Decorative Directions

Samuel Emery (1787-1882) made compasses and other nautical and mathematical instruments here in Salem for more than half a century–both during and after the city’s great age of sail. His work can still be seen today, at auctions and in museums, but most often in museum shops. Recently I stumbled across one, and then another and another, reproduced and transformed into pendants and pins. What made Emery’s compasses so decorative? It’s not the fleur-de-lis marking north–that is traditional from the fourteenth century when French makers used a fancy “T”, resembling a flower, to mark the north wind or Tramontana. The two surveyors’ compasses below are nearly identical and were both made by Salem craftsman: the one on the left by John Jayne and the smaller one on the right by Emery, both sold at Skinner auctions.

Emery label Harvard-001

PicMonkey Collage

Samuel Emery Box Label, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.

I’m sure Emery’s instruments were well-made or he wouldn’t have been in business for as long as he was, but his designs look pretty conventional for their time. I suspect that the reason Emery’s compasses are still for sale is the original copper plate in the possession of the Peabody Essex Museum, enabling fresh and adapted impressions and models to be made, as well as the traditional appeal of the compass rose (first in maritime communities, then more broadly), which has emblazoned textiles, pottery, and other decorative accessories for centuries, so why not jewelry–among other things–now?

Compass Rose Brooch PEMCompass Rosette Brooch Morgan

Compass Quilt NE Auctions

Compass Bowl Sunderland V and A

Compass Fabric Better than Jam

Compass Rose brooches from the PEM and Morgan shops (just click on the picture and you’ll get there); Early Connecticut pieced quilt with Mariner’s Compass, Northeast Auctions; Sunderland Pink Lustre bowl, c. 1820-1830, Victoria & Albert Museum; Better than Jam fabric.


6 responses to “Decorative Directions

  • ggirlforevah

    As a Celestial Navigation student in California (fresh after my move from Cape Ann, Massachusetts) taught by an ancient Master Mariner by the name of Cap’n Bosshardt, I, the only female student, and the other male students in his classes, were required to design, draw, and embellish a “technically perfect” Compass Rose. It was a competition and, as a former art student, I won. I was not popular among my all-male classmates. I pulled far ahead of the other sailors and was christened “Brightie” by the Cap’n, who informed the class that (and I quote) “Women make the best navigators, hands down.” He knew what he was talking about, being nearly 90 years old and having ‘sailed the seven seas’ and spent more of his life on the water than on land. In fact, he rocked on his feet when standing as if still aboard ship. He had worked with female navigators and he said they were superior to their male counterparts–women were naturals, he said. When the local newspaper wanted to do a full-page spread about the Cap’n, he insisted that they interview and photograph me too. As a result, a young sailor who had just circumnavigated the globe saw the article and came to class to meet me. We married a few months later. The Cap’n didn’t realize he cut short my navigation career when he insisted the newspaper feature me.

  • ggirlforevah

    Sadly, it is long-gone–that was over 40 years and several life-times ago. I do still have my Bowditch in my library, though, and once in a great while I take it out and peruse it. It is the Sailor’s Bible of course, and using that alone, I think one could learn to sail. But, it makes very interesting reading for non-sailors too! It is a fascinating tome.

  • downeastdilettante

    I never tire of the romance and beauty of this motif—one of my deep dreams is to make one on a painted floor—and have always especially loved the black & white paper compass faces. I want to call your attention to this compass rose drawn in 1793 (the date in Wikipedia is incorrect–imagine that) as part of his math thesis at Harvard by the Reverend Jonathan Fisher, the first settled minister of our village (whose house, now a museum, is on the must-see list when next you’re in this area). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mariner's_Compass.jpg

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