Why Are Bottles of Champagne Smashed On New Ships?

Evgeniy_P/iStock via Getty Images
Evgeniy_P/iStock via Getty Images

Before a ship slides from its berth into the water, it must first get hit on—by a bottle of booze, usually champagne. Here’s the lowdown on the history and physics of smashing some bubbly and launching a ship.

Launch Party

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.

These events almost always had a religious tone to them, and the name of a favored god or god of the seas was often invoked. In the Middle Ages, two friars would often board British ships before their maiden voyage to pray, lay their hands on the masts and sprinkle holy water on the deck and bow.

The religious aspect of ship christening died off in Protestant Europe after the Reformation, especially in Great Britain. Some member of the royalty or nobility would instead join the crew for a secular ceremony of drinking from the “standing cup”—a large goblet, usually made of precious metal and fitted with a foot and a cover—and solemnly calling the ship by her name. After taking a drink, the presiding official would pour what liquid was left onto the deck or over the bow and then toss the cup over the side of the vessel, to be caught by a lucky bystander (or sink into the ocean). As Britain became a maritime power and its growing navy required more ships, the practice of discarding the expensive cups fell out of favor. For a while, they were caught in a net for reuse, but eventually, the whole ceremony was replaced by the breaking of a wine bottle across the ship’s bow.

Beverage Choices

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.

Heavy Hitter

Champagne bottles are basically booze-filled tanks. They have to stand up to the enormous pressure the wine creates inside them,  so their glass is very thick, and breaking them is no easy task. But, as Mark Miodownik, a material scientist at King's College London, told the BBC, it only takes a small defect, a slight imperfection in the glass, to compromise a bottle’s strength. He points out that bigger bottles have a higher probability of a natural defect, but any size bottle can be prodded along towards breaking if the wine has bigger bubbles, and hence more internal pressure. If ever you find yourself stuck christening a ship with a bottle that can take a beating, P&O (the British shipping and logistics company) chairman Sir John Parker, quoted in the same piece, suggests scoring the bottle with a glass cutter to to weaken it.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

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Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

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Are Halloween Pumpkins Edible?

Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash
Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash

When people visit their local family-owned pumpkin patch around Halloween, they aren’t usually looking for dinner. The majority of the nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkins cultivated in the U.S. each year are carved up instead of eaten, making the squash a unique part of the agriculture industry. For people who prefer seasonal recipes to decorations, that may raise a few questions: Are the pumpkins sold for jack-o’-lanterns different from pumpkins sold as food? And are Halloween pumpkins any good to eat?

The pumpkins available at farms and outside supermarkets during October are what most people know, but that’s just one type of pumpkin. Howden pumpkins are the most common decorative pumpkin variety. They’ve been bred specifically for carving into jack-o’-lanterns, with a symmetrical round shape, deep orange color, and sturdy stem that acts as a handle. Shoppers looking for the perfect carving pumpkin have other options as well: the Racer, Magic Wand, Zeus, Hobbit, Gold Rush, and Connecticut field pumpkin varieties are all meant to be displayed on porch steps for Halloween.

Because they’re bred to be decoration first, carving pumpkins don’t taste very good. They have walls that are thin enough to poke a cheap knife through and a texture that’s unappealing compared to the squashes consumers are used to eating. “Uncut carving pumpkins are safe to eat; however, it's not the best type to use for cooking,” Daria McKelvey, a supervisor for the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden, tells Mental Floss. “Carving pumpkins are grown for their large size, not the flavor. Their flesh can be bland and the fibers are very stringy.”

To get the best-tasting pumpkins possible this autumn, you’re better off avoiding the seasonal supermarket displays. Many pumpkin varieties are bred especially for cooking and eating. These include Sugar Pie, Kabocha, Jack-Be-Little, Ghost Rider, Hubbard, Jarrahdale, Baby Pam, and Cinderella pumpkins. You can shop for these varieties by name at local farms or in the produce section of your grocery store. They should be easy to tell apart from the carving pumpkins available for Halloween: Unlike decorative pumpkins, cooking pumpkins are small and dense. This is part of the reason they taste better. McKelvey says. “[Cooking pumpkins] are smaller, sweeter, have a thicker rind (meatier), and have less fibers, making them easier to cook with—but not so good for carving.” These pumpkins can be stuffed, blended into soup, or simply roasted.

If you do want to get some culinary use out of your carving pumpkins this Halloween, set aside the seeds when scooping out the guts. Roasted with seasonings and olive oil, seeds (or pepitas) from different pumpkin varieties become a tasty and nutritious snack. Another option is to turn the flesh of your Halloween pumpkin into purée. Adding sugar and spices and baking it into a dessert can do a lot to mask the fruit’s underwhelming flavor and consistency.

Whatever you do, make sure your pumpkin isn’t carved up already when you decide to cook with it. There are many ways to recycle your jack-o’-lanterns, but turning them into pie isn’t one of them. "If one does plan on cooking with a carving pumpkin, it should be intact,” McKelvey says. “Never use one that's been carved into a jack-o'-lantern, otherwise you could be dealing with bacteria, dirt and dust, and other little critters.”