Called SIBs by aficionados, and made by hand and by those with the patience of Job, ships in bottles have been around since at least the mid-1800s. Frances Walsh looks at their origins and appeal.

Frances Walsh | 25 March 2022

There’s something about a ship in a bottle. First, the art of navigating an object that doesn’t appear to fit through the small mouth of a glass bottle is a conundrum—as in, how the hell does that work? Then, there’s the attraction of the miniature, which reduces large and complex things to small examinable things. ‘So far as it goes, a small thing may give analogy of great things, and show the tracks of knowledge,’ wrote the first century BCE Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. Toylike SIBs are also freighted with nostalgia and longing—for our childhoods, for historic ships and boats, for preindustrial labouring and crafting.

The origins of the practice of putting object in bottles are hazy, perhaps religious and talismanic in nature, and referencing the Passion. By the nineteenth century Irish Catholics look to have been suspending wooden crosses, hammers, nails, spears, crowing cocks, die, etc., in water and oil in clear glass bottles. Similar eerie microcosms were made in Germany and in northern Europe. The genre these days is referred to as God-in-a-bottle, or possibly GIBs. There was also Matthias Buchinger, who in 1719 filled a glass bottle with a mining tableau, with workers manning their equipment above and below ground level. It may be the world’s oldest bottle model, but is notable for another reason. The German Buchinger was a wildly implausible human marvel—an accomplished musician and calligrapher whose etchings incorporated microscopic lettering. He was born without hands and feet, and stood twenty-nine inches tall.

Although there exists an SIB dating to 1795 in Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum—it’s a paviljoenpoon or single-masted hooker, vertically suspended in a wide-mouth flask—ships as subjects seem to have caught on from the mid-nineteenth century, when improvements in glass bottle production allowed for a clearer, less distorted view of interiors. In the early twentieth century the cost of bottles also decreased as mass production displaced hand-blown glass. Specialist bottles such as Johnny Walker’s square one—a shape designed to minimise breakages in transit—as well as the three-sided, dimpled Haig’s whisky bottle, were manufactured from 1860 and 1888 respectively, and were popular with ship bottlers because they had short necks and didn’t roll away.

Working and retired seafarers, lighthouse keepers, fishers, and other sedulous characters from all major sea-going nations produced SIBs. They usually carved the hull from wood and set the vessel in a putty sea-base up to the level of the waterline. Unsurprisingly, in the early twentieth century the variety of ships increased, sailing ships being joined by steamers, passenger liners, hospital ships and tugs, sometimes shown against dioramas of the shoreline.

Some makers showed a lack of restraint: among many works of ‘extraordinary genius’ on display at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in 1939, wrote The Evening Post at the time, were a few made by Mr R. J. Ricketts of Nelson. One of his glass bottles containing a four-masted barque, a three-masted barque, a yacht, a steamer, two tugs, a seaplane, and a lighthouse. Rickets took out first prize in the Exhibition’s model section for his other slightly off-piste handiwork; he triumphed with a collection of light bulbs ranging from 1-10 inches in length, into which he had placed knee-high-to-a-grasshopper ships. A ship-wright by trade, Ricketts began bottling in 1934, after seeing a crudely made SIB in a Hokitika pub and persuading the barkeep to give it him for study purposes.

In the above utilitarian bottle Rudolph Finderup has imprisoned two sloops, a ketch, a clipper and a four-masted barquentine. The ex-seafarer and wharfie—he first went to sea as a messroom boy on a Danish steamer in 1904—made the chokka SIB along with 1000 others in his garage in the Wellington suburb of Island Bay. Finderup’s flotilla sails past a verdant coast—other sweet touches are in evidence in a couple of other museum SIBs.

Ernie Harrison added a plume of steam, fashioned from wool, to his above model of the 1912 three-masted barquentine Endurance, until recently the lost ship of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. In 1899, aged 13, Harrison joined Shaw Savill’s steamer Waiwera in London as a deck boy. Many hairy Cape Horn roundings later he retired to Levin.

At the tiller of Des Newton’s model of the 1846 Liverpool pilot cutter Teaser stands a man from Lilliput. Newton, a former submarine welder, was the SIB demonstrator and foremost expert at Liverpool’s Merseyside Maritime Museum for 20 years from 1985, describing himself as ‘a glass receptacle miniature artefact inserter’.


As to how Newton and others wrangled their models into bottles, James Bisset explains in his autobiography Sail Ho! My Early Years at Sea. In 1901 Bisset was serving in County of Pembroke, two years into an ‘apprenticeship in sail’, and bound for England from Portland USA:

'One of our sailors throughout the voyage had been working in the dog watches at putting a ship into a bottle, a task it had taken him twelve months to complete. With endless patience he had built a ship in miniature from pieces of wood, whittled with his jackknife, and had rigged her correctly with all sails to the royals on her three masts, using thin tarred twine for rigging and carefully carved tiny pieces of wood for blocks and tackles. There was nothing omitted. She was complete with deckhouses, wheel, binnacle, capstans, anchors, bitts, even belaying pins in the rails. She was painted and varnished and perfect. When we arrived at Portland, the old seaman obtained a narrow-necked bottle, and some putty and green colouring matter for the ‘sea’. After rubbing the colour into the putty, he ran it into the bottle lying on its side. Then came the great moment of putting the ship into the bottle. He cut the masts off short at the deck and hinged them, so that the whole top hamper lay down flat in a fore-and-aft direction. Then he inserted the ship, stern first, through the neck of the bottle, and maneuvered her on the sea of green putty into a central position. When she was firmly settled there, he gently pulled on fine threads attached to the masts and the yards and passing through the end of the jib boom and out through the neck of the bottle. With these threads he raised the masts to a vertical position and trimmed the yards horizontally. Hey presto! A ship in a bottle! He decorated the cork and the neck of the bottle with cunningly worked twine plaiting known as cross-pointing and brightened this up with a few touches of paint.'

Bisset bought the wonder for two pounds of chewing tobacco, to give to his mother to put on her mantelpiece. ‘A real work of art, I considered it,’ he writes.



Bisset, James. Sail Ho! My Early Years at Sea. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1958.

“Builder of Model Ships Dead”, The Press, February 12, 1958, 8.

“Display of Models.” The Evening Post, November 14, 1939, 11.

Hoare, Philip. “Gods in bottles and concrete crocodiles: British Folk Art at Tate Britain.” The New Statesman, July 3, 2014.

Lucretius. De rerum natura. Translated by Frank O. Copley [The Nature of Things]. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977.

Stammers, Michael. “Ships in Bottles and Their Origins in the Late Nineteenth Century.” The Mariner's Mirror 99, no. 1 (2013): 92-94.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993.

Thomas, Brian. “How to put a ship in a bottle.” Taranaki Herald, May 18, 1974, 5

“Tributes to expert ship bottler.” BBC Liverpool, February 5, 2009.

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