Category Archives: Military Folk Art

The Bizarre and the Oddities of Militaria


While there are certainly traditional military items that folks collect such as uniform items and weapons, some people aren’t satisfied with the status quo of militaria collecting. It takes a person with a bit of a twisted perspective to seek out the strange or odd items or to possess the ability to see the contextual vantage point of the militaria collector.

At first glance, Sgt. Gustave Blaither's Spanish American War Uniform Group (located at the Indiana Military Museum) seems to be a normal SpanAm War group display

At first glance, Sgt. Gustave Blaither’s Spanish American War Uniform Group (located at the Indiana Military Museum) seems to be a normal SpanAm War group display

Suppose that there are collectors who focus on field surgeon equipment from the Civil War era. A collection might include medicines and physician’s guides, but it could also include surgical implements. Aside from the traditional scalpel set, expect to see an array of macabre bone saws and tourniquets.

Another example of what some folks might deem as odd militaria could be a collection of named (meaning, engraved with the veteran’s name) Purple Heart medals awarded to service members who were killed in action (KIA). While this may also seem dark, most collectors of Purple Hearts (at least that I’ve encountered) see this as a way to preserve history and share the story of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Whenever I glimpse one of these medals, I am overwhelmed when I consider the price that was paid by an American.

One of the most bizarre items of militaria that I have personally seen was at the Indiana Military Museum located in Vincennes, Indiana. Among the wonderful displays is a group of items that belonged to soldier who served during the 1898 war with Spain.

It seems that he suffered a debilitating head wound when some stored ammunition exploded, emitting a destructive array of metal and wood debris. The result of the wounds sustained by Sergeant Gustave Baither was the traumatic loss of one of his eyes.

Closer inspection of Blaither's collection yields this odd gem - his glass eye.

Closer inspection of Blaither’s collection yields this odd gem – his glass eye.

In my own collection, I have preserved an item that to the untrained eye would be indistinguishable as something pertaining to military use. However, this piece is a part of naval and seafarer tradition spanning centuries of sea-going service. Hand-made from a section of 1-1/2-inch fire hose, a piece of a broom handle, electrical heat-shrink tape and wrapped with braided shotline (used during Underway Replenishment), the shillelagh is a centerpiece of the equator crossing initiation ceremony known as Wog Day.

This "Wog Dog Correction Tool, also known as a "Shillelagh, " was made and used aboard the USS Camden (AOE-2) during the 1989 WestPac deployment.

This “Wog Dog Correction Tool”, also known as a “Shillelagh, ” was made and used aboard the USS Camden (AOE-2) during the 1989 WestPac deployment.

My shillelagh, made during my last sea deployment in 1989, was used to provide much-needed correction to the pollywogs (those who hadn’t crossed the equator) by applying gentle (ok… maybe not-so-gentle) swats to their posterior region as they crawl across the ship’s decks. Upon completion of that cruise, my shillelagh was tossed into my closet where it has remained, almost forgotten… that is until my kids wanted to learn about Navy traditions.

What unusual items are in your collections?

 

Advertisements

Theater-Made Militaria


This Australian-made First Marine Division patch was created for the battle-hardened veterans of Guadalcanal while on R&R in Melbourne Australia (source: Flying Tiger Antiques).

This Australian-made First Marine Division patch was created for the battle-hardened veterans of Guadalcanal while on R&R in Melbourne Australia (source: Flying Tiger Antiques).

Within the realm of just about every collecting pastime exists undocumented glossaries packed with terms and phrases used to describe certain aspects of that particular genre. For those of us new to collecting, these terms can be some of the biggest obstacles to understanding the ins and outs of collecting, especially as we are trying to navigate our way to better understand specifics and details.

In some instances, terms can be rather self-explanatory (at least for people like me), but still may not make a whole lot of sense. Such is the case with “theater-made”, which seems to be bandied about rather freely.

As I launched into militaria collecting, I saw the term applied to a broad swath of army items, predominantly shoulder sleeve insignia (or patches) dating from World War I to present day. What astounded me was that these experts could spot not only that a particular piece was theater-made, but could tell you where in the world it was made. With certain pieces, a theater-made example could sell for considerably more than an American-made patch. The Australian-made 1st Marine Division patch comes to mind.

This WWII army veteran’s uniform sports a right-shoulder SSI of the 5307th Composite Unit (also known as Merrill’s Marauders).

This WWII army veteran’s uniform sports a right-shoulder SSI of the 5307th Composite Unit (also known as Merrill’s Marauders).

To a veteran of the U.S. Navy, theater-made items seem commonplace. During our six month-long deployments to the Western Pacific, our ships would visit ports in countries such as the Philippines and Hong Kong. During our three- and four-day stays, many of us would take what little money we saved and head out to the tailor and embroidery shops to order custom uniforms or uniform items from the local craftsmen. These special-order pieces add a unique and personal touch for uniforms worn out on liberty or to make us stand out in a positive manner during inspection. However, we never thought of these components as theater-made.

This China Burma India (CBI) patch is one of my theater made SSIs.

This China Burma India (CBI) patch is one of my theater made SSIs.

Aside from having items made for uniform-wear, armed forces personnel find unique methods for commemorating events, deployments and other aspects of their service. Having patches custom-made to wear on a utility or flight jacket (to document a deployment) was a common occurrence in the years that I served.

Patched naval aviator jackets were quite popular in the 1960s and again in the '80s. Many aviation squadron detachments had patches custom-made to denote their deployment and the ship they were attached to.

Patched naval aviator jackets were quite popular in the 1960s and again in the ’80s. Many aviation squadron detachments had patches custom-made to denote their deployment and the ship they were attached to.

 

The patch on the right is the helicopter squadron's official insignia while the patch on the left was custom-made in the Philippines for the specific deployment (in 1989) and detachment (Det. 5) from the unit.

The patch on the right is the helicopter squadron’s official insignia while the patch on the left was custom-made in the Philippines for the specific deployment (in 1989) and detachment (Det. 5) from the unit.

During one of my deployments, I had this patch made in the Philippines to commemorate our tour to the Persian Gulf. The embroidery was done with a machine that was free-hand (rather than computer-controlled) leaving a more rudimentary interpretation of my design.

During one of my deployments, I had this patch made in the Philippines to commemorate our tour to the Persian Gulf. The embroidery was done with a machine that was free-hand (rather than computer-controlled) leaving a more rudimentary interpretation of my design.

As some of the custom pieces are slightly more rudimentary in construction, forgers tend to leverage that to their advantage. When collectors begin to pursue what are being passed off as theater-made items, they must have some sort of education before pulling the trigger to protect themselves from being deceived. Learning how to discern the difference takes time in comparing known, genuine items against pieces that have far too many variances can be a lengthy educational process. One of the stumbling blocks that many inexperienced collectors do is to subordinate their judgement to that of experienced collectors, relegating their decision making to another person without allowing for knowledge transfer – not asking the questions in order to learn for themselves.

I am still learning how to tell the difference with patches from earlier eras (WWI, WWII and Vietnam) and seeing that there are a lot of very well-executed fakes (sometimes branded as “reproductions”) that fall onto the market with little or no description and a fair amount of deceptive language leaving the potential buyer to make a judgement call. With some patches trading hands for prices for several hundred dollars, con-artists are quick to take cues from the collectors and attempt to replicate (with faux aging) vintage items to sell to unsuspecting collectors.

My father, a Viet Nam combat veteran, wore a patch like this on his OD fatigues in country. I have my doubts as to the authenticity of it as a vintage patch, instead it could be one of the thousands currently reproduced in Viet Nam to capitalize on the growing collector market.

My father, a Viet Nam combat veteran, wore a patch like this on his OD fatigues in country. I have my doubts as to the authenticity of it as a vintage patch, instead it could be one of the thousands currently reproduced in Vietnam to capitalize on the growing collector market.

Selected Research Resources:

Shredding History or Genuine Fundraising? Part I


I am kicking off a three-part series this week to focus on a hot-button militaria collector topic : re-purposing militaria artifacts for monetary gain. While the discussion can be category agnostic (meaning that it can be applied to virtually all areas of collecting rather than just militaria), I am focusing on this from the area of military memorabilia.

A desert camouflage bracelet for veterans from the VA with crisis support information imprinted on the inside surface.

A desert camouflage bracelet for veterans from the VA with crisis support information imprinted on the inside surface.

Wrist bands. They are typically made from a rubbery, silicone-like substance and come in a range of colors from bright and flashy to muted and subdued with some even in camouflage patterns. They have messages embossed (actually molded into the material) that are intended to call attention to various causes and are used to market a company’s brand.

A trendy fashion statement made popular by Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong charity, you have seen these wrist bands worn by everyone from celebrities, to colleagues, neighbors and even family members over the past half decade. You have probably worn or are wearing one at this very moment. I am sure that there are collectors who focus their attention on them.

In the true spirit of capitalism (which I enthusiastically subscribe to), a Navy veteran found a niche market and created a business called Bands for Arms (B4A) that manufactured and sold their own version – an evolutionary step, if you will – of the message-laden wrist band. Their company website described their products as a way to honor veterans and to help families (and supporters of the U.S. military) feel connected to service members and veterans.

Bands for Arms’ operating model was essentially taking donated U.S. military uniforms (mostly from veterans or their families), dismantling them and constructing wrist bands from the materials that in some way represent the intended message or sentiments of the wearer. I am not disparaging this company or the products they sell as I do find the bands rather intriguing – some are very tastefully designed. And who could find fault with their support (50% of all proceeds) of organizations such as USO JapanProject Lifting Spirits and the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation?

So what does this have to do with militaria collecting you ask?

Recently, a thread on a popular militaria discussion board alerted collectors to an activity where historic uniforms, worn by veterans who served this nation for the cause of freedom, were donated to B4A as part of a special project, resulting is a special product line. Detailed on the B4A site was how the uniforms had been donated to them by the National WWII Museum (in New Orleans, LA) to create the new line of bracelets known as The Historic Bracelet Collection and 50% of the sales proceeds from this product line would subsequently be donated back to the museum. While the finished product is very well-made, the end result is that the historic uniforms are gone, along with the connection to history associated with the veteran who wore it.

This screen capture shows bracelets were made from uniforms donated by the National World War II Museum. (Source: BandsforArms.com)

This screen capture shows bracelets were made from uniforms donated by the National World War II Museum. (Source: BandsforArms.com)

For the non-collector, this action may not be an issue. However, it is gut-wrenching for militaria collectors and historians, and has caused them to question the ethical practices of the museum and how they manage their artifacts. The unrest centers around the idea of a museum having donated uniforms for this purpose : intentionally destroying historic artifacts that had been entrusted to them with the promise that they would be preserved and displayed in that museum.

The militaria collectors I’ve associated with take the trust between donors and museums very seriously. If prospective donors no longer have the expectation of proper handling and care of their artifacts, why would they entrust them to any museum? Considering this trust, militaria collectors reacted to the idea that an entity as highly regarded as the National World War II Museum would remove these uniforms from their collection and send them out to be dismembered (and I use this term to emphasize the emotion surrounding this concept) to generate revenue in support of operational cost.

Displayed in this screen capture are two bracelets and the uniforms that were destroyed to make them. (Source: BandsforArms.com)

Displayed in this screen capture are two bracelets and the uniforms that were destroyed to make them. (Source: BandsforArms.com)

The militaria discussion board posts raised questions surrounding the proper handling of donated artifacts and the apparent disregard for the widely accepted, industry standard, museum deaccessioning processes. What opened the floodgates of animosity toward both entities were statements posted on the B4A sites (which includes their Facebook page) acknowledging the museum for the donated uniforms, which was the catalyst to the creation of the History Collection.

Frustrated collectors began posting their sentiments directly on the Facebook pages of both the National WWII museum and Bands for Arms, challenging the practice of dismantling historic artifacts (specifically, the WWII uniforms). B4A personnel responded by deleting any posts that called the B4A and National WWII Museum partnership into question.

Bands for Arms personnel added comments to their Facebook page that appeared to mock the collectors with statements such as:

(Screen capture source: Bands for Arms Facebook page)

(Screen capture source: Bands for Arms Facebook page)

Over the span of a few days,  B4A purged all evidence that referenced the uniform donation from the museum. The messaging on the (now defunct) B4A Historic Collection page had been carefully re-worded to describe the transaction more vaguely, between the ambiguously identified source of the uniform donations.

In stark contrast, the folks managing the Museum’s Facebook page began to directly address the collectors’ challenges openly while also requesting offline dialogue in order to fully explain the details of the transaction. A few of the responses demonstrate their positive actions:

  • “We have been working to make sure all parties have the correct information and we are always available to respond to questions or concerns about the Museum.”
  • “I would be happy to put you in touch with our registrar who can answer any questions you may have and share the details of our collections policy.”

Several collectors (at least one of which is a museum curator himself) did contact the museum directly and I know that a few had phone conversations with the staffer at the museum who was at the center of the transaction with Bands for Arms. The museum staffer also provided an e-mail response to inquiries regarding the issue:

“Thank you for your recent online inquiry regarding how the Museum cares for artifacts. I’d like to address your concern about a small number of items given to the Bands for Arms organization, but first want to explain our collections process. As you will see, we take very seriously our responsibility for handling artifacts in a professional and proper way.

Items donated to the Museum are considered for two major collections. The first is our Permanent Collection, which contains items that are rare and have a strong historical connection. The Museum always tries to link a military service member’s personal war experience to items donated by the individual or by family members.

The second major collection of the Museum is our Education Collection, which is used by several departments at the Museum for teaching activities. These activities include Living History Corps presentations, where presenters wear genuine World War II uniforms and gear for Museum visitors and students. Other selected items travel off-site under staff supervision for use with students and other interested groups. Educational uses do not preserve the life of the item long-term, but are instrumental in teaching World War II history.

Items that are dropped off at the Museum that do not meet the criteria for either the Permanent or Education Collection are typically returned to the donor. However, some donors do not wish to have items returned to them and the Museum makes these items available to other museums that may be able to use them. These items typically do not relate to the WWII period and have not been accepted into the Museum’s Permanent or Education collection.

When it has not been possible to return items to their original owner and no other institution is found to care for the items, we have utilized various methods to find another place for these pieces, including donation to local charities or other organizations. In 2010, after we were unable to return them to their owner and could not find another museum home for them, five uniform pieces—none from the WWII era—were given to Bands for Arms. These items did not qualify for inclusion in our collection. They are also the only items the Museum has provided to this organization. My personal connection is that I assist Bands for Arms in determining historical dates of uniforms they receive, a role that we play with many inquiring parties.

We currently house more than 140,000 items in our collection. While many items in the collection — including but not limited to Allied and Axis uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, medals, diaries, letters, artwork, photographs and other mementos — are on exhibit, the majority are kept safely in the Museum’s professional storage vault to be used for research and future exhibitions, or are being restored to their original condition.

The artifacts, documents, and personal accounts in the Museum’s Permanent and Education Collections are extremely important to the Museum’s mission of interpreting the American experience in WWII for current and future generations. In addition to carefully preserving these items, the Museum is embarking on a project to provide greater public access by improving our cataloguing and broadening our digitization of these items.”

Clearly, the museum is being responsive and professionally addressing the concerns head on, and I applaud them for these actions. As a novice historian, I still struggle with the destruction of the artifact, but I do understand the position the museum was in with regards to unwanted (at least by other museums or the donors) uniforms.

I know that the community of collectors are also satisfied with the museum’s responsiveness and willingness to be open about how they manage their collection. We are all hopeful that in the future, they will seek other avenues of artifact deaccession, avoiding destruction or disposal in order to continue to preserve our nation’s military history.

Shown here on an older Facebook post on the Bands for Arms page, references to the uniform donation by the National World War II Museum. These posts were subsequently removed.

Shown here on an older Facebook post on the Bands for Arms page, references to the uniform donation by the National World War II Museum. These posts were subsequently removed.

What was difficult about the event was that Bands for Arms began a denial and suppression campaign when confronted by collectors who took issue with the uniform destruction. Instead of taking an above-board position by addressing the collectors’ concerns head on, they demonstrated a lack of maturity (and do not perceive this as an attack on B4A as I am not saying they behaved like children) that comes from having seasoned professionals managing external communications and messaging. I am betting that the leadership at B4A will use this event as a learning opportunity and will take note of the mistakes and missteps striving to not repeat them.

I’d also like to note that collectors do not take issue with B4A’s business model as they agree that veterans and family members may certainly do whatever they desire with their personal property. The folks at Bands for Arms do manufacture tasteful products and paying tribute to veterans while funding noteworthy veteran charities is quite admirable.

With the dust settling and the discussion posts winding down, is this the end of the debate? Do bracelets made from veterans’ uniforms truly honor them? As a collector, I have my own thoughts on this topic which will be the subject of the following segments in this series of posts.

A Whale of a Tooth: 19th Century Naval Scrimshaw


Where does the time go? I know that my writing schedule has been severely impacted by home and work priorities (this column is nowhere near being a day job for me) and other facets of life routinely draw my attention away from my love of military history. However, my interest never truly wanes or strays very far from this passion and yet when I checked to see that my last posting was more than three months ago, I realized that I need to get back on the horse and get the creative juices stirred.

I can’t blame writer’s block or submit any grandiose excuses for not writing. I merely de-prioritized my militaria collecting during the 90-day time span. Though my acquisition pace has slowed during the last half-year, I only suggest that I’ve become hyper selective about what I add to the expanding pile. With the smattering of pieces coming through the door, I found myself asking the question, “what should I write about?”

Not wanting to overload the Veteran’s Collection with an overwhelming theme, I have been putting forth an effort to balance the various subjects. My best efforts aside, I find that my posts are skewed toward the Navy (where I served) with some of those topics focusing on a specific ship. Regardless, after a few moments of careful consideration, I decided that instead of talking about a new (to my collection) piece, I would spend some time with something that eluded me a few years ago (the subject just happens to be in a few of my wheelhouses). Missing out on this piece has haunted me since the online auction bidding surpassed my meager budget.

Without going into detail as to what fuels my interests (read my About page for those details), I’ll jump right into today’s topic.

I can bet that half of those who read this column (all four of you) are familiar with the widely popular PBS television production, Antiques Roadshow and have viewed episodes where 19th century maritime folk art objects have been viewed and appraised. One of the most popular types of that particular folk art is scrimshawed marine mammal bones (or teeth/tusks). Needless to say that along with popularity (and scarcity) of these pieces comes an array of reproductions and outright fakes onto the market. Applying the caution of a mariner skirting the shoal waters, one needs to be very knowledgeable before navigating into these waters.

USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The ship design in the center is clearly that of an 1820s United States Navy sloop of war (source: eBay image).

When this item was listed in an online auction, I was shocked that it lasted without being taken down by the host as genuine scrimshaw violates their established policies that forbid the sale of items made from protected animals. In reading the seller’s description, I noted that it was being sold as a piece that was manufactured from man-made materials rather than from a whale bone or tooth. However, in examining the photos of the piece, it was clearly NOT sourced from synthetics, though I couldn’t be certain without a hands-on inspection. Hoping to get clarification from the seller, I resorted to asking specific questions only to be rebuffed with a message that reiterated the details in the listing’s description.

USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The inscription reads, “United States Exploring Expedition, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, 1838 | Antarctica | 1842. USS Vincennes” (source: eBay image).

The subject of the scrimshaw artwork is what drew me to the piece from the beginning. The illustrations on either side of the “whale tooth” were made to commemorate the United States very first foray into global exploration. The U.S. Exploring Expedition was led by the US Navy’s polarizing figure (of that era), LT Charles Wilkes from 1838-1842 and consisted of men from several biological and geological scientific disciplines along with illustrators, geographical surveyors and naval officers and men aboard six US Navy vessels – the flagship being the sloop of war, USS Vincennes.

On one side of the tooth is a rather elaborate design of the three-masted sloop (a port-side view) that is centered among an array of flags with an eagle perched above an American-themed shield holding arrows and an olive branch which is very reminiscent of 19th century designs. On the reverse is an unrolled scroll that appears to be a banner with the US Ex. Ex, Wilkes’ name, the dates and “Antarctica” emblazoned across. Immediately beneath the scroll is the name of the expedition’s flagship, “USS Vincennes.”

I grappled with deciding to bid on the object. There was no definitive manner in which to determine the authenticity or if it was, in fact, a mocked up piece of plastic. I was left to weigh all of the evidence and draw conclusions (aside from the fact that the seller stated that it wasn’t the real thing which could easily be that person’s subverting of the online auction site’s rules).

USS Brooklyn Scrimshaw

An example of an 19th Century whale’s tooth scrimshaw depicting the USS Brooklyn (source: dukeriley.info)

Scrimshawed Whale's tooth.

Showing a vintage whale’s tooth scrimshaw mounted to a cork base. Note the similar themes (to the USS Vincennes tooth) and the odd number of stripes on the shield (source: Wikimedia).

The cons

  • The tooth is very bright for an early 19th century piece. Most scrimshawed items tend to yellow with time. After 170 years, the bone/tooth material should be much darker.
  • Taking a look at the artwork design, what gave me reason to pause is that the artist departed from the widely used American themes within his design. The eagle’s shield is lacking the correct number of stars and stripes (shown are three and 11, respectively).
  • The wooden base (which appears to be of dark walnut) that the tooth is mounted to seems to be fairly modern; almost new, conditionally.
Early 19th century flag

This early 19th century flag depicts the three-starred shield and 9 stripes yet the eagle faces his right shoulder (source: NAVA).

The pros

  • As someone who, for the last two decades, has been searching for anything pertaining to any of the US Navy warships that bore the same name, this is the only scrimshaw that I have encountered that had any reference to the ship or the expedition. Uniqueness is definitely a plus in that if someone was going to bother manufacturing fakes of this nature, there would, most-likely be multiple examples appearing on the market.
  • The cons that I listed above can be explained. The artist may not be as detail-oriented when it comes to the thirteen stars and stripes. However, the direction that the eagle’s head faces is accurate for the time (facing its left shoulder). The illustration of the ship is very accurate to that of the 1820s U.S. sloop of war (designed by Samuel Humphreys) which leads me to believe that the artwork is correct to the period.
  • The base could have been merely a replacement or an addition by a subsequent owner.
  • The piece may have been stored in a cool, dark location for most of its existence, which could possibly account for the lack of typical aging effects.
USS Vincennes Scrimshaw

The walnut base appears to be a fairly recent addition as it shows no signs of aging (source: eBay image).

After several days of careful consideration, I decided that it was worth a nominal investment risk and configured my bid snipe program accordingly. Within a few hours of the auction close, the bidding (from multiple parties) surpassed my maximum and I watched this beautiful piece of scrimshaw slip into someone else’s hands for several hundred dollars above my limit. It seems that other collectors had arrived at the same conclusion that I had and the benefit of owning such a nice piece far exceeded the risk that it might not be authentic.

For me, this whale tooth was not to be.