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New Research Guide: Navigating for Images of Ships

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The following is an interview with Jon Eaker, Reference Librarian, Prints & Photographs Division, about the subject of his research guide: Ships: Navigating for Images at the Library of Congress.

Melissa: What is the most challenging thing about finding images related to ships in the collections?

Jon: When searching the digitized collections in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, the most difficult thing is that we often copied the image’s title as it appeared on the item and many didn’t include a ship’s prefix (SS, USS, HMS, etc). For some ships with unique names it’s not much of a problem, but for ones with more generic names it can be an issue. A ship named America (of which there have been many) will get lost amongst all of the other records which say America somewhere in the record. In some cases adding the word “ship” to the search may narrow your results down, as might using other types of ships like steamboat, battleship, yacht, etc. It can help to know which collections are more likely to have ships.

Melissa: What collections particularly stand out as being strong in their coverage of ships?

Jon: For photos of early to mid-20th century ships, some of our news photo collections contain a nice array of images. The Bain News Service was based in New York, so they were able to get photos of ocean liners and military ships. We have lots of photos of ships in that collection, including the one below.

La Lorraine, a ship photographed for the Bain News Service.
La Lorraine, ship. Photo by Bain News Service, undated.

The New York World-Telegram & Sun has a good selection of ships, both civilian and military, and many are listed by name in the finding aid.

For earlier ships, the Popular Graphics Arts Collection has some prints of sailing ships, mostly from the 1800s and early 1900s, such as this lithograph.

Lithographic print by N. Currier shows the steam ship "President, Lieut. Roberts R.N. commander: the largest in the world."
The steam ship President, Lieut. Roberts R.N. commander: the largest in the world . Prints by N. Currier, between 1835 and 1907. Popular Graphic Arts Collection.

Melissa: What kinds of ship-related questions do we receive?

Jon: Our most common questions are from people hoping to find a single exterior shot of a ship, usually one a family member came to the U.S. on, or one an ancestor served on in the military. We also get people who are interested in the interior of ships, usually large military vessels or ocean liners, like the RMS Olympic pictured in this photo.

Shows White Star Steamship Olympic grand stairway, second landing.
White Star Steamship Olympic grand stairway, second landing. Photo by William Herman Rau, 1911.

Occasionally we get questions from people building or repairing a ship and hoping to find plans, photos, or illustrations to help their construction. We don’t have a huge number of ship plans in the collection, but sometimes we can point them to ones of something similar or to another repository which may have ones they can use.

Melissa: What is the most interesting image you’ve found related to ships?

Jon: I think the one I’ve always liked the most is a panoramic photo of the USS Mount Vernon taken on Oct. 30, 1918. First, it’s just a neat photo because it shows a WWI transport ship with dazzle camouflage and all of the crew are lined up on or in front of the ship. If you look closely, there’s a dog at the center bottom of the photo as well as a man on crutches in the lower left. (You can see these details better by downloading the higher-resolution image from the catalog record, which you can access by following the linked image below.)

Photo shows officers and crew of the U.S.S. Mount Vernon on October 30, 1918.
Officers and crew, U.S.S. Mount Vernon, October 30, 1918. Photo by J.C. Crosby.

There is one African American man on the left side of the back row in the lower group of people. He’s not the only African American man in the photo, there are a few sailors on the upper deck on the left side, but he stands out because there’s some separation between him and the other sailors — no surprise given that the armed forces were segregated at the time. During WWI, only a little over 1% of sailors were African American, and they were restricted to jobs like shoveling coal and working in the mess deck or galley.

What you can’t tell from this photo is that this was originally a German ocean liner called the Kronprinzessin Cecilie. When the war broke out it was at sea, heading toward Germany, so it turned around and headed back to the United States. It was docked in Bar Harbor, ME, until 1917 when the U.S. entered World War I. The U.S. government seized the ship, renamed it the USS Mount Vernon, and used it to transport troops. While at sea in September of 1918, it was hit by a torpedo which tore a hole in the side of the ship. Some sailors were killed, several boilers were destroyed, and the ship started to flood. They were able to get the flooding under control and made to the port at Brest, France, where they did some quick repairs, enough for the ship to go back to the U.S. for a more complete repair. It arrived in Boston on October 29th, 1918, the day before this photo was taken. From what I have read, the hole was on the starboard side, which would be the opposite side of what is shown in our photo. So, I’m sure those men were glad to have made it back safely to the U.S.

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