My affinity for early Twentieth Century U.S. Navy Uniforms, especially those from the enlisted ranks, is increasing even if I am financially restrained from pursuing my most desired pieces when they surface onto the market. On some rare occasions, an artifact that I would love to add to my collection is listed and flies beneath the radar of fellow collectors leaving me the opportunity and wherewithal to bring it home.
I have written several articles (including considerable research for each) related to elements of uniforms from the first few decades of the last century ranging from rating badges, enlisted jumpers and head coverings and yet there is much that I am still discovering. The overwhelming focus of this site has been directed at naval artifacts and my collection is heavily weighted with U.S. Navy artifacts however I cannot consider myself to be an expert in these areas. One item of the enlisted naval uniform that I have much to learn about is surrounding the dress blue cap, known by many as the “Donald Duck Hat” or simply, the flat hat.
To delve into the full history of enlisted headwear and the entire life of the dress blue cap, I would need to write a multipart series of articles in order to give the hat its proper due (perhaps that will be a future project?). For the purposes of this post and to reflect the pieces that I have in my own collection, this article will be constrained with a narrow and specific focus.
Though flat hats were an integral part of the enlisted naval uniform for well over a century, it has been more than a half-century since the Navy retired them from usage. The earliest references to the flat caps were seen in the Navy Uniform Regulations of 1833 as the Navy began to standardize wear for seaman and petty officers.
ART. 601. The outside dress clothing of the petty officers, seamen, ordinary seamen, landsmen, and boys, shall consist of blue cloth jackets and trowsers (sic), blue vest, blue cloth cap or black hat, black handkerchief, and shoes, when the weather is cold; when the weather is warm, it shall consist of white frock and trowsers, black or white hats, or blue cloth caps, as the commander may direct, having regard to the convenience and comfort of the crew, black handkerchiefs and shoes.
In the 1833 regulation, there is no specific mention of “flat hat” as the term itself wasn’t part of the vernacular in use regarding the headwear at the time. Of the two references (in bold) referring to blue or black headwear, the cloth cap is the early example of what we know today as the flat hat. “Black hat” is referencing the various broad brimmed black tarpaulin headwear that were worn for several decades by enlisted sailors in the mid-to-late 1800s. These are actually (sennit) straw hats that were coated with tar that provided the sailor with a waterproof head covering that could withstand the rigors of shipboard life. The caps were adorned with a ribbon that was the forerunner of the hat talley that would be seen on the flat hats.
As the uniforms evolved with technology, the hats advanced. Painting straw hats with tar began give way to new methods for waterproofing such as creating a tarpaulin cover. Further advancements that helped in the reduction uniform expenditures and conserving the very limited space aboard ship but allowing sailors to have a single hat instead by making the hat convertible from a standard sennit to a waterproof one. by fitting the hat with a two-piece cover fabricated from oilskin or oilcloth fabric provides the desired effect.
Aside from the black (flat straw) hats, sailors also began wearing blue cloth cap that was the forerunner of what was later known as the dress blue hat for enlisted personnel. By the time the American Civil War began, the blue cloth caps were the most commonly worn hats by petty officers and seaman. The long ribbons that encircled the black hats were transitioned to shortened (without the extended streaming tails) versions and some were adorned with the name of the sailor’s ship name (sans “U.S.S.”) added by hand using gold paint. Late in the Civil War, there were some instances of entire crews having their talley’s embroidered (with gold bullion) in lieu of the painted vessel names. The gold wire-bullion embroidery became common (though still not standardized) with for flat hats in the 1883 naval uniform regulations. Another aspect of the blue caps was that they were soft and formless leaving sailors to customize their caps to suit their individual style by adding stiffeners or filling (almost pillow-like) to give them a personalized shape. In 1866, the black hat tarpaulin hats were no longer used.
As the American Navy was advancing from wooden hulls and sail to ships made of steel and powered by steam, the uniforms worn by crews changed with their needs. Changes to the dress blue hat were made in 1883 that remained, keeping the flat hat’s appearance consistent for the next 40 years. The U.S. Navy didn’t have the uniform supply system in place that exists today (which truly came into being as World War II was looming on the horizon in 1940) leaving sailors subject to acquiring or even making various uniform components. Flat hats conformed to a regulation standard but would vary in the diameter of the top (9 to 11 inches) which differed as it conformed to the size of the sailor’s head. Dress blue hats included a broad leather sweatband that is seldom visible in surviving caps due to the cotton shirt lining that has been sewn in for both comfort and to conceal the damage to the cowhide (due to sweat and repeated, prolonged usage).
In the years leading up to the Great War, the flat hats became more standardized with cotton linings being sewn in at the manufacturers, effectively eliminating the variations of various printed patterns on the linings for subsequent caps. Still, sailors would either heavily customize their caps with almost gaudy embroidery and fancy needlework (typically on the crown) however such embellishments were unauthorized for wear aboard ship. Caps with these decorations were worn ashore and during liberty or leave periods. Though modern Navy regulations have all but eliminated the personalization of uniforms, sailors have always found a way to add their own custom touches over the last century and a half. Flat hats with such personal flair are exceedingly scarce and never fail to draw the interest of collectors.
Although they might appear to be, tally ribbons were never tied to flat hats. A closer examination of the ribbons reveal that the ribbon was wrapped around the outside of the cap (even with the sweatband), trimmed and the ends tucked beneath the bow that was already secured to the cap with a stitch. Once secured beneath the bow ribbon would be stitched around the circumference of the hat.
In 1933, the design of the flat hats changed once again with more standardizing in the shape and materials of the hat. Gone from the flat hats were the broad, head-size dependent thin and very flat top along with the printed cotton fabric lining. Also, the rigid hat stiffeners were changed leaving a more slouchy, beret-like appearance. The design gave the hat a pronounced for and aft appearance with the front portion of the top rising upwards, seemingly drawing more attention to the tally. The tallies also experienced a material change from the gold bullion wire ship and command names in favor of a gold colored thread, producing a low-profile lettering across the face of the talley that did not discolor with tarnish or verdigris. By 1940, the U.S. was rapidly growing its forces and building ships in an effort to catch up to the immense threat that was spreading in Europe and the Pacific. Ships of all classes were under construction in shipards up and down both coasts. To reduce the difficulties in managing ship identifyers for enlisted caps for each existing, under construction and planned naval vessel, the decision was made to eliminate the ship names from tallies and replace them with “U.S. Navy.” It has been suggested that this change was done as a security measure surrounding ship-movement but the notion that the presence of uniformed sailors in a port would be more obvious than the large battleships or aircraft carries is somewhat ridiculous.
One of my most recent flat hat acquisitions was one that I happened upon a few hours before the online auction listing was set to close. The dress blue cap was one that fit perfectly within my Navy collecting focus (see: Focused on Niche Areas of Collecting: USS Washington). The flat hat, a post-1933 design included a tally that indicated it was from the USS Seattle and yet there are a few questions regarding the hat design and tally combination. To help illustrate these questions, I have summarized the timeline of the ship below.
USS Washington/USS Seattle Timeline
- 1906, August 7 – Commissioned USS Washington (ACR-11)
- 1916, November 9 – Renamed “Seattle”
- 1920, July 17 – Reclassified (CA-11)
- 1927, August 29 – Changed Status to Receiving Ship
- 1931, July 1 – Classification changed to “Unclassified”
- 1941, February 15 – Reclassified (IX-39)
- 1946, June 28 – Decommissioned from active service
- 1946, July 19 – Stricken from Naval Register
- 1946, December 3 – Sold and eventually scrapped
USS Seattle’s reclassification from a combatant ship (a heavy cruiser) to a receiving ship transformed her role in regards to crew assignments. The mission of a receiving ship is two-fold: to serve as a location to receive newly inducted recruits as their personnel records are established, they are issued uniforms and initial training is conducted before they are sent on for to complete training and assignment to their permanent command. The other role of a receiving ship is to serve as a location for sailors who are nearing the end of their enlistments to be processed out of the naval service, having been transferred from their commands to await discharge. Receiving ships also served as locations for judicial proceedings such as courts martials. Sailors who were processing in would have most likely been issued dress blue caps with a generic “U.S. Navy” tally to be worn until they reached their permanent duty station. Depending upon the time that it takes to outprocess, sailors awaiting discharge would have worn the tally of their last command.
In attempting to determine the age of the cap and tally, it could only be pinpointed a range of years between 1933 and 1940 due to the time-period for the pattern of the hat (1933-1963) and the elimination of ship names from cap tallies. With some researching of the sailor’s name (“FELDT”) stenciled to the backside of the leather sweatband, the date range could be narrowed down by searching the ship’s muster rolls. It is most-likely that Feldt was part of the crew of the Seattle responsible for the in and out processing of the transient sailors that were temporarily assigned to the ship.
On April 1, 1963, the Navy unceremoniously brought about the end of the the dress blue cap, having been relegated to an item that sailors stuffed into their seabags, seldom seeing wear since being issued at bootcamp. Since the World War II, the white hat (lovingly referred to as the “Dixie Cup”) was popularized due to its ease of wear and that it could be rolled up and stowed into the back of the trousers, concealed beneath the jumper when in doors and not in use. With the vast numbers of wartime films depicting sailors in their dress whites and blues wearing their white hats cocked forward, aft or to the side, rolled edges, or hand-formed to a number or shapes, the versatility of the white hat (worn with all of the enlisted uniforms while the flat hat was only worn with dress and undress blues) drove the dress blue cap out of use. So many of the caps were made during WWII that the Navy supply system was still issuing them into the early 1960s.
Naval Enlisted Flat Hats:
- A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?
- Collecting U.S. Navy Uniform Ship Identifiers
- Naval Coverings of WWII – Navy Hats
- Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver
- Headgear of the Sea Services – Gieringer Collection
Navy Uniform Head Coverings
- Naval Coverings of WWII – Navy Hats
- 125 years of Deckplate Leadership: Chief Petty Officers of the U.S. Navy
- The Militaria Collector’s Search for the White Whale
What is the difference between a collector and a hoarder? It is a fair question that I often ask myself, especially when I am at a decision point before pulling the trigger on an acquisition. Some folks may decide to move forward with a purchase based upon a single element while others employ a matrix of factors that guide their choices. As many of these factors are subjective and are unique to the individual, it is impossible for one person to answer a the aforementioned question. Psychology professor Randy O. Frost (of Smith College) wrote a fantastic piece, “When Collecting Becomes Hoarding” that is rather insightful in guiding collectors in avoiding the entrapments that lead to the devastating condition of hoarding.
My (simple to suggest yet difficult to adhere to) advice to those who are interested in collecting militaria can be summed up with just one word: FOCUS! To some, focusing on a national military is focus enough. However, I can only imagine what their homes or storage areas (of someone who collects US Militaria) must look like as they gather pieces from four branches of the armed forces. In my estimation, the level of focus that makes the most sense is one that aligns with several criteria. For me these are:
- What story am I trying to uncover and convey with my collection and does the piece align with it?
- Does artifact meet with my primary interest?
- Does the piece meet my budget constraints?
- Do I have the space to preserve and protect the artifact from further decay and damage or to display and enjoy it?
My collecting has a few, very specific focuses and perhaps the most broad of those resides with baseball militaria. Thankfully, this category is extremely limited in terms of available artifacts which, if I pursued even 50 percent of what arrives on the market, I would still be very limited in what actually landed into my home. Being a Navy veteran, most of my collection touches naval history in some manner. Within this arena, I also pursue artifacts related to a few specific ships (the two that I served aboard and the one that my grandfather commissioned and served aboard during WWII). In total, there are about a half-dozen U.S. Navy warships from which I possess related artifacts.
One of those warships that I collect is the USS Washington – which is comprised of a few vessels beginning with the Tennessee class Armored Cruiser (ACR-11) that was commissioned in 1906. I also collect items from the three vessels that have carried the name (BB-47, BB-56 and SSN-787) bringing the total pool from which to draw collecting interest (with this ship) to four. Well, let me make a slight correction; The armored cruiser Washington experienced a reclassification and corresponding name-change due to the rapidly advancing technology and the Navy’s ship-naming policies. In 1916, the ship was renamed USS Seattle in order to free up Washington to be used for a new class and in ship-of-the-line-category. Just 22 days following congressional approval for four Colorado-class battleships (coincidentally, the USS Washington would be the only one of the three to not be finished due to terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty).
As I have been able to secure a modest array of pieces that are associated with the earlier USS Washington/USS Seattle (see: Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off and Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver), the artifacts that arrive to the market for this ship are scarce. In addition to a few homefront pieces and the cruise book, I have managed to assemble a small collection of original vintage photographs (including CDVs, RPPCs and a cabinet card) from this vessel.
It isn’t often that pieces surface onto the market from (or are associated with pr attributed to) a ship that effectively existed for a decade more than a century ago. Artifacts that actually came from a ship can be difficult to prove in the absence of rock solid provenance. Depending upon the time-period, the ship’s name is seldom, if at all, emblazoned onto a equipment or crew-used items aside from wardroom china or silver service elements. Enlisted uniforms (flat hat tallies before WWII and uniform shoulder UIC patches from the 1950s-on), depending on the era, can bear the ship’s name. In my collection are pieces that fit into a different category: ship-associated. These artifacts range from folk/trench art to sweetheart or family (homefront) pieces that serve as reminders of the sailor’s service rather than being derived from the ship itself.
One such piece, associated with one of the ships that I focus my collecting upon, was listed at auction several months ago and caught my attention for several reasons. Brightly colored and adorned with felt-applique lettering and naval adornments, a homefront pillow that bore some similarities to another navy piece that was already in my collection (see: Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers). As I reviewed the listing, I began to focus on the similarities shared between my 1918 Navy pillow and this one that was being listed with the initial thought that it might pre-date 1916 (when the USS Washington ACR-11 was reclassified and re-named). I set my bid amount and waited for the auction close as the date that the pillow was made was quite secondary to my desire to have a piece associated with the Washington, regardless of the era or specific hull.
The pillow arrived a week after my successful auction bid secured win, and I spent some time carefully and gently cleaning the artifact as the felt fabric, though not brittle, could easily tear. The backside of the pillow shows considerable fading having been exposed to a constant light source for years (perhaps placed on the back of a sofa near a window). My assumption of the date of the pillow continued as I overlooked a very obvious indication of the true age. It wasn’t until I began to truly examine the pillow while making descriptive notes (just prior to authoring this article) that I finally recognized the most obvious indication of the artifact’s age. On the bottom corner is a felt applique representation of a chief petty officer’s cap device. The “U.S.N.” lettering was near-entirely horizontally aligned adhering to the pattern used by the device’s WWII design.
Despite my “discovery” of the USS Washington pillow’s actual age, it is a rather unique piece for the WWII-era considering that most of the WWII homefront pieces were silk-screened imagery on satin fabric.
Regardless of the age, the Washington piece fits nicely into this narrow niche of my collecting while keeping me selective with what is added to my collection. Finding the balance in collecting, as with life, helps maintain my sanity, keeps the hobby enjoyable and helps me to avoid cluttering my home and making life miserable for my family.
Throughout most of 2017 and continuing through nearly the remainder of this year, the people of this country are honoring the sacrifices made by Americans who answered the call to go Over There. More than a century has passed since Congress declared war on Germany (April 6, 1917) and the Central Powers (December 7, 1917). By Armistice Day (November 11, 1918) nearly five million Americans had served in the Great War; nearly 2.8 million of which had been deployed to Europe.
“GREAT War?? There’s nothing GREAT about WAR!”
When I saw this comment written out on a recent social media post that was focused upon honoring veterans who served and particularly those who gave their lives during what later became known as World War I, it struck me how little our society truly knows the conflicts that this nation participated in during our history. The author of the comment (that was intended to stir anger among that person’s crowd of similar-minded people) had no hesitation in demonstrating the sheer ignorance of the harsh realities of history, the reasons wars are fought (or ended) nor the personal sacrifices that are made. While striving to remain entirely devoid of the politics and gamesmanship of social media discussions, I chose to abstain from shedding light on the “Great” term or delving into the dictionary definitions and applications of the word itself.
Similarly, The Veterans Collection is apolitical as the intent here is to learn about the residue that has been left behind by military veterans following their service regardless of participation in a conflict or during peacetime. As I ponder the aforementioned angry commenter’s remarks, I am left wondering how that person arrived at such a thought. Is it due to the notion that governments (political leaders) are callous and uncaring about both the people within the opposition nation and their own servicemen and women (and their families) that they can, with ease and a pen, commission the deaths of human beings? Are we to believe also that those who put on a uniform (either voluntarily or by conscription) inherit such a mindset that to follow orders as they take the life of another person is done so without personal cost to themselves? While am in full agreement that there truly is nothing great about the damage and destructive results of war, I do not agree that all war is unjustified and without worthy cause.
The War to End All Wars began in Europe following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and quickly escalated as old alliances were enacted as sides were split and fighting escalated. As more nations joined the fight, the scope and scale of the fighting spread beyond Western Europe and became a war of global proportions. The First World War was monumental in technological advancement – humanity had new and more impressive tools with which to kill greater numbers and with considerable ease. The loss of life was considerable as was the damage and carnage inflicted upon those who survived the technological terrors. The expansive destruction to the geography, towns and cities was large-scale and very impressive.
- notably large in size;
- of a kind characterized by relative largeness;
- remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness;
- long continued
Greatness isn’t a celebratory or term of praise when paired with this massively devastating war. In roughly four years, more than 8,000,000 combat deaths (nearly five million of which were suffered by the Entente Powers (the allied forces which included France, United Kingdom and the Commonwealths as well as the United States) making the losses not just massive but considerably GREAT.
I don’t doubt that people stumbling upon a site such as this that proudly honors the legacy and sacrifice of those who served their nation through the preservation of military artifacts is viewed upon as the glorification of war. I have even been accused of such glorification solely due to me possessing items that were seized from the vanquished enemy by my uncle. No combat-seasoned veteran or currently serving service member that I have ever encountered was or is eager to enter into war. “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it,” though uttered by General Robert E. Lee upon witnessing the carnage the Confederates inflicted upon Union forces at Fredericksburg. No, I do not glorify war but rather, I am repulsed by it. However, it is necessary in the extreme times to confront extreme human ills. If the likes of the Third Reich and the murderous Imperial Japanese forces were unopposed and left to continue their destruction of millions of people, where would we be?
Yes, I collect artifacts of war. These pieces are not symbols of violence but instead, are pieces of history that help to illustrate the narratives of personal sacrifices made by millions of my countrymen up to and including my father, grandfather, uncles and many preceding generations. Within my collection are several pieces of militaria that originate from the Great War with most of them having been inherited or are associated with one my relatives who enlisted to fight Over There.
Two of my uncles – my paternal grandfather’s twin elder brothers – each concealed their age to enlist into the U.S. Armed Forces (one went into the Navy and the other as an artilleryman in the Army) at the ripe old age of 17. Two of my maternal great grandfathers also served during WWI. One of them, my great grandfather, first enlisted into the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) as a Private and was discharged several months later (he immediately enlisted into the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve and served the duration of the war, domestically). My 2x great grandfather enlisted into the CEF just 19 days shy of his 48th birthday. A housebuilder and carpenter by trade in both his hometown of Leicester, England and his adopted home of Victoria, BC, my great great grandfather volunteered for the Canadian Forestry Corps and was sent to Europe to fill the need for lumber (used as trench materials such as duckboards, shoring timbers, crates) in the war effort.
My WWI collection isn’t large by any stretch of the (my) imagination. In addition to the pieces that I inherited as part of my family’s military history, I have been adding pieces to enhance or to fill in where I notice gaps and to be able to create a better display when I have such an opportunity.
Other pieces of my WWI collections range from edged weapons, books and publications and many photographs. Some of the collection, besides my familial focus, has local a connection. I have been slowly gathering pieces that originate from navy warships that were named for local cities, features or were stationed at any of the naval bases, locally.
Over the next few weeks, I will begin pulling everything pertaining to the first world war, taking stock of each piece and preparing it for a few upcoming public displays. I need to determine how I want to arrange the pieces in order to allow the artifacts to tell a story, not of war and suffering but of personal sacrifice while recognizing the prices paid by so many Americans a century ago. My goal with my displays is to avoid the glorification of war while allowing viewers to leave with a slight taste of what others endured in order to secure and preserve our freedoms.
“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!” – Robert E. Lee, December, 1862
The first global war was horrible and terrible and it was truly great in the human (and monetary) cost.