S.F. in Camarillo has a ship in a bottle; rather, a ship in a lightbulb. He first witnessed this little miracle in his grandparent's home in the 1930s. He thinks it came with them from Germany in 1900. The dimensions are 3 by 2 inches; imagine the art of constructing and fitting out a ship within a bottle — or better yet, a lightbulb — with such a constricted opening!
Who originally began to engineer such feats is unknown. The late 18th to mid-19th century in Europe and America was the artistic high point for ships in hand-blown bottles. Historians conjecture that not until the third quarter of the 19th century did the mass-produced of bottles by machine begin, then the craze really caught on. Sailors were thought to be the main builders, but lighthouse keepers had more time and access to bottles drifting ashore.
We know of two ways of putting that ship in that lightbulb. The builder might have put all the little pieces in the bulb, to build it inside. This technique involves timber, cables and gum. The timber used inside is whittled inside the bulb. The bulb is measured to allow for the correct rigging to be in place, and tweezed in mast by mast. The other method allows for collapsible rigging attached with cables that are hoisted after the ship is built.
Waves and such features are premade in plumber's putty, in the bottle for the reception of the ship's hull, and like any design feature going into that bottle, precise measurements are the key. One must measure the neck and proportions of the bottle. If she's a three master, leave three cables outside of the bottle, and keep them straight.
Ship in bottle makers have favorite hook tools, made from coat hangers, etc., with which they raise the mast. This is the tricky part, because you can see S.F.'s ship has intricate rigging. These lines have to be raised and tightened inside the bottle. Furthermore, S.F.'s ship has a little bit of sea but is set off with a hillside dotted with dice-houses. These houses are sunk into the green putty. Each element is inserted piece by piece. S.F.'s bulb bottle is also semi-landscaped; notice the tiny trees.
Some ships in bottles include whole dioramas inside, such as one sold by Cowan's Auctions in Ohio for $250 that includes a wood train, church, hills and trees along with a tiny ship. A ship in bottle sold by Skinner's in Boston includes a three-masted ship and a steamer, with a lighthouse, village and trees. One of the finest ever sold, at $1,200, depicts an American whaling hunt from the late 19th century, where we see a whaling ship and two whale boats. The crew, each about the size of a pencil lead, is in the act of harpooning a whale or two: we see one breaching whale and one sounding whale in a choppy green putty sea. And the whole is set in an 8-inch diameter bottle.
In 1719, the world first heard mention of a ship inside a bottle built by Matthias Buchinger, notable because this career hand-worker was born without arms or legs. Bob de Jongste's book History of Ships in Bottles gives the oldest surviving ship in a bottle at 1784, a Turkish or Portuguese three-masted warship in an egg-shaped bottle, exhibited in the Museum Hansestadt Lubeck, Germany.
The second oldest example is shown at the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam, dated 1795: a poon ship, a one-masted freighter.
If you would like to see modern versions of these works of miracles, check out the Ships in Bottles Association of America. Some of their top member's creations will make you shake your head in wonder.
A few years back, our own Santa Barbara Museum of Art featured the work of British-raised, African-born Yinka Shonibare, who, in London, made a ship in a bottle for a display on the fourth plinth of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square. Shonibare's ship model was Nelson's own HMS Victory, the flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. The 37 sails are made of African Dutch wax print fabric, commonly worn in Nigeria. The public loved it — and an appeal for a permanent home was granted at the Sammy Ofer Wing of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
The value of S.F.'s little German ship in a lightbulb is $300, and these are getting rarer and rarer because of their fragility.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter