One of the most-recognizable objects in the collections here at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is not a skipjack or a lighthouse- it’s an amply endowed, brightly painted figurehead. “Miss Freedom,” as she is known familiarly here at CBMM, is undoubtedly one of the highlights of any visit to our campus. But behind her carmine pout and myopic gaze is a history of generous proportions.
Where did such a big figurehead come from? Although her scale would indicate she was intended for an enormous ship, “Miss Freedom” was always, in fact, a bit top-heavy. She was made for a relatively small vessel—the 88-foot schooner yacht Freedom. But when yacht designer John G. Alden built Freedom in 1931, he never intended for her to have a figurehead at all.
“Miss Freedom” adorning the prow of the schooner Freedom, ca, 1955.
Just before World War II, the schooner was given to the U.S. Naval Academy to train midshipmen in sailing. One of Freedom’s captains requested a figurehead, and the Academy’s patternmaker, John M. Cook, made a sizeable one. Boasting a starry headress with gilded eagle’s wings, the figurehead was eye-catching. It was also quite obviously out of proportion to the modest schooner, dominating most of the vessel’s prow.
After a few years, “Miss Freedom” had to be removed. Her statuesque bulk added 450 pounds to the bow and was vulnerable to damage. Retired from her life on the water, she was then installed at the Naval Academy Museum for the next chapter in her life.
“Miss Freedom” and her obvious charms proved to be quite a popular addition to the Naval Academy. Carver John M. Cook later recalled, “Midshipmen entered the Museum where the Freedom figurehead was and rubbed their hands on the large bosoms for luck.” He continued, “One Midshipman wrote his mother and told her what he did and the luck he had. Apparently his mother didn’t agree. She wrote the Admiral a letter, and the Admiral’s orders were, ‘Move it.’”
A young visitor to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum poses with “Miss Freedom” in the 90′s. Image courtesy of Allison Speight.
Needing a new home for the buxom blonde, the Naval Academy Museum arranged to loan “Miss Freedom” to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. She’s spent the last 30 years as the unofficial ‘hostess with the mostest,’ featuring in countless family photos with her iconic physique and winning patriotic flair. This year, she’ll be installed in a place of honor in our Broad Reach: 50 Years of Chesapeake Collecting exhibition, as one of the 50 top highlights of our collection. Surrounded by priceless artifacts and fascinating images, she holds her own- "Miss Freedom,” a woman with a Naval past and a ruby-lipped Chesapeake future.