Old Ironsides: An American Naval Legend

Launched more than 200 years ago as one of our young nation’s earliest fighting ships, the U.S.S. Constitution – affectionately called Old Ironsides by generations of Americans – has long been a most beloved natural symbol of liberty and freedom.

This gallant battlewagon of the high seas, victorious in every one of its 30 battles was among the first six frigates – ships of the line – authorized by Congress in 1794 to form the nucleus of a newly born U.S. Navy. The 44-gun, wooden man-o’-war was launched Oct. 21, 1797, from Hart’s shipyard in Boston.

She had speed, firepower, and a unique overlay that virtually repelled enemy ordnance (hence the nickname Old Ironsides lovingly bestowed on her by a grateful crew when enemy shells first began bouncing off her hull).

The U.S.S. Constitution went into service against French privateer in the West Indies. From 1803-1805 she was used in the fight against the petty potentates of Tripoli and other African states, who were then harassing United States commercial shipping and held American hostages for ransom.

Old Ironsides, along with sister ship U.S.S. Constellation, quickly became an American legend. During the War of 1812 she was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary war of military reversals. She kindled pride and glory throughout the nation.

After six more years on the Mediterranean chasing Barbary Coast pirates, she came home to undergo rehabilitation and refitting. More duties abroad followed, including aiding Greek revolutionaries in their struggles against Turkish overlords.

But on July 4, 1828, the Naval Department decreed the U.S.S. Constitution was beyond repair and scheduled her to be scrapped. However, the admirals and politicians didn’t recon with the American people. Public anger erupted, fueled by, of all things, a poem. The poet was Harvard law student Oliver Wendell Holmes, destined to become one of this nation’s leading men of letters. His poem, Old Ironsides, galvanized public opinion in support of the revered ship and forced the Navy to back down and reverse itself. Congress appropriated the necessary funds and the ship was dry-docked for an extensive overhaul.

After duty for another generation, she was semi-retired again, being just too old for regular sea duty. The old frigate became a training ship for midshipmen at Annapolis an also performed an impressive list of ceremonial duties, among them receiving Pope Pius IX, then in exile in Naples, Italy.

Thanks to the efforts of Massachusetts Congressman John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, grandfather of future president and naval veteran John F. Kennedy, the grand old ship was rebuilt, re-commissioned and permanently berthed in Boston, her hometown. Old Ironsides arrived in time to be greeted by a glorious and fervent centennial salute from the North Atlantic Fleet and a boisterous welcome from the people of Boston and Charlestown. It was her 100th birthday and she had come home, never again to leave.

Since then the great ship has been on permanent exhibition at Boston, where thousands of people visit her every year and while there, purchase tons of mementos including souvenir postcards picturing her or showing her in naval action. There have been many souvenir postcards published about the gallant ship’s background and grand history. Most were printed by Boston firms for sale at the site itself, or throughout the Greater Boston area to tourists and visitors.

A small number of early 20th century postcards can be found, including some of her on the high seas or in confrontation with the enemy. The best from this 1900-1920 era is part of the A&V set for the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, “Battle Between the Constitution and the Guerriere.” Reichner Bros., Boston, also issued an interesting postcard, their No. 4131, “The Flight of the Frigate Constitution.” This depicts Old Ironsides being pursued by a squadron of British men-o’-war.

Beginning in the 1920s, many commemorative postcards were issued picturing the U.S.S. Constitution. And the avalanche showed no sign of coming to a stop. During the 1920s, the era of white border postcards, United Art Co., (Boston) published several postcards about the U.S.S. Constitution, among them a flag-waving heroic portrayal of the ship fearlessly sailing into the wind, as if to do battle. It was most likely part of a set of 18 or more.

Undoubtedly the linen style era of the 1930s has proven to be the best source for collectors of great cards about the great battleship.

Colourpicture Publications of Boston published a truly super set of ten in the late 1940s. They were sold in packets as a complete set. Half of the ten cards were taken from original paintings by Gordon Grant; four of these five are scenes of the ship’s famous naval battles and the other is a patriotic picture of her at sea. The other half of the set shows various scenes of the ship, a sort of guided tour.

An excellent linen postcard illustrating the frigate’s 1797 launching was issued in the late 1940s or early 1950s. It was part of an advertising set of historical scenes once available from the New England Insurance Company of Boston. The set was taken from the eight murals done by Charles Hoffbauer and located in the century-old home office building in Copely Square in Boston. It is a wonderful linen era collectible set, with “The Frigate Constitution is Launched at Boston, 1797” card being especially prized.

As Old Ironsides continues sailing into history and its third century, collectors and amateur historians alike hope souvenir postcards about her and her exploits will continue to roll off the presses.

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