When Jeff Kappel’s father Lester passed away this May just a few months shy of his 100th birthday, Jeff was faced with the decision of rehoming his father’s extensive collection of ships in a bottle. Ultimately he chose 19 items to donate to The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor.
“I want it seen. My father collected for years and loved sharing his collection with people, and I want to continue that,” he said.
The art of ship in a bottle is a finely crafted and challenging folk art. The earliest surviving models date to the late 1700’s. Popularized by both American and European mariners who needed to pass long hours at sea, the creator would use a discarded bottle, bits of wood and other materials to create a tiny yet accurate model of a sailing ship.
With great patience for handiwork, the model was created with complete but collapsible rigging, which was inserted folded into the neck of a bottle, set into a painted diorama, and had the sails raised. Each ship in a bottle is unique, and was often created as a gift or souvenir. Retired seamen also maintained their skills by engaging in the hobby.
Lester Kappel spent a lifetime collecting ships in a bottle, some of which were loaned years ago to the Whaling Museum for a special exhibition about the craft.
Born in Brooklyn in 1923, Lester spent childhood summers in Long Beach. In 1939, his family moved to the area on Belmont Avenue. He attended Long Beach High School and studied aircraft mechanics at Roosevelt Aviation School in 1941 (where Roosevelt Field Mall is located today). He began working for Pan American Airlines, and served in the Navy for 18 months before transferring to the Army, where he worked on aircraft. After the war, he continued to work as an aircraft mechanic, as well as in his family’s printing business in Manhattan.
For 65 years, Lester was a member of the Point Lookout/Lido Fire Department, serving as Captain of the Lido company and fire commissioner for over five decades. He also joined the staff of the Long Beach Public Library in 1983.
The largest ship in a bottle in the collection “was found in Queens for $24. Whenever my father traveled, he would look for ships in a bottle to collect — and yet here in Queens was this find!”
Lester Kappel was not only a collector of ships in a bottle. He and his wife filled their home with antique firefighting equipment, wooden duck decoys, artwork, glass bottles, and household objects such as glove stretchers. The walls of his kitchen are lined with antique and vintage kitchen tools.
“We are very thankful to Jeff and the Kappel family for gifting these remarkable items to The Whaling Museum’s collection,” says Nomi Dayan, Executive Director. “This is a significant moment in helping us preserve and promote a unique part of our maritime heritage.”
A selection of ships in a bottle from this collection will be exhibited in the Museum’s craft workshop by September of this year and will be on display thereafter.
The Whaling Museum, 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor is open in the summer from Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Beginning Sept. 3rd, the museum will be open from Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more informtion, call 631-367-3418 or visit www.cshwhalingmuseum.org.