Boat Builders’ Shell Models

Detail of Bill Miller’s eight-oared shell model.

23 January 2018

After reading about Kai Stürmann’s mystery model of a single scull on 4 January, rowing historian Bill Miller came to think about some models he has in his collection. Bill writes:

I saw the entry about Kai’s single shell model and questions about origins and uses. I have a couple of models and may be able to shed a few bits of information or maybe add to the confusion. Actually there’s a nice story about my models.

Bill Miller’s eight-oared shell model.

About 30 years ago, I attended an estate auction for a departed neighbor. Dr. Starr was an authority on duck decoys and had a collection worth into seven figures. In the auction was an eight-oared shell model. It wasn’t complete, but I thought it was neat enough to bid and I acquired the piece. There were no markings so I happily displayed it without any identification. A number of years later, I purchased a photo (see below) of a craftsman holding an eight-oared model. After closely comparing the model photo and my unidentified model, I concluded that there were a few differences and they weren’t one and the same. However, the inscription on the back of the photo provided a bit of interesting information. It says “Presented to winning crew by builder, 1899”. So models were used as prizes for races. I’ve read a few excerpts that state that models were prizes for races.

A boat builder showing an eight-oared model, 1899.
The text on the back of the photograph reads “Presented to winning crew by builder, 1899”.

Now it gets a bit interesting. A few years ago, I spotted a double sculls shell model on eBay, very complete with sculls. I bid aggressively and won. It was delivered and I inspected the details. To my amazement, the details were exactly the same as the eight-oared model (again see photos). A short time later, a single sculls shell model was on eBay and listed by the same seller. I didn’t bid high enough so it went to another other bidder. I contacted the seller, who was an antique dealer in Maine, to see if I could extract any details about the source of the models. Unfortunately, he only said that a dealer sold them to him and didn’t know anything else. So that’s where I stand for now. Any readers have any information?

The model of a double sculls, which belongs to Bill Miller.
A close-up of Bill Miller’s double sculls model.

The details on Kai’s single sculls shell model have similarities to my two. Seats look the same, runners are fashioned the same, splash box is crafted the same, and placement of rivets the same. The one variation is the coxswain’s floor board is bit different. Maybe this is the eBay item that got away?

Now to the question about boat builders’ crafting models, what might be called salesmen’s samples. The National Rowing Foundation (NRF) has a John H Clasper’s single sculls shell model with sculls (see photo below). There is no documentation, but it was in the JHC collection with all the other items in the photo. These artifacts were donated by Fred Roffe, who was a JHC descendant, to the NRF. So some boat builders did craft models. JHC exhibited these at various international exhibits and maybe this was a way to promote his business?

Models and artifacts that once belonged to boat builder John H Clasper, Harry Clasper’s son. This collection was donated to the NRF by Fred Roffe, a descendent of the Claspers.

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