As part of the revitalization of New York City’s premiere maritime museum, South Street Seaport, the ship Wavertree is currently undergoing restoration at Caldwell Marine in Staten Island. Once the restoration work is completed within the next month, Wavertree will return to her berth in the East River near the Brooklyn Bridge, where she will be open for display and will sail again on a limited basis within New York Harbor. The restoration work on the ship included the removal of all three of her masts, which provided an opportunity to perform the age-old tradition of placing a coin in the mast step before the mast is lowered and secured.
From archaeological evidence we know that this tradition dates back to at least the Roman Republican period, and very likely dates back even further. The reason for placing the coin is probably sacrificial, much like the coin dedications found in and around ancient temple sites. In this case the dedication was no doubt meant for Poseidon in the hopes he would look favorably upon the ship as it traversed his realm.
As the curators at the South Street Seaport prepared for the stepping of Wavertree‘s masts, they approached the ANS for a coin that they might place under the mizzen, the last of the masts to go in. Since Wavertree was built in England in 1885, we selected a maundy fourpence of that year to donate for this auspicious occasion. Given by the British Monarch on Maundy Thursday as alms, these small silver coins serve more of a symbolic than monetary purpose. Thus a symbolic coin meant to serve a good purpose seemed the right choice for yet another occasion meant to serve a good purpose.
On August 16th, ANS curator Peter van Alfen and photographer Alan Roche were among the two dozen guests invited to witness the stepping of Wavertree’s last mast. The ANS’s donated maundy fourpence, now encased in lucite, was diligently placed in the mast step by three children before the 10-ton mast was finally lowered into place, where the coin will rest secure until the ship’s next refit, probably sometime around 2066. You will be able to find more information about this event, and the tradition of placing a coin in the mast step in ANS Magazine 2016, vol. 4.