Burton Reckles

Many docents have donated models or contributed articles about individual ships or exhibits in the collection at Houston Maritime. As a miniature artist, I have donated many miniature models to the collection. To accompany those models, I requested to write an article about a 400-year-old dying art form and an art form for which I am extremely passionate, the ship-in-a-bottle (SIB).

First. A little history. The first example of art in a bottle was found in Germany, and it dates from the 1600s. It was not a ship but rather a multilevel mining scene. Miniatures, on the other hand, have a much longer history. Small boats and models have been found in hundreds of Egyptan tombs, dating back thousands of years. So many ship models have been found that they are common in early every museum, and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo has an entire room dedicated to them.

The first dated SIB currently resides in a museum in Luebeck, Germany, and is dated 1784. In the early years, bottles were expensive because each was hand-blown, but the birth of the industrial revolution in the 1700s introduced machine-made bottles & the art took sail.  Sailors adopted the art because many sailings, such as whaling voyages, took crews away for several years, giving them hours of shipboard time to create a piece for a wife or girlfriend.  Unfortunately, today the art is dying because people do not have the time to devote to these miniature creations. Many people are fascinated by the art, but when prompted to enroll in a class, many other commitments pull at their time.  

From Houston Maritime’s collection. Handmade in India.

According to the now-defunct Ships-In-Bottles Association of America (SIBAA), there are only about 100 artisans who seriously pursue this art, making me one of a very few. In my over 25 years as an artist, I have learned that if you can bottle a ship, you can bottle anything. I have created garden scenes, religious works, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes, but my greatest joy was helping to found and contribute pieces to Houston Maritime’s collection of SIBs.


Virtually every maritime museum has one or two examples of the art, but Houston Maritime is fortunate to have about 30 pieces on display. With Burton Reckles’ assistance, pieces have been contributed from England, France, Australia, and India.

If you are interested in learning or developing the art of creating SIBs, email Houston Maritime at info@houstonmaritime.org to get in touch!

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