that they christened Patten Hospital in memory of the “Florence Nightingale of the Ocean.” They gave her credit for keeping her husband, the Captain of the ship, alive during a perilous journey. She also goes down in history as the first American woman to captain a merchant vessel. I’m not sure what Mary’s 19th-century sensibilities would have thought of that!

The Forgotten Faces of the Titanic

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Image of the Titanic
Image courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park

When the tragic tale of Titanic is told, most tend to focus on the events of the sinking or its most  famous passengers, such as John Jacob Astor and Lucille and Cosmo Duff-Gordon. But among the thousands who sailed on that fateful voyage, there are dozens of passenger stories that are often overlooked. Passengers came from all over the world, including Mexico, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Haiti. Joseph Laroche and his family were among the 2,205 people aboard RMS Titanic.


At the age of 15 years, Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche left his home country of Haiti and travelled to France. While there, he met and fell in love with Juliette Lafargue and earned a degree in engineering. They later married and their daughters, Simone and Louise, were born within a two-year span. With mounting medical bills for Louise and the inability to find a job due to the racial discrimination that prevailed at the time, Joseph decided to move his family back to Haiti within a year. However, they discovered that Juliette was pregnant with their third child so they decided to leave early before she was too far along to travel. Joseph and his family originally had tickets aboard La France but later transferred to second class tickets aboard Titanic, due to a strict policy regarding children. So the Laroche family took the train from Paris to Cherbourg to board the ship that some called “practically unsinkable.”

Sadly on the night of April 15, 1912, Joseph Laroche was one of the many passengers who did not survive the sinking of RMS Titanic. Juliette and her daughters were rescued by the ship Carpathia and transported to New York City. The family later returned home to France where Juliette gave birth to a son, which she named Joseph, after his father.

The passenger liner Titanic sank 108 years ago. Compelling passenger stories such as this prove that its legacy will continue for generations to come.