Clipper Ships Facts: Ships Used By Merchants In The 19th Century

Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Sep 08, 2022 By Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Originally Published on Apr 18, 2022
Edited by Ruffa Espejon
Clipper ship facts inform us about the history, usage, and decline of clipper ships.

A clipper ship was the fastest ship in the 19th century. It was noted for its elegance, delicacy, and quickness.

The clipper trend started with the Baltimore Clipper, a small, fast coastline package. The real clipper arose on American grounds first, and then on British grounds.

It was a large, slim, beautiful ship with a protruding head and a dramatically streamline hull, bearing an extraordinarily big sail spread on triple tall towers in its final configuration.

The focus on speed stemmed in part from such a determination to have the first voyage of the year back from China, and partly from competitiveness with the alternative route to the Californian goldfields across North America.

History Of Clipper Ships

The Baltimore clipper ship, constructed in the Chesapeake Bay before the American Revolution and peaking between 1795-1815, appears to be the first ship to which the term 'clipper' was given. It was also known as swift flight.

They were modest, with OM values seldom surpassing 400000 lb (181436 kg). Their hull shape had a lot of deadrises and was sharply terminated.

As schooners, brigs, or brigantines, they were rigged.

During the War of 1812, some were lightly armed and sailed under Letters of Marque and Reprisal, when the type: exemplified by Chasseur, which was launched at Fells Point, Baltimore in 1814: became known for her incredible speed; the Baltimore clipper deep draught allowed her to sail close to the wind.

Clipper ship, which was in charge of the British blockade of Baltimore, were known for their speed rather than early cargo space.

The type was invented in 1780. The earliest draught of the Baltimore Clipper is a 1789 drawing of HMS Berbice (1780), which was purchased by the Royal Navy in the West Indies in 1780.

Chinese Clippers

The China clipper ship, also known as the tea or opium clipper ship, was meant to travel between Europe and the East Indies and was among the most famous clipper era. Cutty Sark, maintained in dry dock at Greenwich, United Kingdom, is the last of these still in decent condition.

The ship was permanently elevated 9.8 ft (3 m) above the dry dock floor in 2010 as part of a plan for long-term preservation after it was damaged by fire on May 21, 2007, while undergoing conservation.

The East India Company used to pay for their tea primarily in silver before the early 18th century. When the Chinese Emperor decided to impose an embargo on European manufactured goods and demand payment in silver for all Chinese items, the price of silver soared, limiting trade.

The East India Company began producing opium, which was as popular with the Chinese as tea was with the British ship.

Both India and China were greatly influenced by this. Opium was also brought into the United Kingdom and was not forbidden since it was believed to have medical benefits.

Laudanum, a pain reliever derived from opium, was also used to promote sleep and reduce anxiety. Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Wilkie Collins, all prominent literary opium users, used it for its delightful benefits. The opium dens in London's Limehouse district were legendary, with many catering to Chinese seafarers as well as English addicts.

The last China sailing ships were regarded as the world's one of the fast ships. They reached peak average speeds of nearly 18.6 mph (30 kph) when fully rigged and riding a Tradewinds.

Their speed was demonstrated in the Great Tea Race of 1866. China clipper ships are the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever built; modern yachts have often surpassed their speeds, but no commercial sail vessel has ever done so. Only the fastest windjammers were capable of achieving comparable speeds.

The Decline Of Clipper Ships

The American clipper ship sailing from the East Coast to the goldfields of California was part of a thriving market. In the early 1850s, freight rates were quite expensive all over the country. In late 1853, this began to disappear. California and Australian ports also reported being overstocked with commodities that had been sent earlier in the year.

This resulted in a rapid drop in freight prices, which was interrupted when the Crimean War broke out in March 1854, as many ships were now chartered by the French and British governments. When the Crimean War ended in April 1856, all of this capacity was released back unto the world transportation markets, resulting in a severe depression.

The Panic of 1857 occurred the following year, with ramifications on both sides of the Atlantic.

As the economy worsened in 1853, American shipowners either did not order new ships or specified an ordinary or medium clipper ship rather than an extreme clipper ship. After the end of 1854, no extreme clipper ship were built in American shipyards, and only a few medium clippers were launched after 1860.

By contrast, by the end of the 1850s, British trade had rebounded significantly. During the recession, tea clippers were still being launched, seemingly unaffected by the economic crisis.

Steamships did not pose a realistic threat to the long-distance route to China in the early 1860s. No actual steamer has the fuel efficiency to carry enough cargo to make the journey profitable. The auxiliary steamships were struggling to break even.

The situation altered in 1866, when the S.S. Agamemnon, designed by Alfred Holt and owned by him, made her maiden voyage to China.

The Board of Trade had been convinced by Holt to allow higher steam pressures in British merchant boats.

With a fuel efficiency of 60 psi instead of the previously allowable 25 psi and an efficient compound engine, Agamemnon was able to steam at 10 knots to China and back, with coaling stops at Mauritius on the outbound and return legs and, most importantly, carrying enough cargo to make a profit.

Clipper ships were built with a streamlined design, which made them very fast.

Commercial Usage

Clippers sailed all over the world, especially on trade routes between the United Kingdom and China, in transatlantic trade, and during the California Gold Rush on the New York-to-San Francisco route, around Cape Horn. Beginning in the 1850s, Dutch clippers were built for the tea trade and passenger transportation to Java.

The Suez Canal opened in 1869, offering steamships a path around the Cape of Good Hope that was about 3452 mi (5555 km) shorter than sailing ships.

Tea clippers faced stiff competition from steamers at China's tea ports by 1871, notwithstanding the early conservatism of tea merchants. During the 1867–1868 tea season, a steamer's average journey duration back to London was 58 days, while the quickest clippers could make the journey in under 100 days on rare occasions; the average journey time was 123 days.

A steamer's freight tariff was nearly double that of a sailing ship in 1871.


Why is it called a clipper ship?

Clipper ships got their name from the fact that they were swift sailors, a term derived from the verb 'clip,' which means to get as much force as necessary from the surrounding air.

Why were clipper ships so important?

They were the quickest ships ever built when they were constructed. Their proprietors would go on to become some of America's wealthiest men.

How many passengers could a clipper ship carry?

They normally had crews of 25-50 seamen on board.

Who created clipper ships?

The Rainbow, the first authentic clipper ship, was launched in 1845. The ship was designed by John W. Griffiths (1809–1882), an American naval architect who completed another legendary clipper, the Sea Witch, the following year.

What is a clipper sailboat?

A clipper is a sailing ship that prioritizes speed above cargo payload capacity, as well as construction and operational costs.

What caused the decrease in clipper ships?

When clippers were phased out in favor of more contemporary iron-hulled sailing vessels, which ultimately gave path to steamships, the era of clippers came to an end.

What cargo would clipper ships carry?

Clipper ships cruised at breakneck speeds, but life on board was harsh.

How are clipper ships used today?

A clipper seems to be a sailing ship that prioritizes speed over cargo maximum load, as well as construction and operational costs.

Which continent did most clipper ships sail around on their way from New York to California?

South America, was the continent that did most clipper ships said around on their way from New York to California.

Why was the invention of the clipper ship an improvement on previous ships?

They changed global trade by transporting tea through China as well as supplying equipment and supplies to San Francisco's booming settlement during the Gold Rush.

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Written by Rajnandini Roychoudhury

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

Rajnandini Roychoudhury picture

Rajnandini RoychoudhuryBachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

With a Master of Arts in English, Rajnandini has pursued her passion for the arts and has become an experienced content writer. She has worked with companies such as Writer's Zone and has had her writing skills recognized by publications such as The Telegraph. Rajnandini is also trilingual and enjoys various hobbies such as music, movies, travel, philanthropy, writing her blog, and reading classic British literature. 

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