Sea Turtle Shell Cradle

Original content by: Laurie Hartnett

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About This Artifact

In 1865, American clipper ship Captain Richard C. Mears brought back a sea turtle shell from a trip to South America.  Knowing that his wife was pregnant, he commissioned New Haven furniture builders Bowditch & Sons to build him a one of a kind baby cradle.  There is even a clock mechanism on the side that winds up and allows the cradle to be self-rocking.  Using the shell as the frame, Mears was able to have a unique piece of furniture made for his child.

Though a cradle made of tortoise shell may be unusual, it was fairly common for seafarers of the 1800’s to bring home curios from other cultures and the natural world that were acquired during their travels.  Often, ship crews would catch hundreds of large shelled tortoises and sea turtles that would provide an abundance of food during their time at sea.  These animals could survive for months without food or water, allowing sailors to keep them aboard their ships, killing them when they wanted fresh mea and leaving behind shells to be used in a variety of ways.  This particular shell is probably from a green sea turtle.

Today, the use of real tortoise shell is considered illegal in many countries because many tortoise species are endangered.  However, in the 1800s, it was an organic material used for many different items, including combs, jewelry, eyeglass frames, and trinket boxes, among other things.

The last photograph of this artifact shows the turtle shell cradle after conservation and upholstery restoration.  To view more photographs of the cradle after restoration, view the slideshow on the left sidebar.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why do you think tortoise shell was used for the construction of so many different things in the 1800s?
  2. Why do you think sailors would often bring back such curios and objects from their trips? What were the pros and cons of bringing back such objects?
  3. Why do you think Captain Mears chose a sea turtle shell as the basis for his daughter's cradle?