The origins of the ship’s
figurehead lie in the
early days of seafaring. They were originally used as religious symbols to
protect the ship, and to express the sailors’ belief that the ship was a
living being. It was also beleived that the ship needed eyes to find its way in
navigating the ocean.
The ancient Egyptians used figureheads
provide both protection and vision by mounting figures of holy birds on the
prows. Phoenicians used the heads of horses to symbolise vision and swiftness. The ancient Greeks
had a boars’s head to represent vision and ferocity. Roman ships often carried
a carving of a centurion to signify their elite fighting
ability. All these figureheads were mounted on or carved directly onto the
stem of the ship with the general practice introduced with the galleons of the 16th century. The figurehead
as we know it today could not come to be until ships had an
actual stemhead structure on which to place it. With the
addition of a bowsprit on ships, the position of the figurehead
was changed to beneath the bowsprit.
Later, the purpose of the figurehead was
often to indicate the name of the ship in a non-literate society, and in
the case of war ships, to demonstrate the importance and might of
the owner. After the Napoleonic wars they made something of a comeback,
but were then often in the form of a small waist-up bust rather than the
oversized full figures previously used. The clipper ships of the 1850s and
1860s customarily had full figureheads, but these were moderate size and
light. On smaller vessels, a nonfigural carving, most often a curl of
foliage called a billethead was installed.
Figureheads as such died out with the military sailing
ship. Early steamships did sometimes have gilt scroll-work and
coats-of-arms at their bows. This practice lasted up until about World War I.
The 1910 German liner SS Imperator originally sported a large bronze
figurehead of an eagle (the Imperial German symbol) standing on a globe.
It is still
common practice for warships to carry ships' badges, large plaques mounted on the superstructure
with a unique design relating to the ship's name or role.
For example, the USS McCampbell, DDG 85, an Arleigh Burke destroyer which is named after
David McCampbell, the Navy's highes ranking Ace of WW II, carries her
coat of arms badge on the forward smoke stack.
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