A clipper was a very
sailing ship of the 19th
narrow for their length,
limited in their bulk
freight carrying capa-
cities, and small by
later 19th century
standards, the clip-
pers had a large
relative sail area.
"Clipper ships" were mostly products of British and American shipyards, though France, the Netherlands (the Dutch-built "Telanak", built in 1859 for the tea and passenger trade to Java) and other nations also produced a number of them. Clippers sailed all over the world, primarily on the trade routes between the United Kingdom and her colonies in the east, in the trans-Atlantic trade, and in the New York-to-San Francisco route round Cape Horn during the California Gold Rush.
The often quoted derivation of the word, that the vessels "clipped" time off a voyage, is probably incorrect. However, the example of the other class of vessel built for speed, the cutter, reminds us that the cutting notion may have been seen as relevant. Clipper bows were distinctively narrow and heavily raked forward which allowed them to rapidly cut or clip through the waves. One of the meanings of clip, from the seventeenth century onward, possibly from the sound of wings, is to fly or move quickly. The term clipper was originally applied to a fast horse and most likely derives from the term clip, meaning speed, as in "going at a good clip". The term clipper seems to be much the same as flier. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its earliest English quotation as from 1830. Cutler reports that the first newspaper appearance was in 1835, but that by then the term was apparently familiar.
In the United States the term "clipper" referred to the Baltimore clipper, a topsail schooner that was developed in Chesapeake Bay before the American Revolution and was lightly armed in the War of 1812, sailing under Letters of Marque and Reprisal, when the type—exemplified by the Chasseur, launched at Fells Point, Baltimore, 1814— became known for its incredible speed; a deep draft enabled the Baltimore clipper to sail close to the wind (Villiers 1973). Clippers, outrunning the British blockade of Baltimore, came to be recognized as ships built for speed rather than cargo space; while traditional merchant ships were accustomed to average speeds of under 5 knots (9 km/h), clippers aimed at 9 knots (17 km/h) or better. Sometimes these ships could reach 20 knots (37 km/h).
Clippers were built for seasonal trades such as tea, where an early cargo was more valuable, or for passenger routes. The small, fast ships were ideally suited to low-volume, high-profit goods, such as spices, tea, people, and mail. The values could be spectacular. The Challenger returned from Shanghai with "the most valuable cargo of tea and silk ever to be laden in one bottom." The competition among the clippers was public and fierce, with their times recorded in the newspapers. The ships had low expected lifetimes and rarely outlasted two decades of use before they were broken up for salvage. Given their speed and maneuverability, clippers frequently mounted cannon or carronade and were often employed as pirate vessels, privateers, smuggling vessels, and in interdiction service.
Departures of clipper ships, mostly from New York City and Boston, Massachusetts to San Francisco, California, were advertised by clipper ship sailing cards. These cards, slightly larger than today’s postcards, were produced by letterpress and wood engraving on coated card stock. Most clipper cards were printed in the 1850s and 1860s, and represented the first pronounced use of color in American advertising art.
Relatively few (perhaps 3,500) clipper cards survive today. With their stunning appearance, rarity, and importance as artifacts of nautical, Western, and printing history, clipper cards are highly prized by both private collectors and institutions.
The China Clippers And The Epitome Of Sail
The most significant clippers were the China Clippers, sometimes also known as Tea Clippers, designed to ply the trade routes between Europe and the East Indies. The last example of these still in reasonable condition was the Cutty Sark; preserved in dry dock at Greenwich, United Kingdom, although it suffered extensive damage in a fire on 21 May 2007.
The last of the 1890s China Clippers were the epitome of sail. The most complex sail plans had a total of four main masts and two auxiliary masts, each main mast at full sail bearing six rectangular mainsails, and technically seven when bearing topgallants. These were trimmed with jibs and staysails, as many as three to four at the bowsprit, and an auxiliary stern, gaff rigged spanker.
These clippers, when fully rigged and riding before a tradewind, were acknowledged to be the fastest of all sail vessels, with peak average speeds even exceeding 7 knots for endurances over 12 hours.
When the last China Clippers were retired, they ended the age of the fastest commercial sailing vessels made by man. Their speeds have been improved upon many times by modern ocean yachts, but never by any commercial sail vessel.
Decline in the use of clippers started with the economic slump following the Panic of 1857 and continued with the gradual introduction of the steamship. Although clippers could be much faster than the early steamships, clippers were ultimately dependent on the vagaries of the wind, while steamers could reliably keep to a schedule. The steam clipper was developed around this time, and had auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of wind. An example of this type was the Royal Charter, built in 1857 and wrecked on the coast of Anglesey in 1859. The final blow came in the form of the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, which provided a huge shortcut for steamships between Europe and Asia, but which was difficult for sailing ships to use. With the absence of the tea trade, some clippers had no chance of survival but to go into the wool trade, operating between Britain and Australia.
Although many clipper ships were built during the middle of the 19th century, Cutty Sark was, perhaps until recently, the only survivor. Falls of Clyde is a well-preserved example of a more conservatively designed, slower contemporary of the clippers, which was built for general freight in 1878. Other surviving examples of clipper ships of the era are not as well preserved, for example the City of Adelaide (aka S.V. Carrick).
In 2000, a new clipper, the Stad Amsterdam, was built; it is not a replica of any one ship, but an attempt to combine what its builders consider the "best" qualities of the clipper ships.