Ship in a bottle, late 19th century, England, glass, wood, paper, paint, the handiwork of a sailor
The Seaman's Craft
This exhibition opened to the public on January 4, 2004
Curator: Avshalom Zemer
Sailing the oceanic routes between continents began in the 16th century, and became even more prevalent during the 17th century. Voyages were very long, apart from the relatively short runs in the Mediterranean Sea. However, even in the latter case, it can be assumed that a seaman working aboard a sailing vessel did not have much in the way of leisure time. Sailing ships, especially those made of wood, require constant maintenance - scraping, painting, polishing, setting or furling sails, sewing and patching, mending tackle. The tasks connected with life on board also required attention - cooking, washing dishes, cleaning decks and cabins, laundry, watches at the wheel and in the crow's nest. The salt water, together with the effects of winds and sun created constant wear and tear in a sailing vessel, so that a large crew was needed, both to maintain the ship and for economic profit.
Mariners were ambivalent about the sea - they loved its wildness even while they hated and feared it. The sea carries and supports, the sea is cruel and destructive. With all their ruggedness, the sailors had a sharp eye, were very aware of conditions and of their perilous existence. Tough experience formed the character of the average seaman - stubborn and practical, expressing himself simply and naively in his handicrafts.
The seaman openly took great pride in his profession, willingly and dedicatedly performing the tasks assigned to him. In spite of the never-ending work aboard ship, each member of the crew managed to find a little spare time, a few hours a day, for leisure activities. With time, several types of handicraft became popular, clearly identifiable as "mariners' crafts". These traditional items are mainly decorative, the sailors' pride, and are today coveted by collectors. They have been fashioned with great skill, and were long in the making. Raw materials were to hand on board, usually those needed for the purpose of the vessel, such as gear for whale hunting.
Costly materials were rarely used - no rare metals or precious stones. Ivory and mother-of-pearl, though expensive and always in demand, were also accessible to the sailor since he could acquire them either for a very small payment or free of charge. Typical materials included: wood from the ship's stores or driftwood from the sea, sailcloth, rope and cord, straw from mattresses, shells, bones of fish or other marine creatures, leather, feathers, horn, ivory from elephants, whale teeth, hippopotamus and walrus tusks. Tools were also available aboard ship or among the sailor's own gear.
The various arts and crafts include: model ships, carvings from wood or tusks, or embellishing personal items, scrimshaw (engraved horn or tusks), and decorative, complicated rope knots. The rope work was also used to decorate areas of the vessel and personal equipment - an applied art.
Tattooing - an art in itself - has always been identified with the mariner. Encounters with populations in different parts of the world, as well as the influence of Christian and other beliefs integrated in the sailor's tradition, all this has given rise to the characteristic tattoo motifs of the mariner.
The popularity of the seamen's crafts and the interest of collectors have given rise to a new "industry" - creating memorabilia in this style, which are usually less practical but no less popular. These artifacts are sold in harbours and ports, as in the past, by peddlers, and today also in stores specializing in such merchandise. Countries undergoing economic problems, such as Italy after the Second World War, use the souvenir industry to improve their economy, since raw materials are cheap, methods are traditional, and the work force needs no basic training. Souvenirs include conch or other shells, often carved with seascapes or views of harbours, examples of rope work, miniature reproductions of ships' tackle - anchors, lamps, beacons - and statuette groups constructed from discarded instruments, either full-size or to scale.