The first ships to which the term "clipper" seems to have been applied were the Baltimore clippers. Baltimore clippers were topsail schooners developed in the Chesapeake Bay before the American Revolution, and which reached their zenith between 1795 and 1815. They were small, rarely exceeding 200 tons OM, and modelled after French luggers. Some were lightly armed in the War of 1812, sailing under Letters of Marque and Reprisal, when the typeexemplified by Chasseur, launched at Fells Point, Baltimore in 1814 became known for her incredible speed; the deep draft enabled the Baltimore clipper to sail close to the wind. Clippers, running the British blockade of Baltimore, came to be recognized for speed rather than cargo space.
Speed was also required for the Chinese opium trade between England, India and China. Small, sharp-bowed British vessels were the result. An early example, which is today known as an opium clipper, was Transit of 1819. She was followed by many more.
Meanwhile, Baltimore Clippers still continued to be built, and were built specifically for the China opium trade running opium between India and China, a trade that only became unprofitable for American shipowners in 1849.
Ann McKim is generally known as the original clipper ship. She was built in Baltimore in 1833 and was the first attempt at building a larger swift vessel in the United States. Ann McKim 494 tons OM, was built on the enlarged lines of a Baltimore clipper, with sharply raked stem, counter stern and square rig. She was built in Baltimore in 1833 by the Kennard & Williamson shipyard. Although Ann McKim was the first large clipper ship ever constructed, it cannot be said that she founded the clipper ship era, or even that she directly influenced shipbuilders, since no other ship was built like her; but she may have suggested the clipper design in vessels of ship rig. She did, however, influence the building of Rainbow in 1845, the first extreme clipper ship.
In Aberdeen, Scotland, the shipbuilders Alexander Hall and Sons developed the "Aberdeen" clipper bow in the late 1830s: the first was Scottish Maid launched in 1839. Scottish Maid, 150 tons OM, was the first British clipper ship. "Scottish Maid was intended for the Aberdeen-London trade, where speed was crucial to compete with steamships. The Hall brothers tested various hulls in a water tank and found the clipper design most effective. The design was influenced by tonnage regulations. Tonnage measured a ship's cargo capacity and was used to calculate tax and harbour dues. The new 1836 regulations measured depth and breadth with length measured at half midship depth. Extra length above this level was tax-free and became a feature of clippers. Scottish Maid proved swift and reliable and the design was widely copied." The earliest British clipper ships were built for trade amongst the British Isles. Then followed the vast clipper trade of tea, opium, spices and other goods from the Far East to Europe, and the ships became known as "tea clippers".
From 1839, larger American clipper ships started to be built beginning with Akbar, 650 tons OM, in 1839, and including the 1844-built Houqua, 581 tons OM. These larger vessels were built predominantly for use in the China tea trade and known as "tea clippers". Smaller clipper vessels also continued to be built predominantly for the China opium trade and known as "opium clippers" such as the 1842 built Ariel, 100 tons OM.
Then in 1845 Rainbow, 757 tons OM, the first extreme clipper was launched in New York. These American clippers were larger vessels designed to sacrifice cargo capacity for speed. They had a bow lengthened above the water, a drawing out and sharpening of the forward body, and the greatest breadth further aft. Extreme clippers were built in the period 1845 to 1855. From 1851 or earlier another type of clipper ship was also being built in American shipyards, the medium clipper. The medium clipper, though still very fast, had comparatively more allowance for cargo. After 1854 extreme clippers were replaced in American shipbuilding yards by medium clippers.
The Flying Cloud was a clipper ship that set the world's sailing record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco, 89 days 8 hours. She held this record for over 100 years, from 1854 to 1989. Flying Cloud was the most famous of the clippers built by Donald McKay. She was known for her extremely close race with the Hornet in 1853; for having a woman navigator, Eleanor Creesy, wife of Josiah Perkins Creesy, who skippered the Flying Cloud on two record-setting voyages from New York to San Francisco; and for sailing in the Australia and timber trades.
Clipper ships largely ceased being built in American shipyards in 1859 when, unlike the earlier boom years, only 4 clipper ships were built. That is except for a small number built in the 1860s, and the last American clipper ship from the East Boston shipyard of Donald McKay in 1869, Glory of the Seas.
During the time from 1859 British clipper ships continued to be built. Earlier British clipper ships had become known as extreme clippers, and were considered to be "as sharp as the American" built ships. From 1859 a new design was developed for British clipper ships that was nothing like the American clippers. These ships built from 1859 continued to be called extreme clippers. The new design had a sleek graceful appearance, less sheer, less freeboard, lower bulwarks, and smaller breadth. They were built for the China tea trade and began with Falcon in 1859, and finished with the last ships built in 1870. It is estimated that 25 to 30 of these ships were built, and no more than 45 per year. The earlier ships were made from wood, though some were made from iron, just as some British clippers had been made from iron prior to 1859. In 1863 the first tea clippers of composite construction were brought out, combining the best of both worlds. Composite clippers had the strength of iron spars with wooden hulls, and copper sheathing could be added to prevent the fouling that occurred on iron hulls.
After 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal that greatly advantaged steam vessels (see below, "Decline"), the tea trade then collapsed for clippers. From the late 1860s-early 1870s the clipper trade increasingly focused on trade and the carrying of immigrants between England and Australia and New Zealand, a trade that had begun earlier with the Australian Gold Rush in the 1850s. British-built clipper ships were used for this trade, as were many American-built ships which were sold to British owners. Even in the 1880s, sailing ships were still the main carriers of cargoes to and from Australia and New Zealand. Eventually, however, even this trade became unprofitable, and the aging clipper fleet became unseaworthy.