Category Archives: 19th Century US Navy
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
- History of US Navy Uniforms 1776-1981
- Photographic Database of U.S. Navy Civil War Uniforms
- Tar Hat
- How to make a Tar Hat
- Sailors Liked the “Flat Hat” and Wore It for 111 Years
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.