A variety of origins have been proposed for the term, including that such stones were taken from broken monuments of St. Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth or else the ruined church of St. Helens adjacent to the St Helens Road anchorage of the Isle of Wight where ships would often provision. The US Navy has it the term may have come from the fact that 'holystoning the deck' was originally done on one's knees, as in prayer. Smaller holystones were called "prayer books" and larger ones "Bibles". Holystoning eventually was not generally done on the knees but with a stick resting in a depression in the flat side of the stone and held under the arm and in the hands and moved back and forth with grain on each plank while standing – or sort of leaning over to put pressure on the stick-driven stone.
According to some sources, holystoning was banned in the US Navy as it wore down the decks too rapidly and caused excessive expense, but various sources indicate that in reality the practice disappeared slowly. A 1952 graduate of the Naval Academy recalls of his Youngster (sophomore) cruise to England in the summer of 1949 aboard the USS Missouri:
- "It was with a stick in the depression of what we were told was brick normally used as insulation in the boilers. A group of 30–40 would stand behind an estimated 4–5-inch board and would move the brick back and forth in coordination with the others while the person in charge would establish the cadence, and then command 'shift' when we would all back up one board and repeat the process. As I recall, sea water and sand were used to aid the effort. The result, once finished with a sea water rinse and a sun bleach, was a clean white deck, just in time for our arrival in Portsmouth, England."
A photo on the US Navy's Navsource purports to show Navy Midshipmen holystoning the deck of the same ship in 1951 and claims exist the practice continued until the Iowa-class battleships (New Jersey, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa) variously came out of commission in the early 1990s.
John Huston's 1956 film Moby Dick, and most recently Peter Weir's 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, show sailors scrubbing the deck with holystones. Holystoning is referenced in Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s diary, the 1840 classic Two Years Before the Mast, in what he calls the "Philadelphia Catechism":
- “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thou art able,
- And on the seventh—holystone the decks and scrape the cable.”
- Dean King, John B. Hattendorf, and J. Worth Estes, A Sea of Words, Holt & Co., NY, 1997, p. 238
- US Navy Office of Information - Origins of Navy Terminology page
- "Army & Navy: No more holystone." Time. June 8, 1931
- archive article (fee)
- photo archive of the USS Missouri
- The photo does not originate from US Navy sources and so is probably not usable here.
- Moby Dick at the Internet Movie Database
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World at the Internet Movie Database
- Dana, Richard Henry, Two Years Before the Mast (1840), Chapter Three. Online at Bartleby's Great Books Online