Category Archives: World War I

Child’s Play: Distinguishing Navy Uniforms from Middies


Naval-themed middies were very popular attire for women and children beginning around the turn of the 20th Century. How does one distinguish between a Middie and a Navy dress uniform?

A young woman wearing in the early 20th Century. Note the Ex-Apprentice mark located near the “V” of the neckline, similar to an authentic navy dress blue uniform. This can be very misleading to a novice collector.

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.
  • Construction
    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.

Most middy rating badges are boatswains mates and quartermasters. Notice how disproportionate the crossed anchors are. Also note that the eagle is on odd pattern as compared to the authentic design. As for the red chevrons (on white uniform), they were discontinued after 1913 (source: eBay image)

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.

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Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers


While reading a discussion on a militaria forum regarding a World War I veteran’s medal group (that at that time had recently been listed for sale by Bay State Militaria), I was reminded that so much in military collecting is out of reach for my budget. This particular collection of artifacts contained the Army officer’s decorations and medals which included the Distinguished Service Cross, Belgian Order of the Crown, Knights level, Belgian Croix de Guerre, three awards of the French Croix de Guerre, United States Silver Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Legion of Honor, Knights class and many other decorations. Not only was this group considerably out of my reach but I couldn’t even afford to purchase this soldier’s WWI Victory medal (which included ten clasps, documenting the battles he participated in) if it had been parted out. The group was listed for just under $6,800 and based upon the amount of history the buyer acquired (yes, it sold very shortly after it was listed), it was worth every penny.

From a painting by noted artist, Arthur Cummings Chase, to the array of medals, decorations and ephemera, this WWI Army officer’s grouping is nothing short of spectacular (image source: Bay State Militaria).

The career of the veteran was not only significant during his time in uniform but in his work after he served. In reading his history-making accomplishments as noted, one could see why this grouping commanded such a high listing price:

  • This Officer was decorated while attached to the British during advanced Chemical Training in 1918. He then personally led the first American Chemical Weapons Attack in History as Company Commander of B Company, 1ST Gas and Flame Regiment.
  • A very historic grouping with a famous painting of this Officer by Joseph Cummings Chase which is in itself a treasure. This portrait was one of 125 painted in France in 1918-19 by Joseph Cummings Chase. approximately 75 ended up in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. This is one of just a few known to be in Private Hands.

This WWI Army officer’s (his name was not disclosed) group is purely museum quality as this officer also played a significant engineering role (during the interwar period) on New York’s George Washington Bridge and Holland Tunnel construction projects.

Meanwhile, back in the realm where I live (known to me simply as reality), my World War I collection consists of a few items that were affordable and have visual appeal. With my family serving in every American conflict dating back to the War for Independence, I try to locate objects that will display well and have some sort of connection to my family’s military heritage.  

Two pieces that fit my criteria (as stated above) and met my budgetary constraints are these WWI-specific wool flannel pillow covers. As it turns out, their similar designs complement each other quite well and will look fantastic on my office wall.

Pillow covers were quite popular during World War II with most designs being simple silk-screened patterns or pictorials on silk material. Typically, these were gifts purchased by the service members and sent to family and sweethearts as reminders of the loved one away at war. During the war, these were mass-produced and can be acquired without severely crippling your collecting budget.

Commemorating a wide variety of subjects such as military branches of service, forts or military bases, ships or aircraft, pillow covers have been dated to the first few years of the twentieth century. The early examples tend to be constructed from a wool flannel with lettering and designs stitched to the face.

While the common designs of WWII (such as the more generic “Army” and “Navy” versions) will be plentiful and therefore inexpensive, the more ornate or specific they are, the price will be higher. With Navy ships of significance (such as the USS Arizona or Enterprise) expect to pay a premium.

 

Lumbering Along: Collecting C.E.F. Forestry Militaria


Inside a World War I trench showing the lumber shoring and the mud at floor. Duckboards at the bottom of the trench were intended to keep the soldiers’ feet out of the mud.

A group of Forestry Corps troops pose with the weapons of their choosing. France, 1917.

As a collector of militaria, I tend to fixate my thoughts on those pieces that pertain to combat or combat personnel, such as their uniforms and weaponry. With my specific area of interest—those in my family and ancestry who served in uniform in the armed forces—collecting items to recreate representations for these people has been relatively simple. My passion for history and knowledge of the United States military provides me with a leg up in the pursuit of knowledge and the nuances of the required research. As I pursue certain branches of my family tree, I am required to depart from this American-centric comfort zone as I head toward the land of the unknown: the Canadian and British military forces.

An example of a WWI Forestry Corps recruiting poster. Note the maple leaf emblem at the bottom of the poster, which is a close resemblance to the Forestry Corps collar devices in this article.

While conducting some scant research on a few relatives, I discovered that one of them, a Scot, served with the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot (which would later become the Black Watch) in the Americas during the War of 1812, as I mentioned in my piece, The Obscure War – Collecting the War of 1812. This ancestor, as well as his father (who also served in the same Scottish regiment), fought for what I would deem as the “enemy.” Once I got past that distinction, I was able to continue researching, setting aside any biases.

In researching more immediate family members along the same British family lines (see my previous post, I am an American Veteran with Canadian Military Heritage), I discovered that my great, great-grandfather answered his nation’s call to serve against Imperial Germany in what would be known as the War to End All Wars. At his “advanced” age of 47 and a recent widower, my ancestor could have elected to abstain from service (the Military Service Act, 1917 required service of men aged 18-41), yet he felt compelled to serve in some capacity. Like many Canadians who would otherwise have been ineligible for military duty due to age or physical limitations, and who served in other support-based, non-combatant, units, my great, great-grandfather joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (C.E.F.) Forestry Battalion.

With the insatiable demand for lumber to be utilized at the war front (for trench walls and shoring, duckboards, crates, containers and building construction), the British government called upon the experienced woodsmen of North America to begin to harvest the seemingly unending forests of Canada. Desiring expediency in the supply chain between the lumbermen and the front, combined with the demand to utilize the invaluable cargo space aboard the merchant vessels for other needs, the military leaders determined that by bringing the Forestry Corps troops to Europe to harvest timber in the forests of the UK and France would better serve the needs of the front line troops.

Forestry Corps troops ply their skills on Scottish timber, 1917 (source: Heritage Society Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland).

Between 1916 and the signing of the Armistice, some 31,000 men served with the C.E.F. Forestry Corps in Canada and Europe. During that period, the Forestry Corps produced nearly 814,000,000 feet board measure of sawn wood plus 1,114,000 tons of other wood products. Though he probably never picked up a weapon (some units were close enough to the front and were required to be prepared to be used as reserve troops), my great, great grandfather served in an invaluable capacity risking life and limb for the war effort.

As with all of my collecting efforts, I am continuously seeking to document and locate artifacts that can be assembled to form representative displays for the many veterans in my family’s history. With regard to my great, great grandfather, I have only begun to scratch the surface in researching the uniforms of the Forestry Corps and what he might have worn along with any decorations he might have earned.

A few years ago, I managed to locate a pair of collar devices that are specific to his unit, the 230th Forestry Battalion. Being that my focus has been with U.S. militaria, I’ve gained an appreciation for the beauty of the Canadian and British uniform appointments. In examining the devices, one can quickly see the Canadian heritage in the maple leaf design. Along with the Forestry Corps word-mark, there is a beaver on the crest to punctuate the principal function of the unit. Superimposed across the front is the battalion designation, clearly identifying to which military unit the wearer belongs to.

Putting the devices together, they are a start for what could be a nice display.

Not too long after locating the collar devices, an auction for the matching hat device was listed and I was the subsequent highest bidder.  With three pieces, I started watching for other items that would display well in a small shadow box of items representing my great-great grandfather’s service. Searching for such hard to find items as Canadian Forestry Corps pieces requires patience. I am not sure exactly how far I will go in the pursuit of assembling this Forestry Corps display as the pieces are sparse and difficult to find when compared to U.S. pieces of the same era.  It might be quite costly to put together the even most minimalistic grouping of items which may force me to quit with what I have today.

Like my other ongoing projects, this one could last the span of several years. More so than funds, I have the time to wait for the right pieces!

Militaria Issued: Giving and Receiving


Over the span of the last seven years, I’ve worked diligently in learning the ins and outs of collecting militaria and yet have only begun to scratch the surface. Delving into the details, for me, has produced an incredible wealth of knowledge surrounding many aspects of military pieces, such as when or where an item was worn or used. But that hasn’t been the most substantial reward in my passion for military collecting.

Being a student (not to be glib, as I am always learning) of American history has occupied my attention for decades. My wife and children could tell you stories about my side excursions to see some obscure item or location of historic note during our family vacations, in my passion to align book knowledge with the visual reality. Experiencing history helps to bring the stories to life and while facts are solidified in this process, actually seeing an item or location opens my mind to new questions with this acquired perspective. This process of learning is fun for me, but in regards to militaria, it still isn’t the pinnacle of satisfaction in collecting.

My military artifact collecting was sparked when a few boxes of Third Reich items were dropped into my lap nearly twenty years ago as my family dealt with our aging grandparents and the need to relocate them from their home of fifty years to an assisted living care facility. Having moved only once over the course of eighty-five years, my grandfather had accumulated quite a “treasure-trove” of artifacts including his older brother’s World War II trunks that were untouched from the time they arrived from Germany in 1945. I was suddenly thrust into the task of researching the pieces that my uncle had “acquired” during his participation in the elimination of the Nazi menace.

Though I didn’t get into collecting German militaria, my interest was piqued with the idea of owning pieces of history. The thought of possessing a tangible artifact that was connected to history as well as the connection to my family member’s participation in those events, was compelling and dovetailed nicely into the incessant genealogy project I was, and still am, working on.

I have dabbled in collecting in several areas in my lifetime and I have met a lot of nice and passionate people who shared similar interests as me. Those relationships always tended to be more proprietor-patron rather than collaborative and sharing. However, from the moment I started to seek answers to questions regarding personal military artifacts that I had inherited from a few relatives, I began recognizing different traits in the people who collect militaria. Aside from a passion for the objects and the rich history, these collectors were quick with thoughtful responses to my inquiries as they provided detailed descriptions and guided me to research resources in an effort to enable me to be self-reliant. Among all the quirks and odd interests, I noticed an authentic sense of community with militaria collectors.

One trait that really blindsided me as I was increasingly immersed into militaria collecting was the trusting and giving nature of these people. As I participated in the discourse and discussion surrounding these wonderful objects, I began to build relationships with other collectors. Out of the blue, one collector asked me for my address as he had “something” for me. This fellow collector observed and gleaned, from my posts on a militaria forum, what my interests were and subsequently sent me a vintage 1920s rating badge – something that one of my uncles would have worn on his navy uniform. I was humbled by the gesture and that this collector would accept no offer of payment for his trouble. This example was merely a foretaste of what I would experience on a somewhat regular basis and my collection has grown because of the kind hearts of others. The charitable nature of others is infectious which prompted me to do the same with other collectors.

This fine example of the M1 carbine shows a magazine pouch attached to the rifle’s stock.

Awhile ago, I was invited to tag along with two other guys that are as passionate about military history and collecting as me to visit a local dealer of antique books and manuscripts. This dealer, a highly regarded authority in many circles, showed several fantastic pieces from his personal collection that prompted three jaws to repeatedly drop. Toward the end of our visit, the gentleman retrieved a WWII-vintage M1 carbine rifle in immaculate condition that was a distinct departure from the paper artifacts and, knowing that we were all interested in militaria, offered it for sale with a low-ball price tag. Unfortunately for me, financial constraints precluded me from purchasing the vintage weapon. However, one of my companions did “pull the trigger” and came away with the rifle.

I recently acquired these M1 carbine pouches to give to a friend and fellow collector who recently purchased a late-WWI M1 carbine rifle. The nice, used condition will be great accompanying his rifle.

Not long after the M1 offering, I stumbled across a set of three WWII-vintage M1 carbine magazine pouches that were in good condition and were listed at a very affordable price. Thinking about my friend’s recent purchase, I snagged the pouches to give to the new carbine owner.

Over the last few years, I have gifted several pieces from my collection in the hope that it helps a fellow collector fill in the gaps or simply provides enjoyment in receiving a new piece they had not seen before or never knew existed.

Consistency through Change – The U.S. Army Uniform


This uniform, though an immediate post-Civil War-issue, is clearly that of a sergeant in the U.S. Cavalry as noted by the gold chevrons (hand-tinted in the photo).

This uniform, though an immediate post-Civil War-issue, is clearly that of a sergeant in the U.S. Cavalry as noted by the gold chevrons (hand-tinted in the photo).

Over the weekend leading up to Independence Day, I had been inspired by my family military service research project, which had me neck-deep in the American Civil War, which caused me to drag out a few DVDs for the sheer joy of watching history portrayed on the screen. Since the Fourth of July was coming up, I wanted to be sure to view director Ronald Maxwell’s 1993 film Gettysburg, on or near the anniversary of the battle, which took place on July 1-3, 1863.

I had watched these films (including Gods and Generals and Glory) countless times in the past, but this weekend, I employed more scrutiny while looking at the uniforms and other details. Paying particular attention to the fabrics of the uniforms, I was observing the variations for the different functions (such as artillerymen, cavalrymen, and infantry) while noting how the field commanders could observe from vantage points where these regiments were positioned, making any needed adjustments to counter the opponents’ movements or alignments. For those commanders, visual observations from afar were imperative and the uniforms (and regimental colors/flags) were mandatory to facilitate good decision making.

The tactics employed for the majority of the Civil War were largely carryovers from previous conflicts and had not kept pace with the advancement of the weaponry. Armies were still arranged in battle lines facing off with the enemy at very close range (the blue of the Union and the gray of the Confederacy), before the commands were given to open fire with the rifles and side arms. The projectile technology and barrel rifling present in the almost all of the infantry firearms meant that a significantly higher percentage of the bullets would strike the targets. In prior conflicts where smooth-bore muskets and round-ball projectiles were the norm, hitting the target was met with far less success.

The uniforms of the Civil War had also seen some advancement as they departed from the highly stylized affairs of the Revolution to a more functional design. In the years following the war, uniform designs saw some minor alterations through the Indian Wars and into the Spanish American War. By World War I, concealment and camouflaging the troops started to become a consideration of military leadership. Gone were the colorful fabrics, exchanged for olive drab (OD) green. By World War II, camo patterns began to emerge in combat uniforms for the army and marines, though they wouldn’t be fully available for all combat uniforms until the late 1970s.

Though these uniforms have a classy appearance, they were designed for and used in combat. Their OD green color was the precursor to camouflage.

Though these uniforms have a classy appearance, they were designed for and used in combat. Their OD green color was the precursor to camouflage.

This World War II-era USMC combat uniform top was made between 1942 and 1944. Note the reversible camo pattern can be seen inside the collar (source: GIJive).

This World War II-era USMC combat uniform top was made between 1942 and 1944. Note the reversible camo pattern can be seen inside the collar (source: GIJive).

For collectors, these pattern camouflage combat uniforms are some of the most highly sought items due to their scarcity and aesthetics. The units who wore the camo in WWII through the Viet Nam War tended to be more elite or highly specialized as their function dictated even better concealment than was afforded with the OD uniforms worn by regular troops.

Fast-forward to the present-day armed forces, where camouflage is now commonplace among all branches. The Navy, in 2007-2008, was the last to employ camo, a combination of varying shades of blue, for their utility uniforms citing the concealment benefits (of shipboard dirt and grime) the pattern affords sailors. All of the services have adopted the digital or pixellated camo that is either a direct-use or derivative of the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) first employed (by the U.S.) with the Marine Corps when it debuted in 2002. Since then, collectors have been scouring the thrift and surplus shops, seeking to gather every digital camo uniform style along with like-patterned field gear and equipment.

The first of the U.S. Armed Forces to employ digital camouflage, the USMC was able to demonstrate successful concealment of their ranks in all combat theaters. Shown are the two variations, “Desert” on the left and “Woodland” on the right.

The first of the U.S. Armed Forces to employ digital camouflage, the USMC was able to demonstrate successful concealment of their ranks in all combat theaters. Shown are the two variations, “Desert” on the left and “Woodland” on the right.

change-5After a very limited testing cycle and what appeared to be a rush to get their own digital camo pattern, the U.S. Army rolled out their ACU or Army Combat Uniform with troops that were deploying to Iraq in 2005. With nearly $5 billion (yes, that is a “B”) in outfitting their troops with uniforms, the army brass announced this week that they are abandoning the ACU for a different pattern citing poor concealment performance and ineffectiveness across all combat environments. With the news of the change, the army has decided upon the replacement pattern, known as MultiCam, which has already been in use exclusively in the Afghanistan theater.

For collectors of MultiCam, this could be both a boon (making the items abundantly available) and a detractor (the limited pattern was more difficult to obtain which tended to drive the prices up with the significant demand). For those who pursue ACU, it could take decades for prices to start climbing which means that stockpiling these uniforms could be a waste of time and resources. Only time will tell.

Since the Civil War, the U.S. Army uniform has one very consistent aspect that soldiers and collectors alike can hang their hat upon…change.