The Sailmaking Tools of Captain William Scrimgeour

 The Sailmaking Tools of Captain William Scrimgeour
SC 253_282 Yachting in Galveston postcard from 1906

The Rosenberg Library Museum has sailmaking tools that were donated by the prominent Morgan family of Galveston. It is probable that Captain William Scrimgeour, an avid seaman, owned and used these sailmaking tools. Captain Scrimgeour was the father of Jean Coventry Scrimgeour who married into the Morgan family in 1890.

 The Sailmaking Tools of Captain William Scrimgeour
Museum Object 90.022.1.a,b Palm circa 1860

Sailmaking Tools

The sailmaking tools include a hand fid, a sailmaker’s palm, a seam rubber, and sailmaker’s needle with case. A canvas bag with a drawstring was used to carry these items. These tools were used to make and repair sails circa 1860.

  • A hand fid is a conical, pointed piece of hardwood used for splicing large ropes and opening the eyes of rigging.
  • A sailmaker’s palm is made of leather which is curved to fit the inside of the palm of the hand with a hole for the thumb and a dimpled brass stud. The palm tapers around the hand and fastens with a metal buckle. The needle was pushed through the cloth by pressing against its head with the dimpled brass stud. It is kind of like an oversized thimble.
  • The seam rubber is made of wood with a chisel end. It was used by sailmakers to flatten the seams where strips of canvas were joined to make a sail.
  • The needle case, with needles included, is a cylindrical wood case designed with bands of dark and light wood incised with decorations.
 The Sailmaking Tools of Captain William Scrimgeour
Museum Object 90.022.4 Wooden case with needles

The History of Sailmaking

Cloth sails can be seen in Egyptian art as far back as 3300 B.C. and was in use in several countries. Fabric sails were often heavy and unwieldy. When lighter fabrics became available, sailmakers combined fabrics of differing weights to make a more effective sail. Usually, the heavier fabrics were along the edges of the sail where reinforcement was needed. The lighter, more flexible fabric was used in the middle of the sail and cut with extra material to help catch the wind.

Sailmakers were skilled craftsmen that made and repaired sails, often working in teams. Most sailmakers trained apprentices as they worked so that these skills were passed on. Some larger ships employed craftsmen as crew so that sails could be repaired while at sea and voyages could go longer distances.

Sailmakers on land worked in a building called a sail loft. The sail loft was large enough for the sails to be spread out to cut and sewn by hand.

 The Sailmaking Tools of Captain William Scrimgeour
SC227_206 "Signaling at Sea" postcard from 1907

Captain William Scrimgeour

Born in 1836 in New York, William Scrimgeour ran away from his boarding school in New Hampshire and went in search of adventure at sea. After traveling the world several times, he made Galveston his home in 1857.

In Galveston, twenty-one year old William Scrimgeour began working for the Morgan Steamship Line as first officer. When the Civil War started, Captain Scrimgeour joined the Confederate cause and served as a lieutenant on the General Rusk. This ship was used by the Confederates as a signal and reconnaissance boat. It cruised Galveston harbor gathering information and trying, unsuccessfully, to run the Union’s blockade.

Later, Captain Scrimgeour took charge of the Confederate blockade-runner Alice. A blockade-runner was a ship built for speed used to get past the Union blockade. Once through the blockade, the Confederacy was able to trade goods, supplies, arms, and mail with others in the Confederate States of America. The Alice made 24 successful runs to the ports of Galveston, New Orleans, Key West, and Havana. In 1864, Federal officials captured Scrimgeour when he was leaving Havana. He was kept as a prisoner of war in Boston for 18 months before being released in a prisoner exchange.

After the war, Captain Scrimgeour again worked with the Morgan Line. During this time, he served in the Galveston Pilots’ Association in various positions. He was a bar pilot and the harbor master during the 1900 Storm. He and his wife, Josephine, lived in Galveston with their three children. In 1919, Captain William Scrimgeour died at his home.

The Treasure of the month is located on the 2nd floor of Rosenberg Library in the Grand Hallway. It can be viewed during regular library hours, 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM Monday, Friday, and Saturday and 9:00 AM - 8:00 PM Tuesday through Thursday. For museum questions, call 409.763.8854 Ext. 133 or email For press inquiries, contact the Communications Coordinator.

Past Treasures