The ceremony of christening new ships began in the distant past, and we know that Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians all held ceremonies to ask the gods to protect sailors.
By the 1800s the christenings of ships began to follow a familiar pattern. A “christening fluid” would be poured against the bow of the ship, though it was not necessarily wine or champagne. There are accounts in the US Navy records of 19th century warships being christened with water from significant American rivers.
The christening of ships became great public events, with large crowds assembled to witness the ceremony. And it became standard for champagne, as the most elite of wines, to be used for the christening. The tradition developed that a female would do the honors and be named the sponsor of the ship.
And maritime superstition held that a ship that wasn’t properly christened would be considered unlucky. A champagne bottle that didn't break was a particularly bad omen.
The Christening of the Maine
When the US Navy’s new battle cruiser, the Maine, was christened at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1890, enormous crowds turned out. An article in the New York Times on November 18, 1890, the morning of the ship’s launching, described what was to happen. And it stressed the responsibility weighing on 16-year-old Alice Tracy Wilmerding, the granddaughter of the secretary of the Navy:
Miss Wilmerding will have the precious quart bottle secured to her wrist by a short bunch of ribbons, which will serve the same purpose as a sword knot. It is of the utmost importance that the bottle be broken on the first throw, for the bluejackets will declare the vessel is unmanageable if she is permitted to get into the water without first being christened. It is consequently a matter of deep interest to the old “shellbacks” to learn that Miss Wilmerding has performed her task successfully.
An Elaborate Public Ceremony
The next day’s edition provided surprisingly detailed coverage of the christening ceremony:
Fifteen thousand people – on the word of the watchman at the gate – swarmed about the red hull of the giant battle ship, on the decks of all the assembled vessels, in the upper stories and on the roofs of all the adjacent buildings.
The raised platform at the point of the Maine’s ram bow was prettily draped with flags and flowers and upon it with Gen. Tracy and Mr. Whitney stood a party of ladies. Prominent among them was the Secretary’s granddaughter, Miss Alice Wilmerding, with her mother.
It was upon Miss Wilmerding that all eyes centred. That young lady, clad in a cream white skirt, a warm black jacket, and a big dark hat with light feathers, wore her honors with a very modest dignity, being fully sensible of the importance of her position.
She is scarcely sixteen years old. Her hair in a long braid fell gracefully down her back, and she chatted with her more elderly companions with perfect ease, as though entirely ignorant of the fact that 10,000 pairs of eyes were looking toward her.
The bottle of wine which her hands were to break over the formidable bow was a pretty thing indeed – quite too pretty, she said, to be offered up on the shrine of so unfeeling a monster. It was a pint bottle, covered with a network of fine cord.
Wound around its full length was a ribbon bearing a picture of the Maine in gold, and from its base hung a knot of varicolored silk pennants ending in a gold tassel. Around its neck were two long ribbons bound in gold lace, one white and one blue. At the ends of the white ribbon were the words, “Alice Tracy Wilmerding, November 18, 1890,” and at the ends of the blue were the words, “U.S.S. Maine.”
The Maine Enters the Water
When the ship was released from restraints, the crowd erupted.
“She moves!” burst from the crowd, and a great cheer went up from the lookers-on, whose excitement, no longer pent up, ran wild.
Above all the uproar could be heard Miss Wilmerding’s clear voice. “I christen thee Maine” she said, accompanying her words with a smash of the bottle hard against the steel of the cruiser’s bow – a performance attended by a great splashing of the effervescent wine, which flew all over the coats of Secretary Tracy and his close companion, ex-Secretary Whitney.
The USS Maine, of course, holds a unique place in history as it exploded and sank in Havana harbor in 1898, an event which led to the Spanish-American War. Stories later circulated that the ship’s christening had portended bad luck, yet the newspapers reported a successful christening at the time.
Queen Victoria Did the Honors in England
A few months later, on February 27, 1891, the New York Times published a dispatch from London describing how Queen Victoria had traveled to Portsmouth and christened a warship of the Royal Navy, with some help from electrical machinery.
At the conclusion of the religious service the Queen touched a button protruding from a small electric machine which had been placed in front of the place where her Majesty was standing, and the traditional brightly beribboned bottle of champagne, detached by the current from its position over the bows of the Royal Arthur, crashed upon the vessel’s cutwater, the Queen exclaiming, “I name thee Royal Arthur."
The Curse of Camilla
In December 2007 news reports were not so sanguine when a Cunard liner named for Queen Victoria was christened. A reporter from USA Today noted:
Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, the controversial wife of England's Prince Charles, christened the 2,014-passenger ship earlier this month in an elaborate ceremony in Southampton, England that was marred only by the fact the champagne bottle didn't break -- a bad omen in the superstitious seafaring trade.
The first cruises of Cunard's Queen Victoria were marred by outbreaks of viral illness, an intense "vomiting bug," that afflicted passengers. The British press was buzzing with tales of "The Curse of Camilla."
In the modern world, it's easy to scoff at superstitious sailors. But the people stricken aboard the Queen Victoria would probably put some stock into stories about ships and champagne bottles.