June 23, 2021

This Month in Herreshoff History: “Defender – An Unlucky Sloop”

The founding editor of Yachting Magazine takes a look back at the 1895 Cup Defense 14 years after the fact

Unedited version of one of the Johnston images originally published in the 1909 Yachting article; view in high resolution on the Library of Congress website

The following article by Lawrence Perry was originally published in the then-fledgling Yachting Magazine in June 1909, fourteen years after HMCo. #452 DEFENDER's successful 1895 defense of the America's Cup. Perry (1875 - 1945) was the founding editor of Yachting, which had been established in 1907 by New York Evening Post owner Oswald Garrison Villard. Perry's work ranged widely over his career, from historical nonfiction to novels to sports columns. This particular article also seems to reflect his penchant for the theatrical - but perhaps this should come as no surprise, as he also wrote plays and reported on the doings of Broadway later in his career. His flair for drama is evident, for example, in setting the scene of fourteen years prior:

"The star of Herreshoff was in the ascendant, and, while it still glows serene and alone, it is no more luminous to-day than in the early summer of 1895, when a beautiful sloop slid down into the waters of Narragansett Bay and made her maiden bow to an applauding nation. Defender! Unluckiest of sloops, launched under an evil star and rigged with curses dark; yet out of the alembic years she arises glorious, more sinned against than sinning, a boat to carry fondly in memory while stouter spars and stauncher hulls slip gradually into the limbo of dim things that were..."

Detail of one of the Johnston images originally published in the 1909 Yachting article; view in high resolution on the Library of Congress website
A Detroit Publishing Co. postcard of the America's Cup; image courtesy the New York Public Library

The piece is accompanied by photographs taken by John S. Johnston (ca. 1839 - 1899) who today is perhaps best known in yachting circles for his work under the Detroit Publishing Co. The Detroit Publishing Co. had an enormous stable of negatives from multiple photographers, and from which it produced a huge range of color printed postcards from the 1890s through the 1920s. Other than the prints and negatives he left behind, very little is known of the J.S. Johnston himself. Today, more than 700 of his maritime photos produced from large format negatives are accessible in high resolution via the Library of Congress digital collections as a part of the Detroit Publishing Co. collection. This is just a small fraction of more than 25,000 Detroit Publishing Co. negatives in the Library of Congress Collections, and it is a fantastic resource for those interested in late 19th and early 20th century American history. (The New York Public Library has a nicely cataloged set of Detroit Publishing Co. postcards on their website as well.)

It is interesting to note this article went to press a few years in to what would be the longest gap between America's Cup races during the Herreshoff reign: 17 years between RELIANCE in 1903 and RESOLUTE in 1920 (further delayed from 1914 by the advent of WWI). This may in part account for the nostalgic tone of the piece. This was also a period of transition to the Universal Rule from the Seawanahaka Rule, a change which was moving the sport of yacht racing away from the extremes of vessels like RELIANCE during this period. As to the "evil star" and dark curses, or the zodiac's possible impact on successful Cup defenses, we're not so sure... but we hope you are intrigued enough to grab a thesaurus and scroll on to read this colorful piece of history.

Click here to read the whole article...

VALKYRIE III in drydock; image courtesy the Library of Congress
A candid shot that did not make the 1909 cut; image courtesy the Library of Congress