March 19, 2020

Curator’s Log: Captain Nat and the Herreshoff Biographies, Part Three

This is the third of a multi-part series on Captain Nat’s subsequent efforts to correct and add to the published biographies of himself and his two older brothers.

Captain Nat and the Herreshoff Biographies-
Part Three; Nat on John Brown Herreshoff.


In 1926 Captain Nat Herreshoff (1848-1938) was provided six Herreshoff biographies from the 1904 volume of The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. This is the third of a multi-part series on Captain Nat’s subsequent efforts, extending from 1926 and into the early 1930s, to correct and add to the published biographies of himself and his two older brothers, James Brown Herreshoff (1834-1930) and John Brown Herreshoff (1841-1915).

The first two articles in this series are;
April 2019; “Captain Nat and the Herreshoff Biographies-Part One; The Bios of 1904”, discusses the bios and an overview of Nat’s objections to what he read. Click here.
August 2019; “Captain Nat and the Herreshoff Biographies- Part Two; Correcting the Record: James B. Herreshoff and the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co.” provides Nat’s views on brother James and the part James played in the success of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. (HMCo). Click here.

This month we examine Capt. Nat’s views on John Brown Herreshoff, his blind older brother and senior partner in the HMCo.

Captain Nat Reacts to the 1904 Herreshoff Biographies of James & John

Upon reading the 1904 biographies, Nat’s immediate concern was the outsized credit given to brother James for “reestablishing” the business from bankruptcy and then providing the inventions that enabled the company to construct the fastest steam and sail vessels. [1] Nat addressed this issue immediately in a 1926 letter that is the subject of the August 2019 Curator’s Log.

There were issues with John’s 1904 biography, but these he did not address until 1932-33 in an undated draft, "John Brown Herreshoff. For the Nat. Cyclopedia of Am Biog". [2] (For a transcript of the draft see Attachment A.) It was written after John’s catboat Sprite had been donated to the Ford Museum in Dearborn MI., and about the time Nat’s wife had persuaded him to write down his “Recollections” including the much longer paper, “The Old Tannery and My Brother John”, July 28 1933.[3] Because of copyright restrictions, later volumes of the Cyclopedia do not permit complete on-line search therefore I do not know whether Nat’s bio of John was actually sent to the Cyclopedia and published.

How does Nat’s version of John’s bio differ from that in the 1904 Cyclopedia?

Childhood- The 1904 version summarizes John’s childhood in one short sentence as consisting of a “common-school education” and blindness at the age of 15. For Nat, who at the time became his brother’s eyes and constant companion, this hardly described the ingenuity, business acumen and unique mechanical abilities John exhibited from his earliest days, and the great strength and concentration of thought he marshalled to overcome his blindness. Nat devotes a paragraph of almost 250 words to this period of John’s life before entering the boatbuilding business in 1864.
John as the businessman- The 1904 bio emphasizes John being “associated with” or “aided by” others in his business. Nat makes it more positive with John in charge; John “takes a partner”, he is “joined by”, and John is “always at the head of it”.
Coil Boiler- The 1904 bio emphasizes the importance of the coil boiler and John and Nat’s work to bring it to “its current state of perfection”. This is dead wrong. There were no Herreshoff coil boilers being built in 1904. Nat’s version does not even mention the coil boiler. James’ 1873 invention of the coil boiler provided an important, but short-term (six year) impetus to John’s business. For Nat the reason for their long-term success was what he and John accomplished after the coil boiler; their drive to continually “improve wherever possible” and turn out only the “best work” is what did it.
John the “blind boatbuilder”- The 1904 bio uses this term in referring to John. Nat in general disliked such labels. Rather than being defined by an affliction, John is the one who is “always at the head of it.”

John Palmieri

Attachment A

John Brown Herreshoff Bio as written by Nat Herreshoff. Compiled from Nat Herreshoff draft writings in Mystic Seaport LFH Collection 138 Box 16 Folder 13; items 6 & 8. The draft is written on the verso of a Popular Science Monthly form letter of Sept. 6, 1932.

Undated draft
“John Brown Herreshoff. For the Nat. Cyclopedia of Am Biog.”

“John Brown Herreshoff boat and yacht builder was born in Bristol RI April 24, 1841. Was fourth child and 3rd son of Charles Frederick and Julia Ann (Lewis) Herreshoff. At a very early age he showed an unusual ability to do things that children seldom undertake. Before his teens he was earning money by raising and selling vegetables and at 12 or 13 had constructed a rope machine and had a rope walk on which he made cotton ropes which he sold. He next fitted up a fairly good lathe for those days and accumulated quite a set of tools. At 14 years he was building a sailing boat, which was nearly completed, when he lost his sight by an accident. This was soon after he was fifteen and of course It was a serious handicap to him, and stopped his work. But his energy to do things soon returned and it was not long before he had his boat completed and in use and also had fitted up a small machine shop having 4 lathes. He then took up building small boats to sell and his life work was thus really begun, at the age of 18- although he did not employ workmen in a real business enterprise till he was 22. From that time on he made a business of building boats, and had a saw mill in which much of the lumber required for his work was manufactured.

The designs for his early boats were made by himself aided in many cases by his father. In 1864 he took a partner and the firm’s business was changed from John B. Herreshoff to Herreshoff and Stone. This lasted for 2 years, when John took over the business alone, continuing this way without much expansion until 1878 when he was joined by a younger brother, and under the name of Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. This gave John B. more time for the office and business part of the work while his brother attended to designing and detail part of construction, resulting in increased amount of work done and expansion of the plant, to the extent that over 400 workmen were employed instead of 20 or 30 before the change. As it was the Company’s intent to improve wherever possible and to turn out only the best work. Herreshoff products became noted and Mr. J.B.’s traveling to get work became unnecessary as orders came without going for them.

Mr. Herreshoff died in 1915 at the age of 74, and he was in active business for 56 years, and always at the head of it, and without sight. In 1870 he married Sarah Lucas Kilton of Boston, Mass. From this union he had one daughter. His second marriage was to Eugenia Tucker who survives.

The notable designs by John B. Herreshoff were Sprite 1860-62 built by himself and father, and is now preserved in the Ford Museum at Dearborn MI. This boat was the fastest on Narragansett Bay and probably anywhere along the Coast, Kelpie, 1863- Sadie 1867 and Orion 1869. Ianthe 1870 and Faustine 1873.

  1. “James Brown Herreshoff Biography” & “John Brown Herreshoff Biography” The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol 12, 1904. Pg. 352-3.
  2. “John Brown Herreshoff. For the Nat. Cyclopedia of Am Biog.” Compiled from Nat Herreshoff draft writings in Mystic Seaport LF Herreshoff Collection 138 Box 16 Folder 13; items 6 & 8.
  3. Nat Herreshoff, “The Old Tannery and My Brother John”, July 28, 1933. Nathanael G. Herreshoff Recollections. Herreshoff Marine Museum, Bristol RI. 1998. Pages 5-29.