The Legacy of Howard Chapelle: The study of the maritime past, the preservation of the maritime present

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  • Howard I. Chapelle was a naval architect and maritime historian who began a career at the Smithsonian in 1957 as Curator of Transportation and retired in 1971 as Historian Emeritus. Born in 1901, Chapelle grew up in the busy maritime area of New Haven, Connecticut. He was given his first sailboat at the age of 12, and was determined to become a designer of small watercraft. Poor health prevented Chapelle from attending classes at Webb Institute of Naval Architecture, which specialized in big-ship design, and he received no more formal education after high school. However, in 1919 Chapelle began a 10-year self-directed apprenticeship, working in boat yards, design offices, and shipyards, learning valuable lessons during the process from some of the great naval architects of the time.
  • Before he was 30 years old, Chapelle had established himself as a practicing small-craft designer and serious scholar of the history of naval architecture. He published his first book in 1930, but his 1941 "Boatbuilding," and "American Small Sailing Craft," published in 1951, became the most influential. Though criticized as poorly organized and lacking some basic information, the books were a boost to the wooden boat revival which began in the late 1960's. Chapelle documented the boats from traditional American maritime culture that had been overtaken by engine-powered vessels; his detailed plans and exquisite drawings of North American boat types, from colonial times to the 1930's, encouraged readers to resurrect the old work boat types.
  • Even though some of Chapelle's adaptations of historical designs were imperfect, and he did not like sailing much himself, he is considered to have single-handedly defined the scope of the history of small-vessel naval architecture. He had no formal academic training, but is viewed by the author as an energetic and knowledgeable amateur who was driven to document as much of the small-craft culture as possible before it disappeared entirely. The author makes only brief reference to Chapelle's involvement with the Smithsonian, but the highlights of his career there are included in the article's "A Howard Chapelle Chronology."


  • Chapelle, Howard Irving
  • National Museum of History and Technology (U.S.)
  • Museum of History and Technology (U.S.) Division of Transportation


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


  • This article, in a slightly different form, was originally published in "Nautical Quarterly." The author is Acting Editor of "Wooden Boat."
  • Article includes "A Howard Chapelle Chronology."

Contained within

WoodenBoat: The Magazine for Wooden Boat Owners, Builders and Designers Number 84 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


September/October 1988


  • Boatbuilding
  • Navigation
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • Employees
  • Museums
  • History
  • Naval history
  • Naval Architecture
  • Biography
  • Navigation--History
  • Museum curators
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees


Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

Number of pages : 11; Page numbers : 76-84, 86, 88

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