Champagne Ship Launch
The tradition of christening a new ship for good luck and safe travel goes way back. Many ancient seafaring societies had their own ceremonies for launching a new ship. The Greeks wore olive branch wreaths around their heads, drank wine to honor the gods, and poured water on the new boat to bless it. The Babylonians sacrificed an ox, the Turks sacrificed a sheep, and the Vikings and Tahitians offered up human blood.
Ship christening in the young United States borrowed from contemporary English tradition. The launch of the USS Constitution in 1797 included the captain breaking a bottle of Madeira wine on its bow. Over the next century, the ritual of breaking or pouring of some “christening fluid” remained, but the fluid itself varied wildly. The USS Princeton, Raritan and Shamrock were all christened with whiskey. The USS New Ironsides was double-christened, first with a bottle of brandy and then with Madeira. Other ships were teetotalers, and launched with water or grape juice. The USS Hartford was christened three times, with water from the Atlantic Ocean, the Connecticut River and Hartford Spring. The USS Kentucky was launched with spring water by her official sponsor, but as the battleship slipped into the water, onlookers gave her a baptism more fitting of her namesake state and bashed small bottles of bourbon against her sides.
It’s not clear how champagne came to be the favored fluid. The Secretary of the Navy’s granddaughter christened the USS Maine, the Navy’s first steel battleship, with champagne in 1890. The shift to that particular sparkling wine might have been meant to coincide with the new era of steel, or it may just have just come into vogue because of association with power and elegance.
When Prohibition went into effect in the U.S., ships went sober again and were launched with water, juice or, in at least one case, apple cider. Champagne came back with the passage of the 21st Amendment and has stuck around since.