People have always liked collecting pieces of things, fragments from some bigger moment in history. They’re found in gift shops all over the world from Berlin to Alcatraz. I’m no exception, during a trip to San Francisco I purchased a rock from “The Rock” to help fund an ongoing restoration. The KHS even has a few architectural fragments in our collection. But this piece of history was not torn from a building, it was stripped from a ship.
The USS Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel afloat. It’s also the only active ship in the U.S. Navy to have sunk an enemy ship. Constitution was launched in 1797 and named by George Washington after one of this country’s founding documents. Constitution first saw combat in the First Barbary War. However, she gained her reputation during War of 1812 against the United Kingdom. It was during a battle against the HMS Guerriere that she earned her nickname of “Old Ironsides”, as well as the public’s love. During the American Civil War she was used as a training ship.
Years later she was retired from active service in 1881. Today, Constitution is a floating museum under the Naval History & Heritage Command, but she is still crewed by active sailors of the U.S. Navy. Her mission is to promote understanding of the Navy’s role in war and peace efforts. The USS Constitution Museum’s website has much more information about the ships history.
Constitution is still afloat largely due to public support. In 1830 a false newspaper article claimed the navy was going to scrap her. Two days later Oliver Wendell Holmes published a poem in support of the ship that sparked a public outcry. Within a few years the Navy began the first of many repairs and refitting’s. Unfortunately, her sister ship Congress was unceremoniously scraped in 1835.
Souvenirs from Constitution have long been a favorite of the public beginning with her first major overhaul in 1833 in the Charlestown Navy Yard. The commander at the time, Captain Isaac Hull, ordered all of the wood and copper removed from Constitution during the restoration sent to Washington D.C. to be fashioned into memorabilia. Canes, boxes and other trinkets were sent to friends and public officials throughout the U.S. The most sought after pieces were made from the ships copper sheathing.
Constitution’s 1927-1931 restoration was the first time fragments of the ship were made available to the public and sold as ashtrays, bookends, and plaques to help fundraise for her repair work. It was during this restoration that our fragment, a piece of wood with a copper plaque was created. The USS Constitution Museum now collects these souvenirs and wrote an interesting blog post about them last year.
Currently, Constitution is in dry dock undergoing another restoration (2015-2017). If you want to own a piece of history the museum is selling medallions cast from the ship’s recently removed copper hull.
Unfortunately, our souvenir was lost in our collection until recently. It may have been donated in the 1980s, but other than that we don’t know much about it and can’t establish a connection to Kenilworth so it might have to walk the plank. Unless we can find more information on this piece it will become a prime candidate for deaccessioning.
Our mission statement and collection’s plan keep our collection in shipshape and insure we only collect artifacts related to Kenilworth’s history. Without these rules our collection would lack direction and meaning. Sometimes you have to let an interesting piece of history go. but we always find a better home for pieces that are removed from our collection. Maybe it’s time we ship this artifact back home, USS Constitution Museum might want to add it to their collection.