Sailing ship cards near a modern postcard in size and demonstrate commercial printing achievements made in the 1850s. The technical progress accompanied artwork that was often evocative, drawing on contemporary design trends, public fascinations, and moral fears to promote a voyage. Common themes include war, seafaring, mythology, patriotism, Manifest Destiny, sexual objectification, and the racial "other".The cards reflect the social climate and attitudes within the American maritime industry during the antebellum era and throughout the nineteenth century, which was fraught with racist, sexist, and orientalist ideals.

The Phillips Library aims to present these materials with historical accuracy and recognizes the presence and impact of troubling language and imagery. We encourage users with questions or concerns about offensive material to contact us via our feedback form


In the 1850s, clipper ships dominated the American maritime trade with a speed surpassing that of the barque or schooner. Whereas the Cape Horn route reached across South America and generally facilitated travel and general freight trade between Boston, New York, and California, Pacific clipper routes were particularly successful and contributed to both the expansion of international trade and American economic power. Lucrative lines carried Asian exports and commodities such as soy, silk, furs, tea, hemp, ceramics, sugar cane, and several shipments of opium to Australia, New Zealand, the United States, or onward to England. Ships departing from the same locations with less or no commercial freight utilized these routes as major human trafficking channels from Manila, southern China, British-controlled Hong Kong, and Madras (modern Chennai). In a history entangled with obscured ideas of immigration and opportunity, crewmen transported and displaced hundreds of people on cramped voyages to destinations like Callao, Havana, Melbourne, and San Francisco where they faced grueling and involuntary mining, construction, and agricultural labor conditions. 

The Sailing Ship Card Collection held by the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum does not contain explicit advertisements for human trafficking voyages, but the history of the cards is inextricable from the painful legacy of the clipper trade.

For a more comprehensive history and list of American clipper ships involved in human trafficking, see Glenn A. Knoblock’s 2014 The American Clipper Ship, 1845-1920.


Caruthers, J. Wade. American Pacific Ocean Trade: Its Impact on Foreign Policy and Continental expansion, 1784-1860. Exposition Press, 1973.
Knoblock, Glenn A. The American Clipper Ship, 1845-1920. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc., 2014.
Roberts, Bruce D. Clipper Ship Sailing Cards. Bruce D. Roberts, 2007.


Banner and thumbnail images:

Detail from Belle of the Sea (Clipper), Sailing Ship Card Collection, MSS 470, box 1. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.
Detail from Flying Drag (Clipper), ca. 1858, Sailing Ship Card Collection, MSS 470, box 4. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.
Detail from Mary L. Sutton (Clipper), Sailing Ship Card Collection, MSS 470, box 6. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.
Detail from Phantom (Clipper), Sailing Ship Card Collection, MSS 470, box 8. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.