"In the name of the United States I christen thee," proclaims the sponsor while she shatters the ceremonial bottle of champagne against the gleaming bow of a new ship towering above her. As if the sponsor's very words have injected a spark of life, the ship begins to move slowly from the security of the building way to the water environment where she will play her destined role for the defense of the United States. It is uniquely fitting that this dramatic moment during the launching of a naval vessel be placed in the hands of a woman.
When a woman accepts the Secretary of the Navy's invitation to sponsor a new ship, she has agreed to stand as the central figure in an event with a heritage reaching backward into the dim recesses of recorded history. Just as the passage of years has witnessed momentous changes in ships, so also has the christening-launching ceremonial form we know today evolved from earlier practices. Nevertheless, the tradition, meaning, and spiritual overtones remain ever constant. The vastness, power, and unpredictability of the sea must certainly have awed the first sailors to venture far from shore. Instinctively, they would seek divine protection for themselves and their craft. A Babylonian narrative dating from the 3rd millennium BC describes the completion of a ship:
Different peoples and cultures shaped the religious ceremonies surrounding a ship launching. Jews and Christians alike customarily used wine and water as they called upon God to safeguard them at sea. Intercession of the saints and the blessing of the church were asked by Christians. Ship launchings in the Ottoman Empire were accompanied by prayers to Allah, the sacrifice of sheep, and appropriate feasting. The Vikings are said to have offered human sacrifice to appease the angry gods of the northern seas. Chaplain Henry Teonge of Britain's Royal Navy left an interesting account of a warship launch, a "briganteen of 23 oars," by the Knights of Malta in 1675:
Sponsors of English warships were customarily members of the royal family, senior naval officers, or Admiralty officials. A few civilians were invited to sponsor Royal Navy ships during the nineteenth century, and women became sponsors for the first time. In 1875, a religious element was returned to naval christenings by Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales, when she introduced an Anglican choral service in the launching ceremony for battleship Alexandra. The usage continues with the singing of Psalm 107 with its special meaning to mariners:
American ceremonial practices for christening and launching quite naturally had their roots in Europe. Descriptions of launching American Revolutionary War naval vessels are not plentiful, but a local newspaper detailed the launch of Continental frigate ''Raleigh at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in May 1776:
No mention of christening a Continental Navy ship during the American Revolution has come to light. The first ships of the Continental Navy, Alfred, Cabot, Andrew Doria, and Columbus'', were former merchantmen and their names were assigned during conversion and outfitting. Later, when Congress authorized the construction of thirteen frigates, no names were assigned until after four had launched.
The first description we have of an American warship christening is that of Constitution, famous "Old Ironsides," at Boston, October 21, 1797. Her sponsor, Captain James Sever, USN, stood on the weather deck at the bow. "At fifteen minutes after twelve she commenced a movement into the water with such steadiness, majesty and exactness as to fill every heart with sensations of joy and delight." As Constitution ran out, Captain Sever broke a bottle of fine old madeira over the heel of the bowsprit.
Sloop-of-war Concord, launched in 1827, was "christened by a young lady of Portsmouth." This is the first known instance of a woman sponsoring a United States Navy vessel. Unfortunately, the contemporary account does not name this pioneer female sponsor. The first identified woman sponsor was Miss Lavinia Fanning Watson, daughter of a prominent Philadelphian. She broke a bottle of wine and water over the bow of sloop-of-war Germantown at Philadelphia Navy Yard on August 22, 1846.
Women as sponsors became increasingly the rule, but not universally so. As sloop-of-war Plymouth "glided along the inclined plane," in 1846, "two young sailors, one stationed at each side of her head, anointed her with bottles, and named her as she left her cradle for the deep." And as late as 1898, torpedo boat Mackenzie was christened by the son of the builder.
Although wine is the traditional "christening fluid," numerous other liquids have been used. Princeton and Raritan were sent on their way in 1843 with whiskey. Seven years later, "a bottle of best brandy was broken over the bow of steam sloop San Jacinto." Steam frigate Merrimack, who would earn her place in naval history as Confederate States of America ironclad Virginia, was baptized with water from the Merrimack River. Admiral Farragut’s famous American Civil War flagship, steam sloop Hartford, was christened by three sponsors -- two young ladies broke bottles of Connecticut River and Hartford, Connecticut spring water, while the third sponsor, a naval lieutenant, completed the ceremony with a bottle of sea water.
Champagne, perhaps because of its elegance as the aristocrat of wines, came into popular use as a “christening fluid” as the 19th century closed. A granddaughter of Secretary of the Navy Benjamin P. Tracy wet the bow of Maine, the Navy’s first steel battleship, with champagne at the New York Navy Yard, November 18, 1890. The effects of national prohibition on alcoholic beverages were reflected to some extent in ship christenings. Cruisers Pensacola and Houston, for example, were christened with water; the submarine V-6 with cider. However, battleship California appropriately received her name with California wine in 1919. Champagne returned, but for the occasion only, in 1922 for the launch of light cruiser Trenton. Rigid naval airships Los Angeles, Shenandoah, Akron, and Macon, built during the 1920s and early 1930s, were carried on the Naval Vessel Register, and formally commissioned.
The earliest First Lady of the United States to act as sponsor was Mrs. Calvin Coolidge who christened dirigible Los Angeles. When Mrs. Herbert Hoover christened Akron in 1931, the customary bottle was not used. Instead, the First Lady pulled a cord which opened a hatch in the airship’s towering nose to release a flock of pigeons.
Thousands of ships of every description, the concerted effort of mobilized American industry, came off the ways during World War II to be molded into the mightiest navy the world had ever seen. The historic christening-launching ceremonies continued, but travel restrictions, other wartime considerations, and sheer numbers dictated that such occasions be less elaborate than those in the years before the nation was engaged in desperate worldwide combat.
The actual physical process of launching a new ship from her building site to the water involves three principal methods. Oldest, most familiar, and most widely used is the "end-on" launch in which the vessel slides, usually stern first, down an inclined shipway. The "side launch," whereby the ship enters the water broadside, came into 19th-century use on inland waters, rivers, and lakes, and was given major impetus by the World War II building program. Another method involves ships built in basins or graving docks. When ready, ships constructed in this manner are floated by admitting water into the dock.