Category Archives: 19th Century US Navy
I recently noticed an online auction for a naval uniform item that was listed as a World War II U.S. Navy enlisted man’s jumper. For the seller, it appeared to have the same characteristics of other similarly listed uniforms so guiding him (or her) to describe it as being the same as those. This is very common occurrence with online listings. An unsuspecting buyer could easily pull the trigger on this listing, thinking they were purchasing the item as described. Imagine the disappointment when they will most certainly learn that what they brought home wasn’t U.S. Navy uniform, but rather it was a middy.
Middies as a fashion statement
A middy (or middy blouse) was part of a popular fashion trend of the late 19th Century that continued on up through World War I, bringing the styling of the naval uniform to civilian attire to women and children’s apparel. Designs incorporated the “sailor collar and flap” (complete with the piping stripes), neckerchief and in many examples, rating badges. To the untrained eye, the garments look no different from their authentic counterparts.
U.S. Naval enlisted uniforms vary through the ages
While the overall naval enlisted uniforms design (theme) has been relatively unchanged since the mid-1800s, they have in reality, gone through several subtle iterations, easily confusing novice or new collectors. Along with the uniform variations, the insignia have transitioned considerably compelling even experienced naval collectors to seek informative sources to discern one uniform or rate from another.
In addition to the variations between the different eras of naval uniform and rate designs (which includes the various rate insignia heraldry), individual customization can factor into the mix of uniform deviation. Naval personnel even to this day try to find ways to make their uniform uniquely theirs in an effort to define their appearance as an individual. These customizations may fly in the face of uniform regulations or tap dance in the grey area of with individual interpretation. Another contributing factor is the unique nature of ship’s commanding officers possessing the ability to relax or modify the regulations to fit their command style.
Several excellent publications are available that provide collectors with the ability to assess a uniform item and properly identify it…most of the time. Occasionally, uniform anomalies surface that clearly stand out and appear to deviate from the uniform regulations or known practices of the purported time period of the item. Fortunately, there are experts in online forums who are experienced with enough of the variances that can help to decipher the uniform attributes in an effort to guide the collector to the best conclusion as to the authenticity of the piece.Navy enlisted uniform basics – what to look for
I am certainly not an expert when it comes to navy uniforms however, through osmosis and reviewing the various reference materials, I am beginning to recognize the nuances and can provide some beginner-level guidance. If you’re just starting out with naval enlisted uniform collecting, I can provide some basic details on what to look for (I have included a few images from previous articles covering navy enlisted uniforms):
- Tags or labels
Check the garment for a label or tag as a method to determine when the uniform was constructed. This can also apply for tailor made items, but consultation with experts should be required in order to nail down the tailor and any comparative details that could be used.
- Rate insignia
John Stacey’s book, United States Navy Rating Badges, and Marks, 1833-2008: A History of Our Sailors’ Rate and Rating Insignia is an invaluable tool to decipher the lengthy list of variations with insignia. Mr. Stacey possesses many decades of documentation and research that includes having delved deep into the Navy’s archives of uniform regulations, uniform contracts, and design specifications. Collectors are continuously reaching out to him with their discoveries of anomalies, providing feedback to add to his research and to provide material for the many revisions his book has been subjected to.
- Distinguishing Marks
Modern enlisted uniforms no longer employ these specialty insignia as the rates and ratings are firmly developed and managed by naval regulations. As the Navy began to mature and place a significant amount of management of the enlisted ranks (contrary to the previous era of conscription), leadership started to institute systems to allow specialization for these men. With that came a need to allow for recognition for these sailors to display their shipboard role on their uniform. To gain a better understanding of why and when these were implemented, again, refer to Stacey’s book.
There are several types of materials that have been used throughout the years in the construction of enlisted navy uniforms. Keep in mind that there have been times when sailors would have multiple types of uniforms (blues, whites, undress, dress, working, etc.). Textile variants also play into determining the time-frame (heavy melton wool, weave, duck, canvas, etc.). If the collector is confused, consult the experts.
- Embroidery and stitching
Some early 20th century naval uniforms can be especially baffling. A few years ago, one in particular drew significant attention among collectors for its distinctive embellishments and custom embroidery. What was confusing (to a novice like me) was that every aspect of the uniform was so ornate and beautifully designed, unlike the conventional uniforms of the same period. Many collectors (including me) debated as to the authenticity and whether it was truly a uniform or perhaps a middy. As it turns out, it was a custom-tailored “liberty” uniform that is unauthorized for official wear, yet proudly worn ashore.
Research – a wise investment
Spending time to get familiar with some of these basics along with investing in reference materials will go a long way to prevent you from making costly mistakes. The flip-side of this situation is that educated buyers might even discover a piece that the seller has grossly undervalued (due to their own ignorance of naval uniform nuances) thereby providing the piece to be acquired at a bargain-basement price.
In the case of the seller with the middy eBay listing (mentioned above), I did make contact regarding the mistaken description for which I was politely thanked; the seller informing me that they would remove the auction and properly identify it when relisted.
Middy Rating Badges
In addition to the mis-identification of middy costumes and clothing as Navy uniforms, the rating badges that are stitched to the sleeves of these garments can also be improperly listed for sale online. To the unsuspecting or untrained eye, a middy badge could be seen as authentic. Middy rating insignia are often proportionally distorted from their authentic counterparts. In addition to the size variances (middies were made for children and women so their badges had to be smaller to be aesthetically appealing on smaller sleeves), the distinguishing marks are always sized disproportionately to the eagle and the chevrons. Also, pay attention to the way that the embroidery work was done. Most chevrons were sewn-on pieces of wool flannel (rather than directly embroidered to the base material).
Giving sellers the benefit of doubt, they may not be intentionally deceptive with their listings. I suspect that when they come across these badges, they truly believe that they are authentic and are merely adding them to their manifold-listings of online sales, not considering for a moment that the pieces are merely costume elements.
One of my hobbies – truth be told, it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.
Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.
Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1 (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.
During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.
My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?
By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.
While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).
To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.
I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.
In the decades following the American Civil War, the United states was busy dealing with the reconstruction of the South, expansion into the Western states and territories, adding new stars to the blue canton of the national ensign (i.e. the addition of states to the Union), the influx of the destitute of Europe seeking to benefit from the Land of Opportunity and all the trefoils of a growing nation. Few Americans set their eyes upon the instability of governments beyond the borders and shores as the nation surpassed her first century of existence. Life, though fraught with the many diverse challenges of the time, was good.
In the latter half of nineteenth century, the American navy commenced a dramatic technological transformation from wooden-hulled sailing sloops and frigates, followed by ironclads and paddle-wheels, to steel coal-fired steam warships. Naval gunnery was advancing and the U.S. leadership was following the advances being made by the British navy that had necessitated a radical departure from the ship design convention (of the time) in order to take full advantage of the new capabilities. The U.S. Navy, had been fully committed to the designs of the ironclad Monitor and many of the European navies adopted similar designs following the American’s success with them during the Civil War. With technology advancing at such a rapid pace and the need for a global naval reach, the Monitor was rendered obsolete, in favor of larger, more powerful ships with greater sailing range which would come to be known as pre-Dreadnoughts.
In the 1880s, the U.S. Navy began planning and designing their first pre-Dreadnought armored cruisers. By 1886, the Navy funded the first two ships of the new design, the lead ship, USS Maine and her (closely-related) sister, the USS Texas. The Maine’s keel was laid down on October 17, 1888 at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard and wouldn’t be completed for nearly seven years. She was commissioned and placed into service on September 17, 1895 and following sea trials and fitting out, was assigned to the North Atlantic Squadron for service.
As the 1890s were drawing to a close, a spark in the tinderbox of the Cuban independence movement began to be fanned by U.S. financial influence. American capitalism and politics had been involved in Cuba for the past few decades investing heavily in the sugar cane and tobacco industries, driving economic transformation of the Spanish-owned island and fueling unrest among the citizens. American popular sentiment, led by a pro-liberation agenda that was propagandized throughout the newspapers of the day, was growing in favor of intervening against the Spanish government. In January of 1898, a pro-Spanish riot erupted in Havana which prompted the American Consul-General to request assistance to protect U.S. citizens and business interests.
Sailing into Havana Harbor at the end of January, the USS Maine provided a menacing reminder of the United States’ commitment to protect her interests. In addition, her presence could have appeared to the Spanish loyalists as a threat to their sovereignty. Perhaps the revolutionaries saw the ship as an opportunity to draw the United States into a conflict with Spain that could result in the ouster of their oppressive overseers. Regardless of the stance of the two opposing sides, the Maine’s presences added to the already increasing tension.
Aboard ship, the crew was going about settling down for the night on February 15, 1898. Twenty minutes before taps and lights out, the shipboard routines were winding down. Liberty boats had returned to the ship and had been secured for the night. Suddenly and without warning, a massive explosion rocked the forward part of the ship as 5.1 tons of gunpowder ignited. In a matter of seconds, the Maine was sitting on the bottom of the harbor and more than 260 of her crew (of 355 officers and men) were dead.
Following a formal investigation and inquiry into the cause of the explosion, the cause was determined to be the result of a mine (though no supporting evidence existed). The slogan of the day, “To hell with Spain! Remember the Maine” could be found in print and plastered across buttons and pins as the American public began to rally to the cause. Following the publication of the findings, a media blitz of inflaming editorials and exaggerated facts ultimately led to an April 21, 1898 formal declaration of war against Spain.
After resounding victories in Manila Bay (in the Philippines) and San Jaun Hill (Puerto Rico), the Spanish pursued peace with the United States by the middle of July, 1898. The peace treaties were signed in Paris on August 12, 1898, relinquishing all rights and claims to the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
With the guns now silent and the U.S. reverting to their isolationist stance, the rallying cry of “Remember the Maine” began to fade from the forefront of the U.S. populace. This was not so with Navy leadership who were still seeking definitive facts surrounding her sinking. In 1910, Navy engineers began constructing a cofferdam surrounding the shallow-water wreck of the ship. After the harbor waters receded from the wreck, investigators poured over every inch of the hulk. With no conclusive evidence uncovered and the bodies of the crewmen were removed for burial in the U.S. (at Arlington National Cemetery), the ship was refloated, towed out to sea and scuttled.
Several pieces of the ship were removed at the time of the 1910-1912 investigation including munitions, guns, pieces of her superstructure and mast and other items that would serve as central components of memorials that were being constructed around the country. Commemorative medallions were cast from metal retrieved from her screws as Americans renewed their commitment to remember the Maine.
Four years following the devastating loss of the cruiser, the U.S. Navy commissioned the USS Maine (BB-10), the lead ship of three-ship class of battleships which also included the USS Missouri (BB-11) and USS Ohio (BB-12). The second USS Maine would proudly carry the name and legacy in Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet and through World War I. Her 18-year career ended with her May, 1920 decommissioning. The Maine name wouldn’t sail again until 1994 when the Navy launched the 16th Ohio-class Trident submarine, USS Maine (SSBN-741) which is currently homeported in Bangor, Washington.
More than 110 years later, the stricken USS Maine resonates with a minute segment of collectors. While very few items or artifacts originating from the ship surface within the marketplace, memorial pieces are readily available.
Inscription on the Havana USS Maine monument:
“El Pueblo De La Isla De Cuba Es Y De Derecho Debe Ser Libre E Independiente.” Resolucion con junta del Congreso de los Estados Unidos de Norteamerica De 19 de April De 1898.
“The people of the island of Cuba are and of right ought to be free and independent.” Congressional joint resolution with the United States of America from April 19, 1898.