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The Ship Centennial

Sylvanus Smith, a suffragist featured in my book along with his suffragist wife Judith, was a shipbuilder. His firm, Smith & Townsend of East Boston, built the clipper ship Centennial and launched it from East Boston in 1875. Its first voyage was to Philadelphia, which was preparing to hold a world's fair celebrating the nation's centennial in 1876. Thus, the ship's name. The voyage, with a surprise passenger, is described in the subchapter of my book called "Stowaway."

The ship was intended for shipping between Philadelphia and San Francisco. However, it seems she sailed to England (1877) and Hong Kong (1878). She was also reported in Bombay.


In February 1884, Sylvanus & Judith's son Erasmus ("Race") was on board the ship Centennial, and wrote to his parents. Duxbury Rural & Historical Society, Drew Archival Library, Smith-McLauthlin Collection, Series 1, Folder 7, items 17 & 18, listed here.


By 1898, the Centennial's home port had shifted from Boston to San Francisco. She carried salmon between Alaska and San Francisco. See 1896 news item below.

The Centennial was still in service as late as 1924.

There are paintings of the ship (right).


Recently, I discovered that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have the Centennial's figurehead, attributed to Herbert Gleason. He was a Boston woodcarver who created an excellent figurehead for the ship Glory of the Seas. That ship was built and launched in 1869 by famed clipper ship builder Donald McKay, who lived next door to Sylvanus and Judith Smith.

Herbert Gleason is mentioned as a woodcarver in an article in the Summer 2005 issue of Folk Art by the American Folk Art Museum (NY): Ralph Sessions, “The Shipcarvers’ Art: Figureheads in Nineteenth-Century New York and Boston,” starting at page 44, see 50, The article says he was especially noted for “his remarkable figurehead for the famous McKay clipper Glory of the Seas [carved in 1869]."


Herbert Gleason is mentioned in a 1940 book on figureheads, but it does not credit him for figureheads on Glory of the Seas ("'Goddess,' full-length figure in draped Grecian costume"), or Centennial, described as "'Young woman' in long flowing costume. From ship Centenniel, [sic] East Boston, Mass., 1875. M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, Cal." Pauline A. Pinckney, American Figureheads And Their Carvers (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1969 reissue), Appendix 1, 171, items 42 and 44.

Gleason gets his proper credit for those figureheads in M. V. Brewington, Shipcarvers of North America (Barre, MA: Barre Publishing Company, 1962), 78.


So the figurehead ended its long journeys and now rests in storage in San Francisco. It is a wonderful physical reminder of the clipper ship era and the importance of Sylvanus Smith's shipbuilding in East Boston.

Centennial clipper ship painting, 1877,
Centennial clipper ship painting, 1878,
Gleason X71.336 - Copy.jpg

Images (top to bottom): William Howard Yorke, Centennial (England, 1877), ArtNet; unidentified painter, Centennial (Hong Kong, 1878), Skinner (formerly owned by family); Herbert Gleason, Centennial figurehead (Boston, 1875), image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Below: Boston Globe, May 25, 1876; The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle, WA), Oct. 27, 1896, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

1896 Centennial sold, PSE edit.png
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