The clipper ship was developed by American shipbuilders around 1840. "Clipper" was a generic term generally applied to very fast sailing ships; after about 1845 it became used to denote a standard rig and hull type and was used in conjunction with a word denoting the cargo carried or destination of the boat (tea clipper, California Clipper). The 1850s saw an increase in shipping and shipbuilding both within the United States and internationally. This was partly in response to new resources and new trading opportunities -- gold was discovered in California in 1849 and in Australia in 1850; 1849 saw the opening of the Asian tea trade.
The clipper ship's major attribute was speed. Before the advent of the clipper ship, sea journeys from New York or Boston to San Francisco took upwards of 300 days. Clipper ships were able to make the journey to San Francisco in 100 to 120 days. The return journey was a little quicker due to sea and wind currents. The clipper ship "Flying Cloud" set a record of 89 days to the west coast in 1851 and again in 1854. This record was tied by the "Andrew Jackson" in 1860. Speed did not always require a slim body construction: "Great Republic" was the largest and heaviest ship in the world when it was launched in 1853.
Production of clipper ship cards commenced in around 1852. They allowed shipping companies to directly advertise and circulate information about particular ships. These cards were handed out or mailed to prospective passengers or customers, and were often locally circulated by hand in the manner of handbills. Notices of ship availability and sometimes of sailing dates also appeared in windows and bulletin boards of agents and local shops.
The cards advertised the ship, shipping company, and other important information, such as the port of embarkation. Each card usually had an illustration of the vessel or its namesake. A few cards were decorated with stylized text of the ship's name, or a non-related (yet often nautical) image. Often, if not specific to the ship's name, the printed image could be used again for a different vessel.
The vast majority of clipper ship cards claim the vessel will sail "shortly." Although passengers were desirous of an exact sailing date, it was often difficult for the sailing companies to maintain a firm date. Often ships needed to be full in order to depart and thus were dependent on other sea-going vessels for shipments of cargo, as well as on an adequate number of passengers. The language on clipper ship cards shows the competitiveness of the industry. Cards make much use of superlatives; ships are touted as being the fastest, most beautiful, swiftest, or world renowned. The small size of ships was often highlighted as a desirable feature, in part because smaller ships could sail faster.
Technological advances in printing made it possible to print cheaply in color onto the enamel-coated surface of cardboard from about 1840. Clipper ship cards were letterpress printed on this coated stock, often overprinted with three to seven colors. Only a very few cards were lithographed. George F. Nesbitt, printer of the majority of these cards, is also known as the printer of the first U.S. government stamped envelopes. He worked from the corner of Wall and Water streets in the heart of New York's shipping district.
Clipper ship cards were mainly produced during the decline of the clipper ship industry, when companies needed advertising to drum up business. An economic depression in the middle 1850s, and the ensuing panic of 1857, lowered the profits of the shipping industry. The early 1860s was the time of the heaviest clipper ship card issuance. The heyday of the clipper ship can be dated roughly as lasting from the 1840s to the late 1860s, as the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 helped to make clipper ships obsolete for passenger travel. Clipper ships were abandoned as cargo ships by 1881, largely in favor of steamships.
Historical information on specific clipper ships and printers of cards is available in the Department's Clipping files.