Monday, November 19, 2012

History: The Naval Uniform

It may seem curious to some but it appears that the U.S. Navy, not her titanic mother the Royal Navy, was the first to standardize the dress of its able seamen. As early as the War of 1812, which occurred only a scant 36 years after independence was declared, U.S. Navy purchasing agents were ordering "cotton frocks" in standard blue and white nankeen, a type of cotton and wool blend. This at a times when the average sailor in European navies wore the clothes he climbed aboard ship wearing.

Over at the USSCM blog, Jack Tar offers an excellent example of the kind of naval uniform that became common after the Civil War. The little suit, which made it through a boiler explosion - as did young John T. Jefferson who was wearing it at the time - is curious not only for its survival but for its details. Sailors, who have always been handy with needle and thread, often embroidered their uniforms. Popular designs included natural items such as flower and vines (as on the front flap of Jefferson's trousers) as well as the almost obligatory stars. These were often placed on the shirt flap, which evolved into the familiar collar we know today.

Jack quotes Samuel Leech as an example. Leech was one of those much spoken of British deserters who served aboard USS Siren during the War of 1812:

I... adopted that peculiarity of dress practiced by American men-of-war's men, which consisted in wearing my shirt open at the neck, with the corners thrown back. On these corners a device was wrought, consisting of the stars of the American flag...

It is interesting to note that Leech considered this uniformity of gear a "peculiarity."

Out of these fledgling uniforms, certain myths have continued right down to our own time. The flap-front pant, which even the World War I recruit pictured above would have worn, had a different number of buttons depending on the era. Yet, a curious belief stems from the thirteen button pant. Per Peter H. Spectre:

According to the U.S. Navy, there is nothing to the rumor that the number of buttons (13) on enlisted men's flap-front trousers is in honor of the original 13 colonies. Rather, in the early 19th century there were 15 buttons, and 7 in the late 19th century; only when the flap front was enlarged - why? nobody seems to know - did the number of buttons become 13.

Another patently ludicrous myth is noted by Jack. People - and unfortunately some writers of both nautical fact and fiction - persist in the notion that the three rows of white piping on the modern navy dress is to memorialize the "three great victories" of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. The same people will tell you that the black neckerchief is also a remembrance of his death at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Why anyone would imagine that remembering Nelson - a man who would have happily battled America on wave had he survived to do so - would be such a priority for the U.S. Navy is beyond reasonable thought. The piping is simply an extension of that itch to decorate that sailors seem to come by naturally. And what is less likely to show dirt than a black neckerchief?

Header: World War I U.S. Navy recruiting poster by Josef Pierre Nuyttens via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

We always were ahead of our time over here, Pauline. At least, we used to be...

Young Jefferson was a very lucky boy.

And I think we know why the flap was enlarged, Pauline...


Dale B said...

Strange you should pick this topic. I have just been doing some research on Nelson, and have my book on Uniforms of the US Navy, by James C Tily at hand.

The first formal regulation on enlisted uniforms was issued in 1852 when the details as to the cloth, cut and uses were set into regulation. The uniformity had already been well established by the slop clothes issued. Officers Uniforms had been well regulated much earlier.

As to Horatio;

Actually Nelson spent much time attacking US Privateers in the West Indies during the Revolution while passing from Lieutenant to Post Captain. Even after the war he seized the cargoes of several American ships for illegally (in his opinion) trading with British ports. There was a lawsuit from the American Captains that almost made him flee from England!

Dale B

Charles L. Wallace said...

Nice poster, Pauline....
back at my commissioning source, we weekly performed a thing called "The Flag Pageant"... I did not draw a flag (they represented all the various national flags down through history), but was lucky enough to don the "1917 Sailor" uniform and strut on down when called-upon. Felt a bit of a rock star, I guess :-D