Books Afloat

Messenger III, underway, 1915 by Morris Rosenfeld Negative number 1984.187.372FE

It was a boat with books that profoundly influenced the life of Nathaniel Bowditch – the self-educated astronomer famous for The New American Practical Navigator (aka “Bowditch”) first published in 1802.

During the War for Independence, the Beverly (Massachusetts) privateer Pilgrim took as a prize the Duke of Gloucester on September 5, 1780. She was bound to Bristol from Galway carrying cargo including the scientific library of Dr. Richard Kirwan. The privateer loot library was auctioned in Beverly the following spring and became part of The Salem Philosophical Library. Only elite members of the private library were allowed access to its contents but an exception was made for young Bowditch. Although poor, he had a reputation among the elite of Salem of being brilliant in all areas of science and languages. He copied information he wanted to refer to later into his Nathaniel Bowditch’s Commonplace Book(s). His books went on to accompany him on his future merchant trade voyages to pursue his navigation scholarship. To this day, “Bowditch” is carried on every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel.

Books were taken aboard, not only for the scientific needs of men like Bowditch and Joseph Banks who accompanied Captain James Cook aboard Endeavour, but also for the spiritual needs of ordinary seamen. The American Seamen’s Friend Society was one organization. Not only did it provide good boarding houses, reading rooms, and banks ashore; it also provided portable loan libraries to Merchant Marine, Navy and Coast Guard vessels from 1859 to 1967. (The portable loan library was a box measuring 27” tall, 13” wide, and 7” deep and contained both secular and religious books. Mystic Seaport Museum has two ASFS portable libraries including library No. 11234 which sailed on SS Roosevelt close to the North Pole with Admiral Robert Peary in 1905 and 1908.) These onboard libraries became the model for similar American programs.

Captain G.E. Benn started the Mission Yacht Association in 1897 over concern about the impact of lengthy voyages on seamen and their need for reading materials. By the time this image was made in 1915, Captain Benn worked every day visiting, on the average, a hundred vessels tied to the various piers and anchored in New York harbor. He would throw aboard a package containing twenty religious and standard periodicals. Larger vessels were given multiple packages. The literature was provided by thirty Brooklyn public libraries and other public libraries in the New York City area. More literature was supplied by churches in all states east of the Rocky Mountains. In 1915, over a hundred tons of reading material was handed-out yearly.

Pictured here is Messenger III in 1915 shortly after she was put into commission by the Mission Yacht Association of New York. She was built by the Astoria Boat Works of Long Island City from the designs of Captain George Benn. Her hull was 55’ in length and 14’ at the beam, and was powered with a six-cylinder, 60 h.p. Niagara engine capable of speed in excess of 10 m.p.h. She was planked with cedar below the waterline, yellow pine above and the frames were of oak.

– Carol Mowrey