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Gamming Chairs and Gimballed Beds: Seafaring Women on Board Nineteenth-Century Ships

Abstract

During the nineteenth century, many captains’ wives from New England took up residence on the ships their husbands commanded. This article focuses on how those women at sea attempted to use material culture to domesticate their voyaging space. While writing in their journals, they referred to not only the small personal things such as books and knitting needles that they brought in their trunks, but also large items, built for and used by women, such as gamming chairs, deckhouses, parlor organs, sewing machines, and gimballed beds. Mary Brewster attempted to retreat from the ship’s officers in her small deckhouse, Annie Brassey slept in the gimballed bed, and Lucy Lord Howes disembarked in a gamming chair when captured by Confederates during the Civil War. Evidence of these artifacts found during shipwreck archaeology could be used to further what is known of the culture aboard ships on which women lived. Analysis of the material culture reveals how a captain’s wife domesticated space, altered her environment, and made a home on the ship for her family.

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Notes

  1. The name derived from the word “gam” meaning a meeting of whaleships at sea when they visited and exchanged news or mail, if the weather permitted (Brewster and Druett 1992: 282).

  2. The tryworks is the furnace built of bricks on the deck, which allowed blubber to be rendered into whale oil for storage aboard ship.

  3. These newsletters were collected for publication by Lincoln Colcord, who had lived on a sailing ship in the 1880s with his parents and sister, Joanna..

  4. A gimballed bed still exists in the captain’s cabin on board the Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport.

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Acknowledgements

My thanks goes to the East Carolina University faculty and staff of the History department, including my thesis director, Dr. Lynn Harris, along with Dr. Brad Rodgers, Dr. Karen Zipf, Dr. Calvin Mires, and University of West Florida professor, Dr. Amy Mitchell-Cook, for their support with this study. My appreciation also goes to Dr. Nicoletta Gullace at the University of New Hampshire for helping improve this article. I would like to thank the staff of the New England archives and libraries from Connecticut to Maine where these journals can be found: Cohasset Historical Society, Maine Historical Society, Maine Maritime Museum, Massachusetts Historical Society, Mystic Seaport Museum, New Bedford Whaling Museum, Newburyport Custom House Maritime Museum, Newport Historical Society, Penobscot Maritime Museum, Portsmouth Athenaeum, and Rhode Island Historical Society. This research wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of family and friends who continue to encourage me in this endeavor.

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Correspondence to Laurel Seaborn.

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Seaborn, L. Gamming Chairs and Gimballed Beds: Seafaring Women on Board Nineteenth-Century Ships. J Mari Arch 12, 71–90 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11457-017-9171-1

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Keywords

  • Women at sea
  • Nineteenth-century
  • Sailing ships
  • Captain’s wives
  • Gender analysis