Ship's decanters

SHIP’S DECANTERS - antique and modern

Decanters - those with very wide bases, today known as ‘ship’s decanters’, (ship and or ships’ are also seen), or if you live west of the Atlantic Ocean, occasionally as ‘captain’s decanters’, have been popular for well over 200 years. In recent times, almost all well-known glass manufacturers have made decanters, with very wide bases, although they have often given them proprietary names with no mention of ships. Indeed, the expression ‘ship’s decanter’ or its alternatives, appears to be missing from the Oxford English Dictionary, Chambers’, Collins, Webster’s and others - even the Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts. Despite this, the expression seems to be in common parlance both in the UK and US and ‘ship’s decanter’ seems to be widely recognised around the English-speaking world (see eBay, Auctioneers’ catalogues, dealers’ descriptions etc.) since at least the 1920s. So perhaps the first issue to address is when did the epithet ‘ship’s decanter’ come into use and what was it called before that.

A great many names for objects which have been referred to as ‘antiques’ (but that, too, is a word that has shifted its meaning considerably over the years) were acquired early in the 20th century when the antiques trade established itself. ‘Grandfather clocks’, ‘bachelor chests’, ‘cotton twist glasses’ and many more items were given names they never had when they were made; it was all part of a trend to label things with easy-to-remember tags for a new buying public as antiques became fashionable. The problem is that such haphazard nomenclature has blurred the history of these things. And once the name of an object such as ‘ship’s decanter’ is accepted, it is hard to reverse. Perhaps we should accept ship’s decanter, if only because almost everyone seems to know what one is and any alternatives create confusion or blank stares of ignorance.

Not only do ship’s decanters look stable; they certainly are, but they offer more than just stability; they allow wine to ‘breathe’ better than standard decanter models, and for this reason they are promoted by the modern wine accessory business as ideal for serious wine aficionados. They have proved very appealing to the market and antique versions have other attributes, too.

The precise date when ship’s decanters made their first appearance is not known, but what is known, is that they were called ‘Rodneys’ in the 1780s. It was fashionable at the time for decanters of different shapes to be called after naval heroes - Nelson gave his name to decanters with cylindrical bodies after his famous battle of Trafalgar in 1805 - and Admiral Rodney was feted for his success over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of the Saintes (April 1782). ‘Rodney’ is a term still occasionally used, but apparently now confined only to dealers in antique glass and collectors. As an aside, there was much controversy over whether or not Rodney acted with competence following the victory, as he should have chased the enemy out of the Caribbean and captured it. He was, nevertheless, ennobled. The French and Spanish fleets originally had set out to take Jamaica, but at least he thwarted that objective. Another source avers that they were called Rodneys following his defeat of the Spanish at Cape St. Vincent in 1780. Notwithstanding the symantics/etymology, for the remainder if this essay, the broad bottomed decanter will be called a ‘ship’s decanter’.

Ship’s decanters pose several questions to anyone who has an inquisitive mind. Were they really used on ships? Do they have common features? When is a shape considered to be ‘ship’s, and at what point in the evolution of shape (as all decanters are wider at the base than the top) does it cease to be a ship’s decanter? How popular were they? Do they have any characteristics not found on other decanters? When were they reproduced and in what numbers?

Perhaps the first question to address should be “were they really intended for use at sea?”, stability being a crucial attribute. The most obvious observation has to be that having a broad base lends stability to any decanter, but even a very broad-based decanter would not be safe in a gale, or even a mild wind in a sailing ship without some form of support or restriction to prevent it sliding over the edge of a table. Anyone who has been anywhere in a sailing ship - and all vessels were sail-powered until the mid-late 19th century - will know that stowage is very important on board. Tables have galleried edges, and all stowage areas have means of keeping bottles, and other containers secure.

There is a well-known cartoon of 1818 by George Cruikshank which shows a decanter and glasses suspended from the ceiling of the captain’s cabin of an East Indiaman. They are on a small tray, while the many occupants are in a state of pandemonium resulting from the precarious angle of the deck. No doubt, as a cartoon, there is a considerable amount of ‘artistic licence’, but the principle of maintaining horizontality is clearly demonstrated. It is noteworthy, however, that in the cartoon, the decanter does not have a very broad base, and looks to be a standard model of the time (or perhaps as much as 10 years previously). There appear to be no extant drawings, prints or paintings of ship’s decanters in use at sea during the late 18th or early 19th centuries and very few, if any. of them in use in a domestic situation.

There are a small number of ship’s decanters with firm naval connections. For example the Berkeley magnum ship’s decanter (pls. 132 & 133, ‘The Book of Wine Antiques’, Butler & Walkling, ACC, 1986) and another engraved R and G flanking an anchor - referring to the Royal George lost at Spithead in August 1782. These two decanters, and there are others, indicate their naval origins and might suggest that they may have been made for use at sea, but this is far from conclusive evidence that they were. Moreover, there are several documented cases of landlubbers buying them when they were new (pp. 254-255 ‘The Decanter, an Illustrated History of Glass from 1650’, McConnell, ACC, 2004,).

From extant examples and written evidence, it can be deduced that ship’s decanters were first made in the 1770s or possibly the early 1780s. A comparison between them and other decanters made at the same time is useful. The actual quality of the glass - the ‘metal’ - is generally better in ship’s decanters than that found in other models. Writing on the subject of ship’s decanters, the prolific, mid-20th century writer on antiques, G. Bernard Hughes is quoted as saying that they were ‘often made in ‘double flint’ that was ‘extra strong metal prepared in small pots and heated for longer than normal’ and that in 1780 such glass was described as ‘fairer and more nice metal, fit for the nicest works’.

A more compelling argument is decanter weights. Compared with those of other models, ship’s decanters tend to be markedly heavier, indeed like for like, they tend to be twice as heavy as standard models. At a time when glass was sold by weight it is clear that ship’s decanters were considered by glass-makers to be their best. This can be construed as a neat confirmation of Hughes’s argument.

In a recent small survey, eight decanters dating from between c.1775 and c.1820 of standard forms (taper, ‘Indian club’, ‘Nelson’ and ‘Prussian’) had an average weight of just over 750 grams (1lb.,11 oz.), while the average weight of nine ship’s decanters of a similar date range was nearly 1,400 grams (over 3lb.). Each was of full-bottle size. Indeed one ship’s decanter in the survey weighed 1,571 grams while one of the others weighed only 491 grams. The heaviest ordinary decanter weighed 1,095 grams while the lightest ship’s decanter weighed 1,193 grams. Presumably it was felt that heavier decanters, that is those made from thicker glass, were more robust than other models and thus more likely to survive a fall. It is certainly indicative of higher quality particularly at a time when materials were a higher percentage of overall cost than the labour to make them and decanters were originally sold by weight. Also the very shape of a ship’s decanter gives a higher ratio of surface to volume, and hence a greater weight.

For the purposes of this essay, a scientific analysis of the glass used in their making has not been undertaken and so a comparison with co-eval decanters has not been possible.

The question of when a ship’s decanter ceases to fall into that category and becomes simply ‘a decanter’ is one that has exercised the minds of many. There is a certain cachet with the name ‘ship’s decanter’ which has a ring of romanticism and the antiques trade has been very keen to ascribe the epithet wherever possible, because it gives added value. There is no empirical formula which dictates one decanter passes the ship’s decanter test, while another fails; there is no ratio of height to width forming a boundary line although some have been attempted.

There are a good many decanters which fall into a group somewhere between what definitely are, and what are probably not, ship’s decanters. As has already been said, the antiques trade, always gifted in applying terms and phrases to their merchandise to romanticise, glorify, or promote what they have to sell, whether justified or not, has termed the in-between category as ‘semi-ship’s’ decanters. This vague approach to nomenclature is not helpful but while it may satisfy some to put all decanters into neat categories, it blurs the distinction between them.

Decanters which can definitely be called ship’s decanters share several attributes. First, the general overall shape is conical, with or without a neck added. The lowest inch (or 2-3 cms.) can vary considerably. Some have a very small inward curvature at the base which softens the line as the body touches the table on which the decanter is resting; others have a pronounced ‘tuck-in’, some have short vertical sections, but the majority are within these limits. The bodies of some decanters are concave giving a ‘trumpet-bell’ outline, while others are more or less convex.

Even the earliest ship’s decanters were given neck rings as an aid to providing a good grip for the user. The earliest were cut into the glass, a form I have always termed ‘incised’ neck rings because they are cut from thick glass to create rings which stand away from the overall shape. However, some call such neck rings ‘integral’ or ‘integral-cut’. Either way, they are a variety of neck ring which affords a good grip, but which was not practiced after c.1800.  For much of the 19th century, neck rings, plain or cut, were applied to the decanter. However, towards the end of the century, neck rings were mould-blown, whether or not subsequently decorated with cutting. This late constructional method can be determined by inserting a finger into the neck of a decanter when the neck rings will be easily felt. Incised or applied neck rings cannot be felt in this way.

With most decanters, the standard number of neck rings from c.1780 - 1820 is three, although two or four rings are occasionally seen. Two rings are said to have been favoured in Belfast and by some makers elsewhere, but over 90% of decanters had three, and very few had four or even five. With ship’s decanters, four or five rings are more frequently seen although there seems to be no logical or aesthetic reason for this. There are, after all, only three gaps between the four fingers of a human hand, each of which would accommodate a neck ring. It has been said that four or five rings is an earlier feature, but I have seen and had 4-ring decanters which date from the 1830s or later.  Some decanters have a single 'ring' which snakes its way up the neck of the decanter in a spiral; this phenomenon does not appear to figure with ship's decanters.

Ship’s decanters have stoppers like standard models, but ship’s carafes are rare (originally I had written ‘appear not to exist’), whether or not because they might spill at sea. It could also be because some were later stoppered, especially as dealers have always perceived carafes as being less easily saleable than their stoppered equivalents. The stoppers are worthy of mention in that they all are designed to be stable and not to roll off a table. As a result very few, if any, were originally fitted with ‘mushroom’ stoppers, nor indeed with globular ones, either of which might roll. The standard pattern seems to have been the target or bull’s eye stopper, but some are flat, inverted pear-shaped ones with bevelled edges, particularly early examples. It is impossible to be categorical about this aspect, as stoppers were frequently mixed by servants or others within a house (or ship) at a later date. As a general rule, it was not customary to number stoppers until c.1820-30, and even then, not necessarily so. A few globular stoppers have been recorded which appear to be original to their decanters, but they have facetted or panel-cut sides which would stabilise them.

Glass is a fragile substance, and decanters are susceptible to breakage. It is possible that despite being made with thicker glass than other models (hence the greater weight), a fair proportion of ship’s decanters have been subsequently broken. However, despite this, it seems very likely that the percentage of ship’s decanters to others when they were made was quite low - perhaps as little as 2 - 5%. What we can say for certainty is that ship’s decanters of the period 1780 - 1820 which survive today account for considerably less than 1% of extant decanters of that period.

Ship’s decanters have never really evaporated from fashion, although the very broad-based decanters made today seldom, if ever, refer to the maritime origin of their design by their manufacturing companies. Also, it seems that very few were made from about 1830 - 1890, although there was an explosion in their popularity thereafter. Throughout the 20th century, ship’s decanters were made in profusion, usually more or less copying old designs.

Later ship’s decanters usually have mushroom stoppers, whether star-cut or plain, and both the stopper peg and the inside of the neck of the decanter will be polished. 18th and very early 19th century decanters had ground stoppers which were left coarsely ground; they were not polished smooth. It seems that the polishing of stoppers and inside the necks of decanters was a practice introduced by 1810, (vide the Perrin Geddes decanters made for the Prince Regent) and by 1820-30 it became the norm.

Some late 19th and early 20th century ships decanters were made from blue, or more commonly green glass, but these invariably have ‘blown neck rings’ (see above) and are usually quite heavily decorated with shallow cutting. Another often-seen 20th century decanter form can be seen in Hill-Oustons catalogue of the 1930s being a pair of ship’s decanters of broad conical outline and having over-all step-cut bodies. However, each has an oval left uncut and engraved with a galleon within the legend, one reading ‘outward bound’, the other ‘homeward bound’. They have star-cut mushroom stoppers as have the green examples. They also made a decanter of the same pattern without the oval panel and the engraving, and while the engraved pair sold for 90/- (£4.50) the plainer ones were 60/- (£3) a pair. They sell for considerably more today!

While British glassmakers were responsible for the introduction of the ship’s decanter, other countries have perpetuated the concept more closely following 18th century patterns than the British in recent times. Danish Holmegaards and American Steuben versions can look quite convincing, but a British Brierley example although it has an almost-authenticlooking body, has a stopper which is too large and ’misses the mark’ in shape, too.

It is well to remember that there are many times as many reproduction or other later examples of the genre than originals, which is testament to the ongoing popularity of the model. The more recent manifestations, by companies such as Riedel and Schott Zwiesel are an indication that those whose prime consideration is flavour and bouquet enhancement, feel that what the antiques trade call ‘ship’s decanters’ are also best for our wine. Like so many artifacts, those made 200 or so years ago were as practical as they were aesthetically attractive.

It is worth considering where the idea of a ship’s decanter may have started and what other patterns may be thought of as ship’s decanters. 17th century bottles have globular bodies with tall cylindrical necks and the similarly-shaped ‘shaft and globe’ shape decanter was popular during the first half of the 18th century. However, these shapes were not as stable as the ship’s decanter, because of their narrow footprint. When the shaft and globe pattern was re-established in the middle of the 19th century a similar argument can be applied, but as the century progressed, the globe became progressively compressed. No doubt, the evolved shape was somewhat more stable than its predecessor, but such decanters - and they are numerous - cannot be said to be ship’s decanters; they are often lightweight (by comparison) and they have stoppers which would roll given a chance. An aspect of ship’s decanters which appears not to have drawn attention among collectors, is the fact that they are among the earliest decanters to have star-cut bases, so it behoves us to ask why and what purpose did this feature provide? The earliest decanters with star-cut bases appear to have been made in the opening years of the 19th century - certainly before 1820. But let us consider how all this came about. Were decanters cut only for aesthetic purposes or to display the glassmaker’s skill?

Many, if not most wine aficionados say they like their decanters to be completely plain, the reason being, they say, is that they can see the wine inside with absolute clarity. This is a flawed argument and seems not to have been challenged, but it is relevant particularly when the wine is a deep, dark red as many finest wines are. If a decanter is tilted to an angle to allow the wine’s meniscus to be enlarged, this can help the observer. The depth and colour of many wines is such that they can be very difficult to assess unless there is very shallow depth to observe. This is why those tasting wine often tilt their glasses to enlarge the meniscus considerably, to minimise the distance through which light must travel to see the colour and clarity of the wine.

A glass decanter which is cut, as opposed to being undecorated, refracts light very helpfully. Although some decanters were decorated with shallow ‘lunate’ and ‘hollow diamond’ cutting from the mid-18th century, the fashion for deeper-cut glass was later and came about at much the same time that domestic lighting was much improved, that is, early in the 19th century. This was the time that star-cut bases appeared and there is a sound reason for it. Argand lamps - oil lamps which used colza, whale or olive oil, were invented in the 1770s and gave 6-8 times as much light as candles according to Thomas Jefferson when he visited Europe. By the early years of the 19th century they were produced in large numbers and were joined by chandeliers using the same oils. It seems very probable that with better lighting that the refractive qualities of glass, already fully understood in chandelier making, could be put to good use for decanters, too.

A decanter with a star-cut base refracts light coming from an overhead source back and upwards. If wine is in the decanter, the facets of the star cutting will glint brightly through the wine. This phenomenon is further enhanced if the decanter is fluted on the lower portion of its body. In fact light will be refracted through wine even if the star-cutting is absent, but will be considerably enhanced if it is present. Other forms of cutting, prismatic, step, hobnail etc. will all, more or less, refract light in the way mentioned. However, star-cutting, because it is on the underside of the decanter seems to be the most efficient in this respect.

To conclude, ship’s decanters quite aside from their being decorative, perform the function of allowing wine to ‘breathe’ more effectively than standard models, are generally made of higher quality glass (and coincidentally the quality of manufacture is seldom less than excellent), they are more stable and their thicker walls are better equipped to withstand damage. In short, they are superior to other decanters of the period 1780 - 1830 from every perspective.

Ship's decanters