Category Archives: 19th Century US Navy

Navy Cracker Jacks: No Toy Surprise


Today marks the 241st anniversary of the founding of the United States Navy. What better way to celebrate and honor the best branch of the U.S. armed forces than to discuss this service’s enlisted uniforms?

In writing this blog, I am (happily and willingly) forced to expand my knowledge in a great many areas of military history that I otherwise would have overlooked. As I embark on a new article, I am presented with the opportunity to delve into learning about uniform details and nuances that I’d previously had little or no exposure to. One aspect of this post has finds me diving into uncharted territory (for me).

The uniforms of the United States Navy, particularly the enlisted version, has maintained relative consistency in its design for more than 160 years. From the bell-bottom trousers and the collar flap to the various trim and appointments, today’s modern design has remained consistent with the original, functional aspects of those early uniforms.

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

Today’s jumper blouse design was incorporated with the collar flap which was used as a protective cover to protect it from the grease or powder normally worn by seamen to hold hair in place during the twenty years prior to the start of the Civil War.

Piping and stars were added to the flap while the flat hat (affectionately referred to in the 20th century as the “Donald Duck hat”) became a standard uniform item during this period. In the late 1880s, the white hat (or “dixie cup”) was introduced, essentially solidifying the current configuration we see today. Prior to World War II, the blue cuffs were dropped from the white uniform and the flap was switched to all white with blue stars. By 1962, the flat hat was gone.

A collector colleague steered me to an online auction listing for an absolutely stunning Civil War-era white (with blue trim) U.S. Navy cracker jack uniform. Constructed from linen, these white uniforms were hard pressed to survive the rigors of shipboard use, let alone 1.5 centuries. Examples such as these are extremely rare and carry considerable price tags.

Since I’ve been collecting, I have seen a handful of late nineteenth century Navy uniforms listed at auction. While most of them are blue wool, I have seen a smattering of dress whites.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the Navy expanded its fleet and global reach requiring increase of manning. That expansion means that collectors today have greater opportunity (and to pay lower prices) to locate period examples. These later uniforms were constructed using better materials in order to perform better in the harsh, mechanized and considerably dirty shipboard climate. Blue uniforms were constructed from heavy wool while linen was dropped in favor of cotton-based canvas material for the whites.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

Today’s enlisted dress uniforms while representative of the pre-Civil War origins, they are quite sanitary and less desirable for collectors. Gone is the heavy wool for the dress blues. The dress whites are polyester, also called “certified navy twill” or CNT. One saving grace is that the white Dixie cup hats are virtually unchanged since their introduction, making them nearly non-distinguishable from early examples.

Happy birthday to all of those who served before me and since my time in uniform. Happy birthday to my shipmates and happy birthday to the United States Navy!

See other U.S. Navy Uniform Topics:

 

Navy Enlisted Ratings Eliminated: What are the Impacts on Sailors and Collectors?


Until last week, I have been reluctant with this blog to delve into matters that touch on politics (my first politically-focused article was published yesterday – as of writing this article). The subject of this article has me approaching the line of demarcation (between politics and collecting) and I believe that I was able to keep the content weighted heavily in facts with a slight peppering of opinion interspersed between them as I began to address my concerns regarding the highly controversial decision (that is the central theme of this post) that was announced last week. This blog has a decent following and the stats indicate that a lot of people are searching for information pertaining to Navy ratings and badges (and discovering this site) leaving me soliciting readers to be heard by commenting after you finish reading the post.

With four articles written (see list below) about United States Navy Ratings and Rating Badges, I didn’t see myself delving back into this subject quite so soon. With recently announced changes to the Navy’s enlisted rates and rating structure – a complete overhaul – I am compelled to dive into the subject from my perspectives both as a veteran sailor and a collector.

From the moment that the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Masterchief Petty officer  of the Navy (MCPON) announced that the Navy would be dissolving the 241-year-old tradition of identifying enlisted personnel by their job title (known in the Navy as “rating”), the uproar from veterans, retirees and active duty personnel was instantaneous and deafening. There is no doubt that if you were paying attention to social media on September 29, 2016 you most-likely saw someone lamenting the impending changes and their outrage directed towards the navy leadership for even considering the idea, let alone moving ahead with implementation of a plan to disestablish a tried, true and loved tradition.

Who Cares About 241 Years of Tradition?
Aside from the current leadership, most all sailors care about the preservation of vaunted and successful customs and traditions that set the Navy apart from the other branches of the armed forces. In the earliest days of the naval service, rated sailors have been called by their job titles – specifically, boatswains’ mates (pronounced, “bosun’s” mates) have been so called since 1775. It is a matter of pride to be known by the work that is performed. I remember when I advanced to Operations Specialist, Third Class (“OS3”), it was a matter of pride. No longer was I known as a Seaman and, not just a petty officer, but that I had attained the rating and rate; the culmination of performing my duties; getting qualified on every aspect of my job that was possible, studying and achieving proficiency. This mentality continues and builds as sailors advance through the pay-grades, evolving into an expert that subordinates and seniors alike learn to depend upon. Despite the job title or function, the sailors in each of these ratings own considerable pride in being referred to by their rating. To have that all stripped away and be known only as “petty officer (third, second, first) class” systematically removes sailors’ pride. If I was still serving, instead of being OS1 (Operations Specialist First Class), I would just be “Petty Officer” with an innocuous (hidden) designation; “B440.”

When the Continental Navy began in 1775, there were officers and men and two designated ratings of enlisted men. Once the hostilities ended, Congress agreed that there was no longer a need for a navy, voting to disband it in 1785.

  • Armorer – In use in 1775; established 1797;
  • Boatswain’s Mate – In use in 1775; established 1797

The new nation experienced renewed aggression from England and tensions grew between the United States and France compelling the government to take action, passing the Naval Act of 1794 to build six warships (known as the original “Six Frigates“). By 1797, the Navy began to establish an enlisted rating structure, solidifying the tradition and practice that was in place until last week. In addition to the boatswains mate and armorer, the newly established rates at that time were:

  • Boy
  • Carpenter’s Mate
  • Cockswain (sic)
  • Cook
  • Cooper
  • Gunner’s Mate
  • Master-at-Arms
  • Master’s Mate
  • Midshipman
  • Ordinary Seaman
  • Quarter Gunner
  • Sailmaker’s Mate
  • Seaman
  • Steward
  • Yeoman of the Gunroom

As the Navy changed operational procedures and modernized throughout its existence, so did the enlisted rating structure. It wasn’t until 1841 when the Navy established insignia for rated sailors. The design called for an eagle facing left (from the wearer’s perspective) with wings pointed down, while perched on a fouled anchor. It was to be worn half way between the elbow and shoulder on the front of the sleeve. Rated Petty officers in the following wore the badges on their right sleeve:

  • Boatswain’s Mates
  • Gunner’s Mates
  • Carpenter’s Mates
  • Masters at Arms
  • Ship’s Stewards
  • Ship’s Cooks

…while the following petty officers wore the badge on their left uniform sleeve:

  • Quarter Masters
  • Quarter Gunners
  • Captains of the Forecastle
  • Captains of Tops
  • Captains of the Afterguard
  • Armorers, Coopers
  • Ship’s Corporals
  • Captains of the Hold

In the following years (through the Civil War and beyond), the Navy continued to mature the rating badges by adding specialty marks (symbols that represented the sailor’s job). By the mid 1880s, the manufacture of petty officer marks were contracted to private companies, alleviating the need for the petty officers to hand-embroider them. The transition from sail to steam created the need to create new ratings to meet the rapidly changing technological advances. Navigation, communication and gunnery improved and sailors specialize creating new specialties. The Navy adapted and so did the sailors as they took pride in their jobs and uniforms.

For another century and a half, sailors have not only identified themselves by the mark on their sleeve during their careers, their passion and loyalty towards their rating continues throughout their lives. Though veterans of other branches might hold their specialty in high regard long after their service, it doesn’t compare to that of the Navy veteran. One glance at any veteran-memorabilia catalog reveals what sailors demand – t-shirts, polo shirts, ball caps, vehicle decals and challenge coins emblazoned with rating insignia.

his rating, Operations Specialist, Second Class (OS2) has been discontinued and is now known as a "B440." The Navy has yet to decide the fate of the rating badges and insignia.

This rating, Operations Specialist, Second Class (OS2) has been discontinued and is now known as a “B440.” The Navy has yet to decide the fate of the rating badges and insignia.

When the CNO and MCPON unceremoniously pulled the plug on the enlisted classification system, there were in excess of 90 active ratings in use. Since the ratings were officially established in 1797, more than 700 have been used.  As a collector, I wonder what changes are forthcoming that will have impacts on the items that I am interested. As Mark D. Faram and Sam Fellman of the Navy Times noted, “the moves leaves the enlisted force’s foremost symbols as the petty officer crow and the chief petty officer anchors.” The writers continue, “It remains unclear what will happen to the ratings badges that feature iconic rating insignia that officials are considering changing. An engineman’s gear. An information systems technician’s sparks. These images were beloved by many and inspired countless tattoos.” Apparently, we have to wait and see what will become of our unique (to our branch of the armed forces) sleeve insignia. Will the Navy remove the distinguishing/specialty marks that currently reside between the eagle and chevrons? Since the goal is to make the enlisted structure more in line with the Army, Air Force and Marines (see: Hello, Seaman: Navy Ditches Ratings After Review – Military Times, 9/29/2016), would they simply reduce our insignia to just chevrons, also eliminating the eagle?

For those who collect rating badges and insignia, the discontinued use of them on enlisted uniforms could spark a sudden boost in interest spurring on an increase in demand while driving up prices. At present, collectors have predominately focused their interest in rating badges that predate the current eagle design (often disparagingly referred to as a “sick parrot”) – prior to the design change in the late 1980s. The earlier “crow” designs incorporate an more aggressive and menacing perched eagle and finer details in the embroidery (see: Discerning Birds: U.S. Navy Rating Badges from WWI to WWII). Another factor that garners collectors’ interest is that many of the distinguishing/specialty marks have been long since disestablished or superseded.  Collectors will be watching for any indication of changes (increased interest, more online auction bidders, etc.) in the market. It may be premature to say that the market appears to not be impacted by last week’s announcement. If the rating badges are altogether eliminated, I suspect that there will be a spate of new collectors influencing prices but it will eventually settle down shortly after. Time will tell.

What is Wrong With The New System?
Many people are wondering why are sailors so adamantly opposed to the new system that is being implemented. Why is there such a visceral and negative response to the impending changes? What began in January, 2016 as a directive by the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Maybus to evaluate all of the ratings in order to “ensure they were representative of all sailors and did not discriminate based on gender,” evolved in the elimination of every rating. Rather than to work within the ratings, addressing the directive and fighting to uphold tradition, the MCPON took the easy way out, flippantly recommending (to the SecNav) that simply demolishing the ratings all together “could be be done tomorrow.”

“Make no mistake about it,” MCPON Stevens recalled telling (SecNav) Mabus, “this course of action will be the most labor-intensive, probably the most expensive, certainly the most controversial as well as difficult to accept socially throughout the Navy.”

Stevens had previously presented four scenarios to Maybus that were workable solutions to the directive (removing “man” from 21 specific ratings) before proposing the one that would strike the biggest blow to enlisted morale and to the American taxpayers. Maybus would have the final decision and, according to Stevens, Mabus “sat there a little bit, pondered it, asked a few questions and then decided, in the best interest of the Navy’s future, this was the path he wanted to take.” With that, Navy leadership unceremoniously rendered sailors to be nothing more than generic enlisted people that will no longer be as specialized as they are today.

Rather than focus on the most pressing needs of the navy (preparedness and readiness), the navy instead has shifted gears to be more focused on social issues. This shift in focus has already begun to produce negative results on mission-readiness:

  • Fourth breakdown in US Navy littoral combat ship – “…the Coronado’s incident (suffering an ‘engineering casualty’) means four of the six littoral combat ships in service have suffered mechanical failures in the past nine months.
  • The New $3B USS Zumwalt Is a Stealthy Oddity That May Already Be a Relic – “On the DDG-1000 [Zumwalt-class], with the waves coming at you from behind, when a ship pitches down, it can lose transverse stability as the stern comes out of the water—and basically roll over…”
  • Why More (Navy) Commanding Officers are Getting Fired (due to misconduct) – “…the presence of the opposite sex has led to an exploding rate of fraternization, at every level. Simply put, you cannot put young, healthy men and women into a small box, send them away for extended periods of isolation, and not expect them to interact dynamically with one another. They’re like magnets being put into a box and shaken — they stick.”

There are countless instances of sailors dealing with the effects of extended deployments (due to the reduction of the number of combat-ready vessels and aircraft yet an increased demand), reduced morale, radical changes to command structure, and de-funding of maintenance budgets for active ships – all of this is contributing to a naval force that is wholly unprepared to meet any emergent needs that should arise.  Further diminishing morale by removing the enlisted rating system will only serve to continue the downward spiral that could take decades to end.

Contradiction and Irony
The eight-month long effort (January through September) to address Secretary Maybus’ directive to be sensitive to the ever-increasing list of federally recognized genders by removing “man” from rating titles is, at the outset, a failure. Though the leadership did succeed in eradicating the negative connotation from 21 ratings, they doubled-down on “man” for all sailors in pay-grades E-1 to E-3, referring to them all as “seaman,” leaving bluejackets to wonder what was Maybus’ underlying motivation.

 

Previous Articles about Collecting Navy Ratings and Badges:

References:

Remembering (and Collecting) the USS Maine!


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.

USS Maine ACR-1 – Havana Harbor, 1898

USS Maine ACR-1 – Havana Harbor, 1898

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.

Galax leaf wreaths decorate the coffins containing the dead of the Maine on December 28, 1899.

Galax leaf wreaths decorate the coffins containing the dead of the Maine on December 28, 1899.

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.

Bell of the USS Maine, broken in half by the 1898 explosion, attached to the door of the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Bell of the USS Maine, broken in half by the 1898 explosion, attached to the door of the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

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.

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.