When I was teaching a class called “Recreational Leadership” at Christian
College, the semester project in handicrafts was to put a ship in a bottle.
The students knew this early in the semester, and I warned them that “You’ll
need patience, dexterity, ingenuity, perseverance.... all of that and more.”
Recently, Judy Cunningham visited us and brought along the ship in a bottle
that she made in my class 32 years ago. It was beautiful. The little ship had
three white masts and was rigged with white “ropes.” It rested on a bed of
modeling clay and had a pad of clay outside to keep the bottle right side up.
It was, without doubt, better than any ship I ever put in a bottle! And I’ve
When our Walt was 6 years old, I worked for several days to get a ship in a
bottle for his birthday. He unwrapped it and stared at it for a long time
before thanking me. I felt that he really liked his gift. A few weeks later he
said, “Mom, could you ever make me a ship like that and not put it in a
Judy chose a tall, round whiskey bottle with a small opening and a long neck.
The smaller the opening, the smaller the ship, of course. The longer the neck,
the more difficult to set the ship in place. I told the students to improvise
tools, sticks or use long knitting needles, for example, to press the ship
into the bed of clay, once it was completed, folded and pushed through the
bottle neck. I told the girls to come to my office if they needed help, and
some came. Some frustrated ones cried.
There are at least two ways to get a ship into a bottle. People ask, “Did you
cut a hole in the bottle and put the boat in?” Not so. The ship, sails,
rigging, etc., must all pass through the neck. Each part can go through the
neck, separately, the hull going in first. The sails and rigging can be added
and glued down, one at a time. That’s the hard way. The other way is to insert
the completed ship all at once. The masts are hinged with tiny tape, and the
ropes are glued just right. The sails are gently rolled for the trip into the
bottle. A long thread is then pulled to raise the masts and sails after the
ship is pressed into the clay. What a thrill to pull that long thread and see
all of the masts stand in place! What a tragedy if it isn’t right. A spot of
glue is put on the tip of the bow and holds the thread and is cut off later.
What an accomplishment! Pride comes when a friend says, “You didn’t do that,
you bought it.”
Some students put this project off till near the deadline. Their bottles had
smudges of modeling clay on the interior glass and some had specks of glue.
Many girls, like Judy, made beautiful ships in shiny clean bottles. And she
admitted, “Yes, I cried.”
Why did I ask them to put ships in bottles? Because it required emotional
stability, it taught them something about handling stress, about solving
life’s problems. Thirty-two years after she put that ship in a bottle, Judy
said, “I learned so much that has affected my life.”
Can any old teacher receive a greater reward than that?