Clipper Ship Era Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Booming trade with California, Australia, and China gave rise to the development of fast and beautiful seagoing vessels that greatly reduced long-distance travel times, but the era of clipper ships was cut short by changing economic forces and the rise of steam-powered ships.

Summary of Event

The creation of speedy, long-range sailing vessels was a product of the great ongoing expansion in world seaborne commerce that took place after 1830. Among the effects of the Industrial Revolution were a concentration of industry, large-scale shipment of raw materials from all over the world, and mass transportation of manufactured goods. Increased trade prompted increased demand for ships, especially large oceangoing vessels. Between 1830 and 1860, the tonnage of U.S. shipping alone increased nearly fivefold, from 1,191,776 to 5,353,868 tons. U.S. companies claimed more and more of the carrying trade in the North Atlantic, and eventually the Pacific and elsewhere. This was because of the lower shipbuilding costs in the United States and the use of packet lines, whose passenger boats carried mail and goods at regular intervals between pairs of ports. Clipper ships Shipbuilding;United States [kw]Clipper Ship Era Begins (c. 1845) [kw]Ship Era Begins, Clipper (c. 1845) [kw]Era Begins, Clipper Ship (c. 1845) [kw]Begins, Clipper Ship Era (c. 1845) Clipper ships Shipbuilding;United States [g]Australia;c. 1845: Clipper Ship Era Begins[2340] [g]China;c. 1845: Clipper Ship Era Begins[2340] [g]United States;c. 1845: Clipper Ship Era Begins[2340] [c]Transportation;c. 1845: Clipper Ship Era Begins[2340] [c]Trade and commerce;c. 1845: Clipper Ship Era Begins[2340] [c]Science and technology;c. 1845: Clipper Ship Era Begins[2340] Griffiths, John Willis McKay, Donald

U.S. companies had proven their abilities in the unique design and construction of larger and larger merchant ships. The next step was to build wooden sailing ships that would combine greater speed with large cargo capacities—concepts preceded by the earlier construction of packet ships. Many of the innovations needed for clipper ships required the available types and specific qualities of northeast woods and the tall trees of the northwest forests, the latter being utilized as masts and spars. Consequently, the United States was in a position to take the lead in producing such ships by 1840, largely through the technological leadership of a small number of dedicated and innovative naval architects and builders. Moreover, in the search for speed, they created perhaps the most beautiful ships ever to carry sail.

With a displacement of 4,555 tons and a deck length of 325 feet, the Great Republic was one of the largest clipper ships ever built.

(Library of Congress)

Earlier ships designed for the North Atlantic packet service, on which speed was highly valued, were the progenitors of the clippers. Earlier oceangoing vessels of all sizes were relatively squat and heavy in appearance, with rounded bows and deep keels. The desire for speed and the demand for passenger space in the packets stimulated construction of ships of greater length in proportion to width, and vessels with more extreme lines, sharper bow lines, and nearly flat bottoms. The development and construction of such ships commenced in 1821. This form of hull design first appeared on the Hudson River Hudson River;ships on run between New York and Albany, and later in the Dramatic Line ships built in 1836 and 1837. These highly efficient modified packets lowered the record for passage between New York and Liverpool by more than five days.

The so-called true clipper ships borrowed certain improvements from the packets and ideas from other types of vessels, such as the “Baltimore clipper.” The latter was characterized by a sharp bow, concave lines, and eventually a more pronounced tumble-home, in which the inward inclination of a vessel’s upper sides meant the upper deck was narrower than the main and lower decks. The Akbar, built by Samuel Hall Hall, Samuel of Boston for the China tea trade China;trade in 1839, the Ann McKim of Baltimore, also constructed in 1839, and several other ships built at about that time contained many of these modifications.

The first vessel with all the classic features of a clipper was the Rainbow, designed by John Willis Griffiths Griffiths, John Willis and built by a New York shipyard in 1845. A famous designer and writer on the subject of naval architecture, Griffiths, four years earlier had argued that the best design would combine the horizontal keel, flat floor, and greater ratio of length to width of the packets with the sharp bows and concave lines of Baltimore-designed vessels. His views proved to be correct, and the Rainbow, which was successfully employed in the China trade, where speed was essential, was the prototype clipper ship, although it was smaller and carried less canvas than later clippers. Considerable experimentation took place during the 1840’s in an effort to improve on the design of the Rainbow.

The golden days of the clipper ships began with the discovery of gold in California;gold rush Gold rushes;and clipper ships[Clipper ships] California California;and clipper ships[Clipper ships] and Australia, Australia;gold rush and the resulting clamor for large, fast passenger vessels to transport gold seekers to distant lands. Between 1848 and 1854, general prosperity and the continuing need for transportation to California, for which fabulous rates could be asked, made the demand for clippers appear inexhaustible. Between 1850 and 1853, some 200,000 to 300,000 tons of shipping were engaged in the California trade alone. Between 1843 and 1853, 270 clipper ships were built in the United States. At the rates they could command, these vessels could pay for themselves in a single voyage. Meanwhile, their hulls became narrower and their bows sharper, and they were given more and more sail. Some clippers carried masts reaching nearly two hundred feet above the deck.

The most famous clipper ship was the aptly named Flying Cloud. Flying Cloud Designed and built by Donald McKay, McKay, Donald the most famous marine architect of the period, and launched in 1851, the Flying Cloud was the epitome of the extreme clipper. Two hundred eight feet long, forty feet, eight inches in breadth, and displacing 1,783 tons, it carried almost thirteen thousand running yards of canvas. On its maiden voyage in 1854, the Flying Cloud made a one-day run of 374 miles and set a record of only eighty-nine days for the trip from Boston to San Francisco, by way of Cape Horn, Cape Horn that still stood for sailing ships in the 1990’s. Ordinary merchant ships took nearly two hundred days for the sixteen-thousand-mile voyage around the Horn. Other clippers startled the public by setting record after record on other routes. By the late 1850’s, many U.S. clippers were capable of sailing 250 nautical miles a day. In 1854, the Champion of the Seas traveled 465 nautical miles in a single twenty-four-hour period, at an average speed of nearly twenty knots.

Responding to the demand for greater clippers (caused by high building costs and the relative inefficiency of this type of ship), McKay McKay, Donald built the huge Great Republic Great Republic (4,555 tons) in 1853. Other large clippers also were constructed, although none so large as the Great Republic. Eventually, however, the supply of clippers outran demand; only on long voyages where speed was at a premium could they compete effectively with slower, higher-capacity merchant vessels. Mounting building costs were also a factor in their decline, so that by 1860, the era of the clipper ships had ended, although some historians see the end of the clipper era as coinciding with the opening of the Suez Canal Suez Canal in 1869.


The design and construction of clipper ships developed in response to the special economic demands of the 1840’s and 1850’s, after which the ships experienced a relatively rapid decline. A number of forces brought about their demise: the Panic of 1857, the Civil War (1861-1865), and the dramatic development of steam vessels. Improvements in transportation routes also made the speed of the clipper ships less important. During the late 1850’s, many passengers traveling between the East and West Coasts of the United States went by way of Central America Central America , crossing by land on improved routes and changing ships on the opposite coasts. In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal Suez Canal linked the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, making it unnecessary to circumnavigate Africa to travel between Europe and Asia. Slower but less-expensive sailing ships that could carry more passengers and more cargo were built instead of clipper ships, but the development of steamships Steamships;and clipper ships[Clipper ships] would eventually displace sailing ships almost completely.

The design and building of clippers brought preeminence in naval architecture to the United States and, for a brief time, gave U.S. merchants and entrepreneurs domination of overseas trade, particularly in the southern Pacific and some areas of Asia. The dramatically beautiful lines of the clippers—so named for their ability to “clip along”—and their fantastic speed under great clouds of sail excited the admiration of those who saw them. Thus 1845 to 1857, the time period when clipper ships flourished, has been termed the clipper ship era.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albion, Robert G. Square-Riggers on Schedule: The New York Sailing Packets to England, France, and Cotton Ports. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1938. This study of the packet ships that greatly influenced clipper design is a classic in its field.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chappelle, Howard Irving. The Baltimore Clipper. New York: Bonanza Books, 1930. A well-researched and profusely illustrated account of the origin of clipper ships.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. The Search for Speed Under Sail, 1700-1855. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. Authoritative and well-illustrated text on the development of sailing ships.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Arthur H. The Clipper Ship Era. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910. An informative history of U.S. merchant shipping and the origins of clipper ships, particularly the Ann McKim and the Rainbow.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crothers, William L. The American-Built Clipper Ship, 1850-1856: Characteristics, Construction, and Details. Camden, Maine: International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2000. Well-illustrated and remarkably detailed analysis of almost every aspect of the design and building of clipper ships.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Joe. A Furnace Afloat: The Wreck of the “Hornet” and the Harrowing 4,300-mile Voyage of Its Survivors. New York: Free Press, 2003. Dramatic story of the clipper ship Hornet, which caught fire and sank in the Pacific in 1866. Mark Twain happened to be in Hawaii when the ship’s survivors landed there, and the story on the Hornet that he wrote for a California newspaper helped to boost his career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKay, Richard C. Some Famous Sailing Ships and Their Builder, Donald McKay. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928. This book is typical of the memorial literature on clipper ships and their builders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whipple, A. B. C. The “Challenge.” New York: William Morrow, 1987. An informative and well-researched account of the Challenge and role of the captain’s wife, Eleanor Cressy, as a navigator. Illustrated and indexed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. The Clipper Ships. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980. Well-written history of the technological innovations and descriptions of many people associated with the various socioeconomic activities of clipper ships. Excellent illustrations.

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