|Currently on exhibit in the Saginaw Gallery|
A ship launching ceremony is a naval tradition dating back thousands of years. It is both a public celebration and a solemn blessing. Many ancient seafaring societies had rituals for launching a new ship. The Greeks poured water on the new vessel to bless it. The Babylonians sacrificed oxen and the Vikings offered up human blood. In the Middle Ages, monks would board ships before their maiden voyage to pray, lay their hands on the masts and sprinkle holy water on the deck and bow.
After the Reformation in Europe a secular ceremony of drinking wine from a goblet, usually made of precious metal, and solemnly calling the ship by her name became the norm. The presiding official would then pour what was left on the deck and bow and then toss the cup over the side of the vessel.
Ship christening in the United States borrowed from the English tradition. The launch of USS Constitution in 1797 included the captain breaking a bottle of Madeira wine on its bow. Other spirits also have been used, the USS Princeton, Raritan and Shamrock were all launched with whiskey.
One of the first known instances of champagne being used to christen a ship was in 1890 with the launching of the USS Maine. In 1891 when Queen Victoria launched HMS Royal Arthur she also smashed a bottle of champagne against its bow and a long standing tradition was born.
The battleship California launched from Mare Island appropriately received her name with a bottle of California wine in 1919. However, during Prohibition, water was often used to launch a ship – usually water from the sea the vessel was to be launched into. After the passage of the 21st amendment and repeal of Prohibition, champagne once again became the beverage of choice to toast a new vessel.
USS Trepang Christening Bottle. The silver case that holds the traditional champagne bottle is perforated with small stars, allowing the champagne to spray out while keeping the broken glass inside.
Wet or Dry? Launching a Ship during Prohibition
In September 1920 Mare Island laid the keel of its second battleship, to be named USS Montana. At that time, Prohibition had become the law of the land. But how to launch a ship without a bottle of champagne? Some shipyards adopted the practice of smashing a bottle of water across the bow. “Not so fast!” declared the Governor of Montana. Any ship named for his state would be christened in the traditional way. To guarantee that would happen, the Governor sent a bottle of champagne to Mare Island from his private cellar.
Meanwhile, disarmament treaties following WWI brought a halt to construction of USS Montana. The partially-built ship was scrapped but the unused christening bottle remains intact a century later.
|Unused christening bottle from USS Montana|
Christening Bottle from USS Colhoun and Pin from the Society of Sponsors
This christening bottle was a “back-up’ provided to the ship’s sponsor in case anything happened to the main christening bottle. The pin was given to all ship’s sponsors. USS Colhoun was launched in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1918 and was named for Commodore Edmund Ross Colhoun, shipyard commander at Mare Island from 1877 to 1881.
|Christening of the USS Mariano G. Vallejo in 1965. The sponsor was Patricia Vallejo McGettigan, General Vallejo's great-great granddaughter|