Before Use in Home Décor, Model Boats Battled for Supremacy on the Ponds
Pond boats have been used extensively in home decorating for 20 plus years. They have a simplicity and beauty of line that complements interior décor from modern to traditional to funk. They grace our homes now but in their previous lives, they spent plenty of time on ponds, natural and manmade, for the sake of fun and the thrill of the race.
Organized model yachting began sometime during the mid-1800s in Great Britain. According to British periodicals of the day, by the 1860s there was competition between model yacht aficionados in America and England, and a book published in 1879 illustrated plans for model yachts. Competition models tended to be 22 inches long. The early yachts were like working scale models of full size boats and their sail plans reflect that. It was later found there was too much sail for most pond sailing and the sail plans were modified accordingly. The yachts soon became “specialized competition machines.”
This hand-made schooner rig pond yacht is 43 long and stands 38 inches tall. It is a solid hull construction with lead inlet into the keel. Value in a retail setting is about $850.
By late 1880s the sport was in full swing. The yachts used in competition were as long as six feet from stem to stern. In America, one-man rowboats or skiffs were used on the water to direct the boats in the race, which was timed for each boat. The owner was allowed to make course corrections by touching his boat but points were taken off each time. In Britain, the boats were sailed from one side of the pond to the other, depending on prevailing winds. This “lake racing” was also timed, but did not allow for the owner to touch the boat after it went into the water. In time, skiff racing and the large yachts it used fell out of favor for a more transportable and easier stored boat: the “1 meter.”
Many models had true life details as seen in this deck shot of the schooner.
Also about this time, specialized ponds for model yachting were beginning to appear in public parks. Two of the earliest were Conservatory Water in New York’s Central Park and Spreckles Lake in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The parks often provided storage for the boats when not in use. Imagine how difficult it would have been to transport your yacht on the streetcar or by foot!
Model yachting reached its peak of activity in 1930s. The WPA built ponds around country, and many still exist. My father’s friend, Rocky Salzer, was a member of the River Rats club as a boy and sailed his boat on the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, Fla.
Model yachting enjoyed resurgence after WWII but was never as popular. There was a gradual decline and model yachting was not revived until the early 1970s, when practical radio control was developed. (As surprising as it seems, Nikola Tesla, an electrical engineer and inventor who worked with Thomas Edison, created the first radio-controlled boat in 1885). When the American Model Yachting Association was founded in the ’70s with the emphasis on advanced materials and designs, the fate of the vintage era was sealed. Today, radio controlled racing occurs every weekend across the country on surviving WPA ponds and any other suitable body of water. There are many clubs for young and old alike.
This is a manufactured pond boat made by Curtiss, called the Curtiss Cutter. It is cutter rigged and has an original plastic sail and metal keel and rudder. It is 19 inches long and 29 ½ inches tall, with a solid body construction and a flat deck. It was made mid-20th century. Value in a retail setting is about $100.
Many of the vintage yachts that survived use and the years have found their way into our homes, offices, restaurants, museums and antique shops. You can spend as little as a few dollars or into the thousands for a vintage pond yacht or boat. They come in all shapes and sizes. I had one in my shop that was so large I had to move a ceiling tile to accommodate the mast. Age, as well as condition, is a factor in pricing. There is also the “it” factor in evaluating any antique, including pond boats. Just how striking is it? Is it sleek and lovely, homely and folksy? Interestingly enough, there is also a group of collectors who want a yacht in pristine condition even if this means a complete restoration so that the yacht looks new, with new paint, varnish, rigging, sails, etc. The rationale for this is to bring the boat back to the condition in which it was originally used. And this is fine, although it makes it difficult to determine whether or not you have found a reproduction, and yes, reproductions are out there. I prefer “as found” condition myself, unless it is a total wreck.
This is a hollow hull constructed gaff rigged pond yacht with iron at the bottom of the wooden keel instead of lead. It is 31 inches long and 28 inches tall and still has its patched and well-used sails. Look at the very simple stand for this model yacht. Value in a retail setting is about $575.
In an article for “Forest and Stream” magazine written in 1894 by Frank Nichols and titled “Model Yachting About New York,” Nichols writes: “Too much cannot be said in favor of model yacht sailing as it invigorates both body and mind.” I’m sure today’s enthusiasts would agree. And I must say this is how I feel about antiques in general and pond yachts in particular.
Three pond yachts are displayed on a wall at a show in Greenville, SC. Also in the picture are a telltale compass, an 1860 model cutlass, and a ship diorama. This gives good ideas for displaying these beautiful items in your home.
Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.
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