A clipper was a type of mid-19th-century merchant sailing ship, designed for speed. Developed from a type of schooner known as Baltimore clippers, clipper ships had three masts and a square rig. They were generally narrow for their length, small by later 19th century standards, could carry limited bulk freight, and had a large total sail area. Clipper ships were mostly constructed in British and American shipyards, though France, Brazil, the Netherlands and other nations also produced some. Clippers sailed all over the world, primarily on the trade routes between the United Kingdom and China, in transatlantic trade, and on the New York-to-San Francisco route around Cape Horn during the California Gold Rush. Dutch clippers were built beginning in the 1850s for the tea trade and passenger service to Java.

The boom years of the clipper ship era began in 1843 as a result of a growing demand for a more rapid delivery of tea from China. It continued under the stimulating influence of the discovery of gold in California and Australia in 1848 and 1851, and ended with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.[1] While composite clippers continued to be built into the 1870s, the next generation of sailing ships were iron-hulled. The last full-rigged composite passenger clipper (Torrens) was launched in 1875, while iron hulled clippers in the Australian wool trade continued to be built into the 1890s.[2][3]

Origin and usage of "clipper"

The term "clipper" most likely derives from the verb "clip", which in former times meant, among other things, to run or fly swiftly. Dryden, the English poet, used the word "clip" to describe the swift flight of a falcon in the 17th century when he said "And, with her eagerness the quarry missed, Straight flies at check, and clips it down the wind." The ships appeared to clip along the ocean water. The term "clip" became synonymous with "speed" and was also applied to fast horses and sailing ships. "To clip it," and "going at a good clip," remained familiar expressions in the early 20th century.[1]

While the first application of the term "clipper" in a nautical sense is by no means certain, it seems to have had an American origin when applied to the Baltimore clippers of the late 18th century. When these vessels of a new model were built, which were intended to "clip" over the waves rather than plough through them, the improved type of craft became known as "clippers" because of their speed.[1][4]

In England the nautical term "clipper" appeared a little later. The Oxford English Dictionary says its earliest quotation for "clipper" is from 1830. Carl C. Cutler reports the first newspaper appearance was in 1835. There is discussion of the superior speed of a clipper compared to other ships by captains called before court in A report of the trial of Pedro Gibert et al before the United States Circuit Court of 1934;[5]

Edward H. Faucon: I have been to sea twelve years. I am master of a vessel, and...I should think there would be thirty per cent difference in favor of the clipper... Samuel Austin Turner: I...know the Mexican. Should think, in a royal breeze, she would run six knots, while a clipper would sail one third faster. In a fresh, fair wind, the difference would be smaller—perhaps none at all. Don’t think the brig would ever have the advantage of the clipper.[6]

There is no single definition of the characteristics of a clipper ship, but mariner and author Alan Villiers describes them as follows:

To sailors, three things made a ship a clipper. She must be sharp-lined, built for speed. She must be tall-sparred and carry the utmost spread of canvas. And she must use that sail, day and night, fair weather and foul.[7]

Optimized for speed, they were too fine-lined to carry much cargo.[7] Clippers typically carried extra sails such as skysails and moonrakers on the masts, and studding sails on booms extending out from the hull or yards,[8] which required extra sailors to handle them.[9] In conditions where other ships would shorten sail, clippers drove on, heeling so much that their lee rails were in the water.[10]


The first ships to which the term "clipper" seems to have been applied were the Baltimore clippers. Baltimore clippers were topsail schooners developed in the Chesapeake Bay before the American Revolution, and which reached their zenith between 1795 and 1815. They were small, rarely exceeding 200 tons OM, and modelled after French luggers.[1] Some were lightly armed in the War of 1812, sailing under Letters of Marque and Reprisal, when the type—exemplified by Chasseur, launched at Fells Point, Baltimore in 1814—became known for her incredible speed; the deep draft enabled the Baltimore clipper to sail close to the wind.[11] Clippers, running the British blockade of Baltimore, came to be recognized for speed rather than cargo space.

Speed was also required for the Chinese opium trade between India and China. Small, sharp-bowed British vessels were the result. These were called opium clippers.[12]

Meanwhile, Baltimore Clippers still continued to be built, and were built specifically for the China opium trade running opium between India and China, a trade that only became unprofitable for American shipowners in 1849.[13]

Ann McKim, built in Baltimore in 1833 by the Kennard & Williamson shipyard,[14][15] is considered to be the original clipper ship.[16] She measured 494 tons OM, and was built on the enlarged lines of a Baltimore clipper, with sharply raked stem, counter stern and square rig. Although Ann McKim was the first large clipper ship ever constructed, it cannot be said that she founded the clipper ship era, or even that she directly influenced shipbuilders, since no other ship was built like her; but she may have suggested the clipper design in vessels of ship rig. She did, however, influence the building of Rainbow in 1845, the first extreme clipper ship.[1]

In Aberdeen, Scotland, the shipbuilders Alexander Hall and Sons developed the "Aberdeen" clipper bow in the late 1830s: the first was Scottish Maid launched in 1839.[17] Scottish Maid, 150 tons OM, was the first British clipper ship.[1] "Scottish Maid was intended for the Aberdeen-London trade, where speed was crucial to compete with steamships. The Hall brothers tested various hulls in a water tank and found the clipper design most effective. The design was influenced by tonnage regulations. Tonnage measured a ship's cargo capacity and was used to calculate tax and harbour dues. The new 1836 regulations measured depth and breadth with length measured at half midship depth. Extra length above this level was tax-free and became a feature of clippers. Scottish Maid proved swift and reliable and the design was widely copied."[18] The earliest British clipper ships were built for trade amongst the British Isles. Then followed the vast clipper trade of tea, opium, spices and other goods from the Far East to Europe, and the ships became known as "tea clippers".

From 1839, larger American clipper ships started to be built beginning with Akbar, 650 tons OM, in 1839, and including the 1844-built Houqua, 581 tons OM. These larger vessels were built predominantly for use in the China tea trade and known as "tea clippers". Smaller clipper vessels also continued to be built predominantly for the China opium trade and known as "opium clippers" such as the 1842-built Ariel, 100 tons OM.[1]

Then in 1845 Rainbow, 757 tons OM, the first extreme clipper was launched in New York. These American clippers were larger vessels designed to sacrifice cargo capacity for speed. They had a bow lengthened above the water, a drawing out and sharpening of the forward body, and the greatest breadth further aft. Extreme clippers were built in the period 1845 to 1855.

In 1851, shipbuilders in Medford, Massachusetts built the Antelope. Often called the Antelope of Boston to distinguish it from other ships of the same name, this vessel is sometimes called one of the first medium clipper ships. A ship-design journalist noted that "the design of her model was to combine large stowage capacity with good sailing qualities."[19] The Antelope was relatively flat-floored and had only an 8-inch dead rise at half floor.

The medium clipper, though still very fast, had comparatively more allowance for cargo. After 1854 extreme clippers were replaced in American shipbuilding yards by medium clippers.[1]

The Flying Cloud was a clipper ship that set the world's sailing record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco, 89 days 8 hours. She held this record for over 100 years, from 1854 to 1989.[1] Flying Cloud was the most famous of the clippers built by Donald McKay. She was known for her extremely close race with the Hornet in 1853; for having a woman navigator, Eleanor Creesy, wife of Josiah Perkins Creesy, who skippered the Flying Cloud on two record-setting voyages from New York to San Francisco; and for sailing in the Australia and timber trades.

Clipper ships largely ceased being built in American shipyards in 1859 when, unlike the earlier boom years, only 4 clipper ships were built. That is except for a small number built in the 1860s. The last American clipper ship was "the Pilgrim" launched in 1873 from the shipyards of Medford, Massachusetts, built by Joshua T. Foster. Among ship owners of the day, “Medford-built” came to mean the best.[20]

During the time from 1859 British clipper ships continued to be built. Earlier British clipper ships had become known as extreme clippers, and were considered to be "as sharp as the American"[12] built ships. From 1859 a new design was developed for British clipper ships that was nothing like the American clippers. These ships built from 1859 continued to be called extreme clippers. The new design had a sleek graceful appearance, less sheer, less freeboard, lower bulwarks, and smaller breadth. They were built for the China tea trade and began with Falcon in 1859, and finished with the last ships built in 1870. It is estimated that 25 to 30 of these ships were built, and no more than 4–5 per year. The earlier ships were made from wood, though some were made from iron, just as some British clippers had been made from iron prior to 1859. In 1863 the first tea clippers of composite construction were brought out, combining the best of both worlds. Composite clippers had the strength of iron spars with wooden hulls, and copper sheathing could be added to prevent the fouling that occurred on iron hulls.[1]

After 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal that greatly advantaged steam vessels (see below, "Decline"), the tea trade then collapsed for clippers. From the late 1860s-early 1870s the clipper trade increasingly focused on trade and the carrying of immigrants between England and Australia and New Zealand, a trade that had begun earlier with the Australian Gold Rush in the 1850s. British-built clipper ships were used for this trade, as were many American-built ships which were sold to British owners. Even in the 1880s, sailing ships were still the main carriers of cargoes to and from Australia and New Zealand. This trade eventually became unprofitable, and the aging clipper fleet became unseaworthy.[1]

China clippers and the apogee of sail

Among the most notable clippers were the China clippers, also called tea clippers or opium clippers, designed to ply the trade routes between Europe and the East Indies.[21] The last example of these still in reasonable condition was Cutty Sark, preserved in dry dock at Greenwich, United Kingdom. Damaged by fire on 21 May 2007 while undergoing conservation, the ship was permanently elevated three metres above the dry dock floor in 2010 as part of a plan for long-term preservation.

Before the early 18th century, the East India Company paid for its tea mainly in silver. When the Chinese Emperor chose to embargo European manufactured commodities and demand payment for all Chinese goods in silver, the price rose, restricting trade. The East India Company began to manufacture a product that was desired by the Chinese as much as tea was by the British: opium. This had a significant influence on both India and China. Opium was also imported into Britain and was not prohibited because it was thought to be medically beneficial. Laudanum, which was made from opium was also used as a pain killer, to induce sleep and to suppress anxiety. The famous literary opium addicts Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wilkie Collins also took it for its pleasurable effects. The Limehouse area in London was notorious for its opium dens, many of which catered for Chinese sailors as well as English addicts.[22]

Clippers were built for seasonal trades such as tea, where an early cargo was more valuable, or for passenger routes. One passenger ship survives, the City of Adelaide designed by William Pile of Sunderland. The fast ships were ideally suited to low-volume, high-profit goods, such as tea, opium, spices, people, and mail. The return could be spectacular. The Challenger returned from Shanghai with "the most valuable cargo of tea and silk ever to be laden in one bottom".[23] Competition among the clippers was public and fierce, with their times recorded in the newspapers. The ships had short expected lifetimes and rarely outlasted two decades of use before they were broken up for salvage. Given their speed and maneuverability, clippers frequently mounted cannon or carronades and were used for piracy, privateering, smuggling, or interdiction service.

The last China clippers were acknowledged as the fastest sail vessels. When fully rigged and riding a tradewind, they had peak average speeds over 16 knots (30 km/h). The Great Tea Race of 1866 showcased their speed. China clippers are also the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever made. Their speeds have been exceeded many times by modern yachts, but never by a commercial sail vessel. Only the fastest windjammers could attain similar speeds.

There are many ways of judging the speed of a ship: by knots, by day's runs, by port-to-port records. Judged by any test, the American clippers were supreme.

Donald McKay's Sovereign of the Seas reported the highest speed ever achieved by a sailing ship – 22 knots (41 km/h), made while running her easting down to Australia in 1854. (John Griffiths' first clipper, the Rainbow, had a top speed of 14 knots...) There are eleven other instances of a ship's logging 18 knots (33 km/h) or over. Ten of these were recorded by American clippers...

Besides the breath-taking 465-nautical-mile (861 km) day's run of the Champion of the Seas, there are thirteen other cases of a ship's sailing over 400 nautical miles (740 km) in 24 hours...

And with few exceptions all the port-to-port sailing records are held by the American clippers.

Lyon, Jane D, p. 138 Clipper Ships and Captains (1962) New York: American Heritage Publishing

The 24h record of the Champion of the Seas wasn't broken until 1984 (by a multihull), or 2001 (by another monohull).[24]


Decline in the use of clippers started with the economic slump following the Panic of 1857 and continued with the gradual introduction of the steamship. Although clippers could be much faster than early steamships, they depended on the vagaries of the wind, while steamers could keep to a schedule. The steam clipper was developed around this time, and had auxiliary steam engines which could be used in the absence of wind. An example was Royal Charter, built in 1857 and wrecked on the coast of Anglesey in 1859. The final blow was the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, which provided a great shortcut for steamships between Europe and Asia, but was difficult for sailing ships to use. With the absence of the tea trade, some clippers began operating in the wool trade, between Britain and Australia.

“They [clipper ships] still hold their own for long sea voyages.

There is a limit to the use of steam, and it is reached when the distance to be travelled makes the cost of coal and the space it occupies greater than the value of the cargo will warrant.

Until some new motive power replaces steam, or steam is replaced by the use of petroleum or other concentrated fuel, the clipper still has an occupation, and the hearts of all old-time skippers will be gladdened by the sight of her white wings upon the seas.”


Chadwick, F.E., Ocean steamships ... (1891) New York: C. Scribner's Sons, p. 225-226

Surviving ships

Out of the many clipper ships that were built during the mid-19th century, only two are known to have survived up to present. The only intact survivor is Cutty Sark, which was preserved as a museum ship in 1954 at Greenwich for public display. The other known survivor is City of Adelaide, unlike Cutty Sark she was reduced to a hulk over the years. She eventually sank at her moorings in 1991, but was raised the following year and remained on dry land for years. Adelaide (a.k.a. S.V. Carrick) is the older of the two survivors, and was transported to Australia for conservation.[26][27]

Clipper ship sailing cards

Departures of clipper ships, mostly from New York and Boston to San Francisco, were advertised by clipper ship sailing cards. These cards, slightly larger than today’s postcards, were produced by letterpress and wood engraving on coated card stock. Most clipper cards were printed in the 1850s and 1860s, and represented the first pronounced use of color in American advertising art.

Relatively few (perhaps 3,500) cards survive today. With their stunning appearance, rarity, and importance as artifacts of nautical, Western, and printing history, clipper cards are highly prized by both private collectors and institutions.[28]

See also

People associated with clipper ships


  1. Clark, Arthur Hamilton (1912). The Clipper Ship Era: An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships, Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews, 1843-1869. G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  2. J. W. Smith, T. S. Holden (1946). Where Ships are Born: Sunderland 1346-1946 ; a History of Shipbuilding on the River Wear. Thomas Reed. p. 14.
  3. Basil Lubbock (1921). The Colonial Clippers. J. Brown & son. p. 335 & 336. Retrieved 17 July 2019.
  4. Baker, Kevin (4 October 2016). America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World. Artisan Books. pp. 13–5. ISBN 9781579657291.
  5. Gibert, Pedro; United States. Circuit Court (1st Circuit) (1834), A report of the trial of Pedro Gibert, Bernardo de Soto, Francisco Ruiz, Nicola Costa, Antonio Ferrer, Manuel Boyga, Domingo de Guzman, Juan Antonio Portana, Manuel Castillo, Angel Garcia, Jose Velazquez, and Juan Montenegro alias Jose Basilio de Castro, before the United States Circuit Court : on an indictment charging them with the commission of an act of piracy, on board the brig Mexican, of Salem : containing a full statement of the testimony, and the arguments of the counsel on both sides, the charge of the court, pronounced by the Hon. Judge Story : and the verdict of the jury : with an appendix containing several documents never before published, Russell, Odiorne & Metcalf ; Providence : M. Brown & Co. ; Portland : Colman & Chisholm ; Salem : John M. Ives, retrieved 15 September 2019
  6. Hathitrust online version of: Gibert, Pedro (1834). "A report of the trial of Pedro Gibert, Bernardo de Soto, Francisco Ruiz, Nicola Costa, Antonio Ferrer, Manuel Boyga, Domingo de Guzman, Juan Antonio Portana, Manuel Castillo, Angel Garcia, Jose Velazquez, and Juan Montenegro alias Jose Basilio de Castro, before the United States Circuit court, on an indictment charging them with the commission of an act of piracy, on board the brig Mexican, of Salem :containing a full statement of the testimony, and the arguments of the counsel on both sides, the charge of the court, pronounced by the Hon. Judge Story, and the verdict of the jury : with an appendix containing several documents never before published". Boston.
  7. Villiers (1962), p. 216
  8. Villiers (1962), frontispiece and p.220
  9. Villiers (1962), p. 216, 220
  10. Villiers (1962), pp. 217, 218
  11. Villiers 1973.
  12. "Fast Sailing Ships: Their Design and Construction, 1775–1875, MacGregor, David R., 1988, Index". 18 October 2001. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  13. Thomas N. Layton. "The Voyage of the ''Frolic''". Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  14. Dear, I.C.B., & Kemp, Peter, eds. Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (Oxford University Press, 2005).
  15. Website "Ann McKim" -details, at Accessed 30 March 2009.
  16. Ukers, William Harrison (1935). All about Tea. Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company. p. 87.
  17. "Alexander Hall & Sons Ltd". Aberdeen Ships. 4 November 2006. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  18. "Aberdeen Built Ships". 22 February 2013. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  19. Boston Daily Atlas, November 29, 1851
  20. Medford Historical Society & Museum:Medford-Built Sailing Ships, at Accessed 19 October 2017
  21. Jefferson, Sam (4 November 2014). Clipper Ships and the Golden Age of Sail: Races and Rivalries on the Nineteenth Century High Seas. A&C Black. ISBN 9781472900289.
  22. "The Opium Clippers". 15 November 2012. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  23. Forbes, Allan; Ralph Mason Eastman (1952). Yankee ship sailing cards... State Street Trust Co.
  24. "24 Hour Distance". Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  25. Rideing, William H (1891). Ocean steamships; a popular account of their construction, development, management and appliances. New York: C. Scribner's Sons. pp. 225–226.
  26. "City of Adelaide website – Condensed History". Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  27. Jim Carrick. "The Future of the S.V. Carrick". History Scotland magazine. Archived from the original on 8 February 2006.
  28. Neale, Jane. "Clipper Ship Cards". American Antiquarian Society. Archived from the original on 8 October 2013. Retrieved 11 July 2014.


  • Carl C. Cutler, Greyhounds of the Sea (1930, 3rd ed. Naval Institute Press 1984)
  • Alexander Laing, Clipper Ship Men (1944)
  • David R. MacGregor, Fast Sailing Ships: Their Design and Construction, 1775–1875 Naval Institute Press, 1988 ISBN 0-87021-895-6 index
  • Oxford English Dictionary (1987) ISBN 0-19-861212-5.
  • Bruce D. Roberts, Clipper Ship Sailing Cards, 2007, ISBN 978-0-9794697-0-1.
  • Bruce D. Roberts, Clipper Ship Cards: The High-Water Mark in Early Trade Cards, The Advertising Trade Card Quarterly 1, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 20–22.
  • Bruce D. Roberts, Clipper Ship Cards: Graphic Themes and Images, The Advertising Trade Card Quarterly 1, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 22–24.
  • Bruce D. Roberts, Museum Collections of Clipper Ship Cards, The Advertising Trade Card Quarterly 2, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 22–24.
  • Bruce D. Roberts, Selling Sail with Clipper Ship Cards, Ephemera News 19, no. 2 (Winter 2001): 1, 11–14.
  • Villiers, Capt. Alan, 1962. Men, Ships, and the Sea, National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
  • Chris and Lesley Holden (2009). Life and Death on the Royal Charter. Calgo Publications. ISBN 978-0-9545066-2-9.

Further reading

Overview and introduction

American clipper ships

  • Cutler, Carl C (1984). Greyhounds of the sea: The story of the American clipper ship (3rd ed.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-87021-232-1. – The definitive narrative history, useful for checking discrepancies between sources
  • Crothers, William L (1997). The American-built clipper ship, 1850–1856 : characteristics, construction, and details. Camden, ME: International Marine. ISBN 0-07-014501-6. – The comprehensive reference for design and construction of American-built clipper ships, with numerous drawings, diagrams, and charts. Gives examples of how each design feature varies in different ships.
  • Howe, Octavius T; Matthews, Frederick C. (1986) [First published 1926-1927]. American Clipper Ships 1833–1858. Volume 1 and 2. Salem, MA; New York: Marine Research Society; Dover Publications. ISBN 978-0-486-25115-8. Articles on individual ships, broader coverage than Crothers

Clipper ships by type

  • Lubbock, Basil (1984). The China clippers. The Century seafarers. London: Century. ISBN 978-0-7126-0341-6.
  • Lubbock, Basil (1968) [1921]. The Colonial Clippers (2nd ed.). Glasgow: James Brown & Son. pp. 86–87. OCLC 7831041. – British and Australian clippers
  • Lubbock, Basil (1932). The Nitrate Clippers (1st ed.). Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson. pp. 86–87. ISBN 978-0-85174-116-1.
  • Lubbock, Basil (1967) [1933]. The Opium Clippers. Boston, MA: Charles E. Lauriat Co. ISBN 978-0-85174-241-0. – One of the few comprehensive books on these ships

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