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When Express Delivery to California Meant 100 Grueling Days at Sea

Fast-moving clipper ships had a boom in business between the late 1840s and 1860, when they were used for moving people and goods between America’s East Coast and California. That meant going around the tip of South America, which took a good three months even in the fastest ships. At about the same time, full-color printing became available, and clipper ships used it to make advertising cards. Bruce Roberts, author of the book Clipper Ship Sailing Cards, tells us about clippers and how the postcard-sized cards were used.  

During the early 1850s, when the clipper industry was at its height, most customers who had goods to ship knew who to contact to see if there was room on the next clipper. It wasn’t until Gold Rush fortunes decreased that clippers had to compete for a dwindling client base, spurring a boom in advertising cards toward the end of the decade. “And by that time,” Roberts says, “the clipper ship industry was really just a ghost of its former self.

“For the most part, when clipper cards were issued, it meant there was still some space on a particular ship its owners hoped to fill,” he continues. “You’ll see cards that say, ‘This ship is rapidly loading at Pier 16,’ but that clipper probably wasn’t filling up at all, which was why they were advertising.”

Those cards, at least the nice, colored ones, are highly collectible now. They are old, beautiful, and recall adventurous days in American history. Read more about them, and see a gallery of clipper cards at Collectors Weekly.

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