Source: “The Prinz Albert” (1897) painted by Antonio Jacobsen (1850-1921).
Clipper ships were so named because they were fast sailors, a term derived from to “clip”, that is getting as much propulsion as possible from the available wind. They represented the utmost evolution and refinement in the design of sail ships. The name was adopted to mean fast ship by the 1830s. For a seagoing, cargo-carrying vessel, the clipper ship was quite fast; speeds have been recorded up to 20 nautical mph but with limited cargo carrying capacity (long and thin design with large sail surface). Because of this advantage, they were able to fill a valuable niche of “express” cargo and passenger services, much similar to what long-distance airliners assumed from the 1960s. They usually carried crews of about 25 to 50 sailors. Their impact on trade was very significant, as before their introduction, it could take between 12 and 15 months to sail from South Asia to England. By 1850, this journey was halved. For instance, the clipper ship “Oriental” was able to sail from Hong Kong to London in 97 days that year. The absolute one day distance record made by a clipper involved 436 nautical miles.
Clipper ships were fast, but no specific rig type was standard. By 1845, the term was used in conjunction with a name indicating the cargo carried, or area served by a fast-sailing vessel, and a specific rig type was usually indicated. For instance, the California clipper, the China clipper, and the tea clipper were all ship-rigged vessels with sharp bows and were designed for speed. As hinted, it is the growth of the China trade in the second half of the 19th century that created the most substantial impetus for the usage of clippers. Tea, was a particularly time-sensitive commodity since its quality deteriorated with time and thus commercially benefited from fast clipper services.
The clipper era ended when reduced freight rates made possible the introduction of steamships that offered the double benefit of faster speeds as well as using direct paths. The economies of scale they conferred undermined the competitiveness of sail ships over increasingly longer distances. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also favored the usage of steamships in the long-distance trade between Europe and Asia by reducing travel distances and destroying the niche advantage that clipper ships had over such distances. By the early 20th century, clipper ships were no longer competitive and disappeared from global shipping lanes.