Date of Award

Spring 2009

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

W Jeffrey Bolster


Between 1870 and 1940, Americans redefined their perceptions, ideas, and cultural meanings of seafaring under sail. The Maritime Revival---a cultural phenomenon that took the workaday nineteenth-century maritime world and converted it into an archetypical exercise in essential Americanism---selectively picked stories, symbols, and specific lifestyles and elevated them to heroic status. Part of larger nineteenth-century revivalism, the Maritime Revival created an image of seafaring that was a small subset of the entire experience-as-lived. By the 1930s, Americans recognized a heroic, but lost, golden age of sailing ships that did not correspond to the maritime world that had once been a ubiquitous part of American life.

This dissertation draws on American tonnage statistics, the writings of adventure-seeking young sailors, visual arts, and maritime preservation movements to illuminate how and why the Maritime Revival developed and matured between the Centennial and World War II.

A conservative group of old-stock Americans believed seafaring represented essential American cultural values, and incorporated its symbols and aesthetics into a heritage movement. If initially engineered by eastern elites to insulate themselves from social changes, the Maritime Revival's redefined image of seafaring appealed to middle- and working-class Americans. Many responded enthusiastically, and used it to participate in a culture cast as essentially American and patriotically important. Popular art, literature, historic ships, and museums celebrated square-riggers, and the romance and sublimity of the oceans. A variety of cultural forms, from fine arts to kitsch and advertisements, diffused the ideas of the Maritime Revival throughout American culture to people of all social classes.

Not every piece of cultural output associated with ships and the sea, nor every aspect of contemporary maritime industry, nor every mariner, were part of the Maritime Revival. Some Americans embraced modernizing marine worlds, but Maritime Revivalists looked backwards to lament a passing era and acted to preserve the material and intellectual culture of seafaring's past. In so doing, they helped ease their own transition into the modern world, and created popularized images of sailors, ships, and lifestyles that profoundly influenced how Americans remembered the maritime past for most of the twentieth century.