Coins and Sailing Traditions


Sailors are known as a superstitious bunch, and coins have been used in luck charms for almost as long as they have existed. It’s no wonder that there are maritime traditions involving coins.


Coins are involved at the very beginning of shipbuilding, during the keel laying. The builders place a coin or two beneath the keelblock of the ship, as a symbol of good fortune. These coins are usually loose, and often removed after the ship has left the dry-dock, though sometimes they are welded to the keel.


Another coin ceremony takes place when the mast is secured, or “stepped.” In the past, coins were placed directly under the mast step itself; it’s likely this custom began with the Romans. In ancient Roman custom, the dead must pay Charon a coin to gain passage across the river Styx. Coins below a ship’s mast would ensure that the sailors could pay this underworldly ferryman in case the ship sank. Other theories posit that the tradition began not as preparation for a watery grave, but as an offering to the gods for good luck on the journey.


In 1962, Peter Marsden discovered the wreck of a 2nd century AD sailing vessel by the side of the river Thames. It is the earliest-known sailing vessel of British origin; a bronze coin of the Emperor Domition was found under the mast.






Mast stepping ceremony for the USS Dewey

This tradition continues today; in fact, the official US Navy blog has a post about it. Coins are now put in a corrosive-proof case and welded to the radar mast of a ship. Coins are used, as well as memorabilia, and exonumismatic items like challenge tokens. Captain William J. Hart, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, said, “I think it’s very important we commemorate the stepping of the mast because it is a linkage between crews past, the current crew and the crew of the future. As we’re stepping the mast and rebuilding the ship, the story and legacy of the ship being involved in almost every major conflict in the past 25 years is passed on. Now the current crew picks up that legacy and has to build the ship and start building the new reputation of Theodore Roosevelt.” The USS Theodore Roosevelt had a mast-stepping ceremony in 2011, for which Roosevelt’s great-grandson was present.(A coin ceremony for this ship is particularly fitting, given Roosevelt’s long-lasting impact on American coin design.)


For thousands of years, sailors have used coins to bring good luck on the uncertain seas. It’s a tradition that connects the past and the present, and sure to extend into the future as well.

Why Are Meals Square?

“A square meal a day” keeps the doctor away. Or so they should say.

We’re told that our meals should be square and then we’ll be the epitome of health.

But why “square”? Why not “rectangular” or “heart-shaped”?

The jury’s out on this one. The phrase probably comes from the use of “square” as meaning “fair and square”, or honest and straightforward. Who doesn’t want an honest, satisfying meal?

One of the earliest appearances of the phrase was in a U.S. newspaper in 1856:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice.”


More literally square than figuratively square: the fifties TV dinner.

The rumors surrounding the term are more entertaining than its actual origin.

  • One such tale suggests that sailors used to eat off of square plates. The plates weren’t often filled all the way, but sometimes they would receive a large enough meal to fill the whole plate, making it a literal square meal. The Royal Navy did in fact serve meals on square plates, but the much later appearance of the phrase makes it unlikely that the Navy was the origin.
  • Another tale of medieval Britain suggests a square dinner plate with a bowl carved out in the middle to hold a serving of stew. Travelers would take this square with them in case they ran into some friendly neighborhood stew-cookers.
  • Yet another story suggests that the rigid way soldiers sat in the U.S. Military during meals formed a square shape, making a visit to the mess hall a square meal.

None of these tales are likely true, since “square meal” only showed up mid-19th century. But they make for good stories.

An 1865 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine wrote about a mining town and said, “Says the proprieter of a small shanty, in letters that send a thrill of astonishment through your brain: ‘LOOK HERE! For fifty cents you CAN GET A GOOD SQUARE MEAL at the HOWLING WILDERNESS SALOON!”

The writer needed to explain that this meant a “substantial repast” of sustenance. Clearly “square meal” needed a little time to become familiar.


World Wide Words

What are Naval Covers?

A special kind of philately takes place on the high seas.



At their most basic, naval covers are letters or postcards from sailors, with postmarks from U.S. Navy ships. Some of these postmarks have designs called cachets, unique designs that each have their own particular aesthetic.

“Naval philately” is its own special kind of collecting, less for the stamps and more for the postmarks and cachets.

The first naval cover collectors were members of the International Postal Marking Society, who sent stamped and addressed envelopes to U.S. Navy ships to receive strikes. Collectors still send envelopes for their collections today.

For the most part, Navy ships have their own postal stations. This is so that sailors have their own means of sending mail while sailing around the world.

Naval cover terminology is pretty basic:

  • There’s the dater circle, called a “dial”.
  • Slots are at the center for the date slugs.
  • These include either the name of a ship or a generic U.S. Navy marking in the dater.
  • The right of the dial has some kind of geometric pattern to prevent the stamp’s reuse (as anyone who has received a letter is familiar with), called the “killer”.

The online Naval Cover Museum at has a phenomenal collection that users can browse through and add to.

Here are just a few samples from their collection:

A cachet celebrating the double christening of the ships USS Mugford and USS Ralph Talbot.

A cachet celebrating the double christening of the ships USS Mugford and USS Ralph Talbot.

A more basic naval cover with the ship's cancel seen over the stamp.

A basic naval cover with the ship’s cancel seen over the stamp.

A cachet celebrating the change of command for USS Sculpin.

A cachet celebrating the change of command for USS Sculpin.

A birthday cachet for the USS Saratoga.

A birthday cachet for the USS Saratoga.

Just seeing the beautiful designs of the cachets confirms why naval cover collectors want to own these small pieces of art.

Take a look through the virtual naval cover museum. Do you see any covers you particularly like? Let us know in the comments!

And if you develop an interest in creating your own collection, the U.S. Navy has a list of Navy ship addresses.