October 26, 2023

“Towering Canvas & A Great Sense of Power”

The Remarkable Life of Hope Goddard Iselin

Hope Goddard Iselin surveying the wreckage of COLUMBIA's dismasting during summer trials on August 2, 1899; image detail courtesy of Historic New England, Nathaniel Stebbins Collection

Hope Goddard Iselin was born on January 17, 1868: one year after the debut of Edison’s lightbulb and the first workable internal combustion engine, and just three years after the end of the American Civil War. By the time she died on April 5, 1970, the Vietnam War was in full swing; within a week of her death Paul McCartney had announced he was leaving the Beatles, and the events of the Apollo 13 mission had been set in motion, transfixing the nation and the world. It is extraordinary to imagine what she must have witnessed over the course of her lifetime - the rise of the motion picture, the automobile, the portable camera, the airplane..., prohibition, the abandonment of the corset and the steam engine and the horse (for everything but sport!), the adoption of the Marconi wireless and the Marconi rig, two world wars, a crippling depression, the Cold War, the moon landing. To be alive during this hundred years was to witness a period of change almost unlike any other in recorded human history.

And yet, among these technological triumphs and harrowing historical moments, and over a very long life of good fortune and privilege, Hope Goddard Iselin’s experiences in the afterguard of the great 90 footers competing for the AMERICA’S CUP in the 1890s must have been among the most memorable of her life. She was just 27 years old the first time she served as part of the afterguard on a Cup Defender in 1895, and would continue to be as closely associated with the Cup as her syndicate-member husband, C. Oliver Iselin, for the rest of their lives.

Aboard DEFENDER with Captain Hank Haff at the wheel, 1895; HMM archive, J.C. Hemment Collection

It was not unusual for a woman of means in New England around the turn of the 20th century to have access to a camera - but in Hope’s case, a camera wasn’t merely an accessory, or marker of class: she was an extremely adept photographer, and deserves to be taken seriously as an artist and documentarian. Her photographs - many of which are now in the collection of the Mystic Seaport Museum - are astonishingly modern and dynamic in composition: sharply focused with impressive tonal range, a sense of playfulness, and impeccable timing. Significant historic moments are captured alongside the mundane or unexpected, ranging from the immediate aftermath of the dismasting of COLUMBIA during the 1899 trials and actual Cup defenses down to the focused detail of a crew members delicately figured shoe and sock, or a perfectly framed handlebar mustache. Many of her photos were taken from the companionway - her habitual spot on the cup defenders - low to the deck, and they convey the nervous energy and exhilaration of these high-stakes races which were front page international news at the turn of the century.

Aboard CONSTITUTION, the Cup contender that was passed over in favor of COLUMBIA for the 1901 contest; HMM archive, J.C. Hemment Collection

In the popular press at the time, Hope’s presence aboard these cup defenders was closely followed. She was mostly treated as a darling - only in a few cases was it claimed she would bring bad luck. But in all cases, she was rendered as something of a caricature: the papers focus on her looks, her refined taste in clothing, her wealth, her place in society - and often described her as any given cup defenders “mascot.” But through her photos, we can place her - and ourselves - from a remarkable vantage point, seeing this moment in history through her eyes: on deck, at the manufacturing company in Bristol or the dry docks in Brooklyn, beneath a crumpled rig, considering a humble deck cleat or sailor’s cap: bearing witness as the crew operated these incredible, breathtaking and terrifying machines.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, May 4, 1902

And she was there! Perhaps not an easy place to be, a young woman perched between the crew and the afterguard, part timekeeper, part peacemaker, but every inch a poised sailor with steady nerves and a steadier hand, possessed of “coolness, a good sense of humor, and a fund of funny stories...” And for all that, she was accepted “politely, but without enthusiasm” by the Cup defender captains. Today, by contrast, we are proud to accept this extraordinary sailor, syndicate supporter and AMERICA’S CUP photographer with great enthusiasm into the America's Cup Hall of Fame, where she so deserves a place.

If you would like to learn more about what it was like to be involved with these Cup defenders firsthand, we highly recommend this profile of Hope Goddard Iselin written by Sally Iselin for "The Skipper" in 1964:

Click here to read "A Great Sense of Power" as originally published in the October 1964 issue of "The Skipper"

Mrs. Iselin boarding COLUMBIA from the steam launch; HMM archive, J.C. Hemment Collection