Everyone seems to know what a ship’s decanter is, but the term does not feature in the full Oxford English Dictionary, nor in any others - Webster’s (if you are in the USA), Collins’ or Chambers’. One has to ask why this should be and the answer came to me in a damascene moment sometime after I had written an article on the subject for the Glass Circle Journal.
The trade in antiques burgeoned in the early 20th century and dealers wishing to promote their merchandise, coined several terms to romanticise what they had to sell. Perhaps the most obvious is the term ‘grandfather(’s) clock’ a phrase which nobody before 1876 would have had the least knowledge, because it was then that Henry C Work composed the popular song about a clock “…which stood ninety years in the hall”. Before that song, such clocks were known as ‘longcase clocks’ for obvious reasons, but the term ‘grandfather clock’ soon entered the English vocabulary, and stayed there. There are several other invented and romanticised names - ‘bachelor chest’, ’mote spoon’, ‘brandy saucepan’ and many more and importantly in this context - ‘ship’s decanters’.
In addition to there not being any dictionary mention of ship’s decanters, neither are there any paintings, prints or other images done in the 18th and 19th centuries showing a broad-based decanter on board a ship although there are many paintings and engravings of life at sea. The first mention of Ship’s decanters seems to be in a catalogue by Hill-Oustons in the 1930s, which shows an engraving of a decanter of conical outline which they describe as a “ship’s decanter”. One can presume, therefore that the term was already established by then. Furthermore, it was engraved with a galleon above the legend “outward bound”, while its pair was engraved “homeward bound”.
There are a few ‘ship’s decanters’ which definitely pre-date the 20th century and which are engraved with foul anchors or other obviously naval symbolism. In his book ‘The Decanter - an Illustrated History of Glass from 1650”, McConnell illustrates such a decanter engraved with a foul anchor between the initials ‘P’ and ‘R’ which he suggests is a reference to the 19-gun ship “Princess Royal”. However, that is not proof that it was used on board. More likely it belonged to the captain or the owner for shore use. Similarly, there is a magnum ship’s decanter heavily decorated with cutting and with the full armorial finely wheel-engraved for Admiral Sir George Cranfield Berkeley. There is no evidence that it was used at sea and it resides in the family home.
Having disabused the notion that so-called ship’s decanters were made for use at sea, their other attributes must be considered. From observation and the handling of many, it can be noted that ship’s decanters are considerably heavier than standard models. This is partly because they require more glass than is used to make a standard model; their shape demands that, but also because they are generally blown more thickly and from superior quality of glass metal (the substance of the glass). G Bernard Hughes, the mid 20th century author of many articles and books on domestic antiques, wrote of ships decanters “ they were often made of ‘double flint’ that was extra strong metal prepared in small pots and heated for longer than normal” and that in 1780 such glass was described as “fairer and more nice metal fit for the nicest works”.
It has become apparent that ‘ship’s decanters’ are decanters of the highest quality. That is not to say that other shapes were not always made to the lower standards, but the quality of glass, design and workmanship of ship’s decanters tend to be very high. For example, from the earliest of c.1770 - 80, ship’s decanters do not have rough-broken pontil marks, but are ground and polished. Slightly later, they were among the very first decanters to have star-cut undersides which have the advantage of refracting overhead light upward through wine inside the decanter, thus showing its colour and clarity more clearly, especially when placed on a white tablecloth.
Neck rings are the usual feature of ship’s decanters, whether they are cut from the body of the neck to stand proud of the general outline, or if they are applied - a slightly later and technically more difficult operation. Neck rings simply serve to give a good grip and usually number three, but occasionally two, four or five are seen. Georgian ship’s decanters usually have target or bull-eye stoppers, but ‘mushrooms’ have been noted, although infrequently.
Ship’s decanters made before c.1830 are nearly always of clear glass, indeed the vogue for them lasted from their first making in about 1770 until c.1830-40. The middle years of the 19th century saw very few, if any, ship’s decanters being made, but towards the end of the century reproductions were being made in large numbers. Some were of ‘Bristol blue’ glass while others were a deep green and most had mushroom stoppers.
In the 20th century broad-based decanters became popular and we’re made in numerous glasshouses in Europe and in America. Many were simple copies of late 18th century models, with varying degrees of accuracy. Very late in the century broad based decanters were being made to completely new designs and the moniker ‘ship’s decanter ‘ was dropped and they were given names by the companies that made them. Curiously, while it is quite easy to pour wine from earlier models, some recent ones require a high degree of manual dexterity to extract the last glass or two.