During World War I, a Navy vessel ‘sailed’ the concrete of New York City for three years. The only water it ever encountered was from the sky and the city’s municipal water supply. The battleship, nicknamed “USS Neversail” and the “Street Dreadnaught,” was officially christened USS Recruit.
This recruiting poster depicts Recruit proudly steaming through the waves, leading other vessels in its wake. In reality, Recruit was constructed, commissioned, manned, decommissioned, and dismantled without ever touching an ocean. Yet despite being landlocked, the ship played an important role during World War I.Read more
Several years ago, I first learned of USS Mayflower, a presidential yacht. I was studying about the 1905 Portsmouth Peace Conference at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine. I was curious but didn’t have time to delve into the ship’s history.
Since then, I keep “bumping into” stories about this ship as I study and learn more about other topics. I read Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the sinking of Lusitania and then read more about Woodrow Wilson’s relationship with Edith Bolling Galt. Turns out, they spent much of their time getting to know one another while on board USS Mayflower.
Due to the pandemic last year, most of the Mariners’ team worked remotely from home. My projects included cataloging works on paper — mostly plates removed from books, but there were also paintings. One collection was by the artist Carlton Chapman, a correspondent for Harper’s Weekly magazine during the Spanish-American War in 1898. I seriously appreciate his work because he labeled the artwork with the names of the locations and the ships in each scene! He is a hero of a museum cataloger’s heart.
A few days ago, I was in collections storage with guests when they asked about a framed flag hanging on a rack. I looked up the accession number, and sure enough, it’s from USS Mayflower. Well, alright already, I’ll write a blog about it! And here we are.
The Early Years
Mayflower began life in 1896 as a pleasure yacht of wealthy (to put it mildly) businessman Ogden Goelet. The ship began hosting parties for royal dignitaries even before construction was officially completed. On August 8, 1897, The World newspaper reported, “Mr. Goelet’s Mayflower is not yet finished and is merely moored in the roadstead as a hotel for himself and his party.” The article goes on to say, “He has not been entertaining largely,” except for a list of kings, princes, princesses, dukes, duchesses, lords, marquises, and a viscount. You know, just a few friends.
Sadly, Goelet did not get to enjoy his new yacht for very long. He passed away on board the yacht just a few weeks later, on August 27, 1897. He had been sick for an extended time, and The Daily Republican reported, “It is believed that the strain which Mr. Goelet underwent while entertaining guests at Cowes during the recent yachting events contributed considerably towards his death.” They must have been quite some parties!
The interior of Mayflower was, in a word, extravagant. “It is furnished more like a Fifth avenue mansion that [sic] a ship’s cabin, containing as it does a piano, settees, lounges, writing tables, etc. The work is executed in oak, carved and painted white in Louis XVI style. Adjoining this apartment is a stairway which leads to six commodious staterooms for guests. Next to these is the library, finished in oak in Louis XV style and containing 2,000 volumes.”
War and Peace
With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War the US Navy purchased Mayflower from the Goelet estate. The yacht joined Admiral Sampson’s squadron at the Havana harbor, capturing prize ships, firing on other ships, and helping to uphold the blockade. After the war, Mayflower served as Admiral Dewey’s flagship and then became a presidential yacht.
You can view images of Carlton Chapman’s published paintings about the war here.
In August 1905, USS Mayflower took part in another piece of international history: the Portsmouth Peace Treaty. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 had become a bit of a stalemate, and President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in to try and negotiate peace.
The Russian and Japanese envoys first met on board USS Mayflower in Oyster Bay, off the coast of Long Island near Roosevelt’s home. From there, they sailed separately to Kittery, Maine, with the Russians on USS Mayflower and the Japanese on USS Dolphin. The groups stayed at the Hotel Wentworth in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the negotiations continued at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery. Mayflower hosted social events as the negotiations proceeded. Thankfully, the two countries reached a consensus, ending the war and earning Roosevelt a Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.
You can learn more about USS Mayflower‘s role in the Portsmouth Peace Treaty here, and about Roosevelt’s Nobel Prize here.
USS Mayflower was commissioned, decommissioned, and recommissioned several times in its lifetime and served as host to numerous diplomats. After WWI a fire in 1921 couldn’t slow the ship down for long. The ship participated in WWII, escorting ships and keeping an eye out for German submarines along America’s coastline.
The End of the Legacy
In 1948 the ship carried Jewish refugees from Marseilles to Haifa, Israel, and then later served in the Israeli Navy. It was broken up in 1955 after nearly 60 years at sea, including three wars.
It is surprising that when I run across similar histories in several different states and museums, those histories have so many shared maritime connections. After all, we truly are all connected by the world’s waters, making us all Mariners!
When the United States Navy’s Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia needed to ramp up their labor force in early 1918, it began to train and employ women. According to William F. Trimble, author of Wings for the Navy: A History of the Naval Aircraft Factory, 1917-1956, the factory’s first female factory worker was Marion Elderton, already on staff as a secretary. That transition happened in December of 1917, and by June of 1918, the labor force included 218 women. One year later (Dec.1918), NAF female employment reached 890, which was 24.5% of the work force.
Yes-they were referred to as girls
Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect that the writer of the captions on these photographs was male, perhaps referencing the novelty of the subject. Trimble’s use of female and women is fitting for 1990, the time of his publication. Not so in 1918, when women were still fighting for the right to vote.
My mental picture when I see the word “girl” is a pre-teen. Luckily, that is not what the Navy’s caption writer meant. Check out the faces in these photographs and count how many of them fit “girl” in your mind’s eye.
But, I digress. We’re reflecting on the unprecedented opportunities women were given as part of the war effort. That these women were trusted with building aircraft is a testament to their value.
Here, a “girl” is in the process of painting a flying boat, the Curtiss Model F-5-L. The NAF’s assembly line approach increased efficiency dramatically.
Some things haven’t changed
Although many tasks were less demanding, skilled work performed at the NAF by women included drill press operation and machinist positions.
Women worked the same forty-nine hour workweek as men, but were paid less, based on the assumption that “their output had not equaled” that of their male counterparts (Trimble, pg. 32). The Navy attempted to compensate women in other ways, such as expanding restrooms and adding female nurses.
The bottom line: these female factory workers were trailblazers as well as patriots. By wedging themselves into this male-dominated field, they proved that women were capable of much more than had been expected of them in 1918.
Trimble, W. F. (1990). Wings for the Navy: A History of the Naval Aircraft Factory, 1917-1956. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute.
In the spirit of Halloween I searched the collection looking for something unique to share. I came across a small candy tin with two ships on the lid. The name across the front said Riley’s Rum and Butter (Flavoured) Toffee, which sounded fun so I started to research.
The British company had fairly humble beginnings on a mother’s dining room table. Ellen Riley was born in 1848 to William and Mary Ann Bates. She worked as a dressmaker until she married John Henry Riley on August 7, 1872. John Henry was a woolstapler, meaning that he sorted and traded wool between the producers and the manufacturers. It kind of sounds like he was a middleman to sort out the details and grade the wool for sale. They had two sons, Frederick William and John Herbert Riley. John Herbert became a bank clerk and Fred initially followed in his father’s footsteps working as a woolstapler by 1901. Those career plans changed a few years later.
Around 1905 Fred and John sat down at Ellen’s table and devised a plan: use their mother’s recipe to create a company. By 1907 they began making the toffee from home, and eventually bought a factory as their success grew. They packaged their candies in decorative tins, which they sold around England.
By the time of World War I the company sold candies around the world, with newspapers in 1916 proclaiming “Xmas in the Trenches! What Will it Hold for Your Lad in Khaki?” The care packages they advertised included various assortments of cigarettes, gum, tobacco, Cadbury’s Chocolates, cigars, and packets of Riley’s Toffee. (See a theme there?)
One Canadian ad in 1917 announced, “We, therefore, strongly advise those who have become attached to this delicious cream toffee,” to make their order now because no additional shipments would be leaving England until after the war. The ad listed Riley’s Rum and Butter as available and a roll of toffee sold for 45 cents per pound.
In April 1918 the Halifax Evening Courier printed a column which declared, “you cannot enter a house in France or Belgium without finding that the coffee and sugar are kept in ‘Mackintosh’ or ‘Riley’ toffee tins. In many houses these tins are the only ornaments to be seen, except the family crucifix.”
I found this very interesting because you often hear stories of care packages sent to soldiers and sailors with toothpaste and deodorant. When the history mentions sweets the focus is usually on chocolate, whether from Mars, Hershey, or Cadbury. The excitement over toffee is not as large a part of the narrative, though clearly both the soldiers and families at home valued the toffee and their tins during the war years.
Riley Brothers survived the war and was able to continue on even after the death of Fred in March 1922 while on a trip to Germany. Through WWII the company continued to ship their toffees all over the world, and remained family operated until the death of John in 1953 when the company changed hands. It then passed through several owners until Kraft (the American company) bought it and discontinued the toffees in the mid-1990s.
That could have been the end, but no! Kraft allowed the intellectual property rights to expire, and that’s when Freya Sykes stepped up. Her grandmother, Ella Riley, had given her a cookbook and in it Freya discovered a handwritten recipe. It was the original recipe Ella wrote down for her uncles’ toffee rolls. Freya won the intellectual property rights and in 2009 opened her own company, Ella Riley’s Traditional Sweet Shop, in Wales. As with many small companies in 2020, it appears that the resurgence was brief and their website now only tells the history of the toffee. However, it is exciting to know that the family has the recipe and maintains interest in the tasty history.
The tins that contained the early toffees were very unique, showing stylized alphabets, fairy tales, royal families, astronauts, and numerous other fanciful scenes. One tin even made a Hollywood appearance in the film version of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” when Dumbledore removes a tin from Tom Riddle’s burning wardrobe.
The tin in our collection features two ships at sea. The sail of one features three lions, and the other has the letters RB (Riley Brothers) intertwined together. In this case the water connects us all, but so does candy!
Thomas Catlett Skinner’s office was a loft overlooking the dry dock at the Newport News shipyard. Frequently he would gather his tools and wander through the yard, stopping to observe and document the many scenes unfolding before him. A vat of molten steel. Red hot metal beams being bent into shape. Yards of canvas transformed into sails. The welcome respite of a lunch break. The intensity of a foreman’s face. A ship being refitted for the next voyage. Scenes that were rarely seen by anyone outside the shipyard and activities that many people never knew existed.
Skinner’s tools were paint, pencils, canvas and paper. His loft workspace shook with the unending pounding from riveting hammers and vibrations from heavy machinery. And when he set up his easel beside the piers, dry docks and workers, he was surrounded by noise and dirt and exposed to the fickleness of the weather. Yet despite the adversity, he created amazing drawings and paintings that transport the viewer back in time. His body of work contains striking, colorful images that make it easy to imagine all the noises in the shipyard, the sound and feeling of waves acting on a ship and the harsh sounds of battle. Today, as part of our 90th Anniversary celebration, we take a look at the Mariners’ Museum staff artist, Thomas Skinner, some of his work, and its importance.
The Early Years
Thomas Skinner probably never imagined that one day he would end up in a shipyard. Born in Kittawa, Kentucky in 1888, he spent most of his childhood in Waynesville, North Carolina. From an early age, he was almost always seen with a pencil and sketch pad in hand, drawing whatever caught his fancy, and his parents were very supportive. So when the time came for the family to move back to Kentucky, they probably weren’t surprised that Thomas decided he wanted to head to New York City to study art.
He arrived in New York at the right time. An informal group of artists who called themselves the Ashcan Painters or the “Ash Can School” was in its heyday. Their tongue-in-cheek name was a dig at the numerous ‘schools of art’ in New York and a description of the group’s subject matter, gritty, realistic portrayals of street life and the city’s inhabitants. Paintings that didn’t romanticize, but showed it all, the ash cans on the sidewalks, prostitutes, street urchins, mud, and even the horse dung in the streets. The work by these artists dubbed “New York Realists” and his travels in Europe to study realistic paintings by Dutch and French artists with Ash Can painter Robert Henri would highly influence Skinner’s own work.
At 26 years of age, and while in Paris in 1914, Skinner married French artist Therese Louise Desiree Tribolati. He brought her back to his home in New York City that August. He continued to work on his art during the war years, exhibiting and selling some pieces for the commercial market and magazine covers. One of his paintings, an impressionistic depiction of flags flying from the porches of a row of houses, was shown in the prestigious Allied War Exhibition in 1918. This non-juried show, which was organized by well-known art collector Duncan Phillips, didn’t offer any prize money, but being included as one of the featured artists did serve as recognition of Skinner’s talent and exposed more of his work to the public. That same year, Skinner would be called up for military duty at the end of the war. He spent his entire military career (September 1918 to March 1919) at Camp Hancock in Georgia. The camp served as an airfield and a training facility for National Guard troops before they were sent overseas. Skinner achieved the rank of private First Class but what his job entailed appears to have been lost to time, and if he spoke of his military service to friends and fellow veterans, that information apparently never made it into articles or his biographical information. After his return from service, Skinner decided to study at one of the “schools of art” in New York and attended the well-known Arts Students League from 1920-1921 and at some point he also attended the National Academy of Design.
The Shipyard Years
In 1930, Skinner was asked by his brother-in-law, Homer L. Ferguson, to move to Newport News and serve as the staff artist for the newly opened Mariners’ Museum. Ferguson, married to Skinner’s sister Eliza, was President of the Newport News Shipyard and the museum’s first Director. He tasked Skinner with creating art for the museum, while at the same time documenting the scenes at the yard. Was the job offer made because of any financial issues the Skinner’s might have been having? Was it influenced by Archer Huntington who was an avid art collector and step-son of the shipyard’s founder? That is unknown, but what did happen, whether or not it was Ferguson’s intent, was that the drawings and paintings Skinner created served to promote not only America’s industrial might, but also the prosperity of the shipyard. Both noble causes for a country in the midst of the Great Depression, citizens who were desperately looking for hope for the future and their own lives, and the local community who relied heavily on the shipyard as an employer. It is difficult to determine whether Skinner’s salary was paid by the shipyard, the museum, or both institutions, but years later his 1942 World War II draft card lists both institutions as his employers.
When he began work at the shipyard, Skinner was still finding his way artistically. His style was still evolving but it was becoming more and more influenced by what he saw around him. The grit, sounds, smells, and industrial scenes, that didn’t lend themselves to an impressionistic or romantic interpretation, began to take over, harkening back to his Ash Can School influences. The longer he would work there, the more the style took over his artistic vision.
He was not only documenting what he saw at the yard, he was also producing paintings of each type of aircraft carriers the yard built. His first and second of these paintings were of the first carrier completed, showing the USS Ranger shortly before her christening in June of 1934. Skinner created two different paintings so the Captain and Executive Officer could choose which one they wanted displayed on the ship. It took him only six weeks to do the preliminary sketches and complete both paintings, and they were stylistically very different. The one rejected by the officers had bold colors, a more industrial look and more focus on the shipyard workers and equipment in the foreground. The other was a more romantic depiction of the ship with a delicate, but still accurate view as fog partially obscuring the pier and the workers. Shipyard workers created a gold painted wooden frame for the painting that had corners carved to look like rope and the wood stamped with the Naval Aviation and Naval Observation insignia. Skinner’s ‘rejected’ painting of the Ranger was put in the museum’s collection in 1934.
It is easy to imagine Skinner developing a fondness for each of the ships as he watched them being built, launched, christened, and then sent out to sea. Possibly even feeling like he shared a small part in their creation. But during World War II, he saw some of those ships leave and never return. Skinner’s 1937 painting of the USS Yorktown shows the aircraft carrier in her full glory, plowing through the waves. The ship was lost during the Battle of Midway in 1942.
The same thing would happen to some of the workers he stood beside, spoke to, and painted. Men like him, who sometimes carried a bottle of beer to work in their lunch bag to help beat the oppressive heat in the yard. In 1947 Skinner created his Memorial Mural, a three panel, 23 foot long and 6 foot high painting dedicated to the 28 shipyard apprentices who lost their life during WWII. Battle scenes take up a large portion of the mural, but the right side depicts a soldier mourning a flag-covered coffin and the left side features a young apprentice amid his tools, holding his draft notice and looking out into the yard. The names of the 28 apprentices are included on the mural.
Although he would still do other types of work like portraits and some nursery rhyme wall murals for a children’s nursery on a passenger liner, Skinner had become known both locally and beyond as a prominent and very talented maritime artist. Locally, his works were featured in the museum, in shipyard ceremony programs and on the cover of shipyard and apprentice school publications. Nationally, they appeared in newspapers, magazine articles and books. When the museum decided to create prints of some of his paintings and drawings to sell in the gift shop, these versions of his artwork found their way around the globe and some still turn up in auctions today.
For the museum, Skinner also created a series of large, colorful murals that give an unprecedented look at the shipyard in the 1930s and its workers. The 14 paintings range between 10 and 12 feet long and slightly over 6-1/2 feet tall. The bright color and layers of paint Skinner used for texture and depth give these works a gritty and honest look, showing the sweat, straining, and the power of the shipyard and the builders. Skinner’s depiction of the shipyard’s 50,000 square foot Machine Shop shows the space full of immense tools like lathes and drill presses and boring machines. A perfect example of why the shop was considered the largest, most expensive, and best equipped shop of its kind in the country. His depiction of the shipyard foundry looks so realistic, the viewer expects to feel the heat of the molten metal being poured in the molds.
Also in the museum’s collection are 51 tiny pencil sketches on simple brown paper that Skinner may have used to experiment with potential subjects, line placements, shading and highlighting before he created the larger works. The smallest of these sketches measures about 2 inches wide and 2 inches high and the largest is about 5-1/2 inches long and 2 inches high. Despite their tiny sizes, each is meticulously executed and incredibly detailed.
Outside the Shipyard
Skinner appears to have been a modest or very private individual, or perhaps both. All accounts of him speak highly of his artistic talent and his individual works, but little else. Newspaper articles about his brother who was a local lawyer and his sister Mrs. Homer Ferguson sometimes included a few tidbits of information about him or his childhood. And occasionally there were society column briefs that stated Skinner and his wife were traveling or hosting various relatives at their home. His obituary, where one would expect to read all his accolades, was also very succinct. And no information could be found that stated how long he worked at the yard. But it does appear that Skinner was actively painting right up until his death in 1955 at the age of 66.
Perhaps it is more fitting that Skinner’s works are his accolades and speak for him. That they describe him best. The individual brushstrokes and the pencil lines that offer a view through his eyes of a shipyard, men, and wartime loss. The areas on his paintings where he put thick layers of paint to suggest a weathered beam or worn wood. The grit, the sounds and the smells in our imaginations, and the ships. The museum’s first, and only, staff artist during our 90 year history left an incredible legacy that has been enjoyed since we opened and will continue be enjoyed and appreciated by researchers and visitors far into the future. A legacy that allows us to celebrate our shipbuilding past and the shipbuilders that made it possible.
Thank you for being part of our 90 years and thanks for reading.