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Sometimes Home-front and Sweetheart Pieces Are the Best Items Available


The USS Tacoma (C-18) taken shortly after her commissioning. The photo (an RPPC) is part of the author’s archive,

As much as I enjoy the brief naval warship histories that are available online, where they are lacking is often the area where my research needs them to be more complete, especially when there are artifacts that require deeper investigation. One of the ships that I am constantly on the watch for associated or connected artifacts was an early Twentieth Century protected cruiser. The USS Tacoma (C-18) was the fifth vessel of the six-ship Denver Class cruisers (hull numbers C-14 through C-19) that were placed into commission in a fourteen-month span between November 1903 to February of 1905. Oddly enough, the Tacoma was commissioned second (chronologically) behind USS Cleveland (C-19) which was the first to be placed into active service.

Artifacts from the USS Tacoma are very scarce. Apart from the occasional press photograph, few pieces become available on the collector market. Unlike other more famous warships of this era (such as the USS Maine), the Tacoma is a relatively unknown ship. Another contributing factor to the lack of USS Tacoma material could be its brief service life and untimely and sorrowful demise.

For many reasons, I have taken a concerted interest and have been on the hunt for just about anything that is even remotely contextual. In the last decade, I have been able to acquire memorabilia (rather than militaria artifacts directly obtained from the USS Tacoma or veterans who served aboard her) that is more along the lines of homefront or sweetheart pieces such as this ornate silver spoon.

This portrait (printed as a real photo postcard or RPPC) was taken between 1904 and 1913 and shows two sailors. Note the flat hat tally of the seated sailor which denotes the ship he is assigned to (the cruiser USS Tacoma).

In the last several months, I have been able to secure two pieces that fit into these categories. The first, a vintage real photo postcard (RPPC) portrait of two sailors in their dress blue uniforms. The apprentice seaman that is seated is wearing a flat hat complete with the tally around the hatband that denotes the name of the ship. The sailor standing next to him is also wearing his flat hat but, being the more salty and experienced sailor, he has customized his to be more relaxed in its appearance by removing the stiffener. With the top having a slouched appearance, the ship’s tally is concealed.

Dating this photo to a specific year is somewhat difficult however it is rather easy to narrow down the range of years by using the visible clues on the subjects, themselves. The USS Tacoma served for just under 20 years (commissioned on January 30, 1904 until she broke apart having run aground on Blanquilla Reef near Vera Cruz, Mexico on January 16, 1924) which is a broad range of time. Fortunately, enlisted uniforms underwent some significant regulations changes during that period of time.

Noting the standing sailor’s rank insignia (his badge which indicates his job specialty known in the Navy as a “rating”), there are a few elements surrounding the design of the badge and the location that, when compared with various changes to these specific areas, the era from which this photo originates is determined to be within the first decade of the ship’s service. This particular second class petty officer is a machinist’s mate which is part of the engine room force. Prior to the uniform regulations of 1913, ship’s crews were divided into two watch-standing sections (when one section is on duty, the other is either sleeping or performing daily shipboard tasks) that were known as “port” and “starboard” sections. The petty officers in those sections would wear their rating badge on the corresponding sleeve (left sleeve for port, right for starboard). With the regulations changes, the watch-standing correlation was abolished and all non-seaman branch ratings were moved to the left sleeve.

A deeper analysis of the sailor’s uniforms raises some questions regarding visible anomalies. The cuff piping on the MM2/c’s jumper top is clearly visible (the three stripes represent all three of the lower grades of non-rated seaman that he progressed through) and yet his collar and flap are blank similar to that of an un-dress jumper which should not have piping on the collar flap (and would have cuff-less sleeves).

1913 U.S. Navy Regulations – Dress White Jumper specifications.

Another interesting uniform configuration lies with the dress of the seated apprentice seaman’s under shirt – a blue knit sweater with a drawstring tied into a bow at the neckline. After pouring through the uniform regulations, I was unable to determine any stipulations governing such a configuration. Sailors were adept at customizing their uniforms to suit their personalities and level of personal comfort due to the more permissive standards of the era. With present-day regulations, uniformity and appearance is more controlled and restrictive and would negate such customized approaches.

The photograph itself wouldn’t garner much collector attention as it is merely a portrait of two unnamed sailors. To a collector of USS Tacoma memorabilia, the RPPC is golden. Perhaps a bit more interesting for some specialized collectors are home-front or sweetheart pieces (items made or purchased as remembrances of a loved one who is away from home, serving in the armed forces). Decorative and commemorative pillow covers were commonly purchased by service members for their mothers or sweethearts with the idea that a a reminder of the veteran is close at hand (kept on their bed or adorning the couch). These pieces were manufactured by vendors and sold on or near military bases and were quite common from the 1930s through the 1950s. Though commemorative pillow covers were made in the early parts of the Twentieth Century, they weren’t as prevalent.

This pre-WWI silk pillow cover is quite unique. The flags shown within the design seem to indicate its age.

When this cover was listed, it stood out and immediately drew my attention due to the brilliant colors and design along with the flags of the world. Immediately, I recognized the depiction of the ship and was astonished by the unique size and the patriotic imagery. Dating the piece is a bit of a challenge though it can certainly be narrowed down based upon the the details with what is depicted. Due to the warranted animosity towards the antagonists of the Great War, it is highly doubtful that anyone would market something that contained the flags of these aggressors.

It could be folly to rely solely upon the flag illustrations as the credible source for dating the pillow cover. Considering that available reference resources were not as current or contained current variations to draw upon. Also, the imagery is employed as a decorative element rather than to be an authoritative source for flags of the world.

 

Independent of assessing the age of the USS Tacoma pillow cover, the piece itself is near-flawless and shows no signs of wear, age or fading. It is clear that the artifact has been stored away from ultraviolet light and protected from oxidation for nearly a century.

Though not as ornately designed as the obverse, the back panel of the USS Tacoma (C-18) pillow cover resembles the naval Union Jack with the blue field and 49 stars.

The history of the ship and the tragic story surrounding her loss is compelling reason enough to seek out such artifacts. Keeping the story of the Tacoma alive by collecting and sharing artifacts from the ship and her crew is a satisfying aspect to my collecting.

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Focused on Niche Areas of Collecting: USS Washington


What is the difference between a collector and a hoarder? It is a fair question that I often ask myself, especially when I am at a decision point before pulling the trigger on an acquisition. Some folks may decide to move forward with a purchase based upon a single element while others employ a matrix of factors that guide their choices. As many of these factors are subjective and are unique to the individual, it is impossible for one person to answer a the aforementioned question. Psychology professor Randy O. Frost (of Smith College) wrote a fantastic piece, “When Collecting Becomes Hoarding” that is rather insightful in guiding collectors in avoiding the entrapments that lead to the devastating condition of hoarding.

My (simple to suggest yet difficult to adhere to) advice to those who are interested in collecting militaria can be summed up with just one word: FOCUS! To some, focusing on a national military is focus enough. However, I can only imagine what their homes or storage areas (of someone who collects US Militaria) must look like as they gather pieces from four branches of the armed forces. In my estimation, the level of focus that makes the most sense is one that aligns with several criteria. For me these are:

  1. What story am I trying to uncover and convey with my collection and does the piece align with it?
  2. Does artifact meet with my primary interest?
  3. Does the piece meet my budget constraints?
  4. Do I have the space to preserve and protect the artifact from further decay and damage or to display and enjoy it?

My collecting has a few, very specific focuses and perhaps the most broad of those resides with baseball militaria. Thankfully, this category is extremely limited in terms of available artifacts which, if I pursued even 50 percent of what arrives on the market, I would still be very limited in what actually landed into my home.  Being a Navy veteran, most of my collection touches naval history in some manner. Within this arena, I also pursue artifacts related to a few specific ships (the two that I served aboard and the one that my grandfather commissioned and served aboard during WWII). In total, there are about a half-dozen U.S. Navy warships from which I possess related artifacts.

A cabinet card photograph of the USS Washington that has been hand-toned (colorized) shows the white-and-buff color-scheme of the day (before the Navy transitioned to haze gray). This image has some moisture damage on the right side.

This real photo postcard of the USS Washington (taken while she lies at anchor off of Seattle, her future namesake) is one of my favorite photos of the ship.

One of those warships that I collect is the USS Washington – which is comprised of a few vessels beginning with the Tennessee class Armored Cruiser (ACR-11) that was commissioned in 1906. I also collect items from the three vessels that have carried the name (BB-47, BB-56 and SSN-787) bringing the total pool from which to draw collecting interest (with this ship) to four. Well, let me make a slight correction; The armored cruiser Washington experienced a reclassification and corresponding name-change due to the rapidly advancing technology and the Navy’s ship-naming policies. In 1916, the ship was renamed USS Seattle in order to free up Washington to be used for a new class and in ship-of-the-line-category. Just 22 days following congressional approval for four Colorado-class battleships (coincidentally, the USS Washington would be the only one of the three to not be finished due to terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty).

As I have been able to secure a modest array of pieces that are associated with the earlier USS Washington/USS Seattle (see: Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off and Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver), the artifacts that arrive to the market for this ship are scarce. In addition to a few homefront pieces and the cruise book, I have managed to assemble a small collection of original vintage photographs (including CDVs, RPPCs and a cabinet card) from this vessel.

It isn’t often that pieces surface onto the market from (or are associated with pr attributed to) a ship that effectively existed for a decade more than a century ago. Artifacts that actually came from a ship can be difficult to prove in the absence of rock solid provenance. Depending upon the time-period, the ship’s name is seldom, if at all, emblazoned onto a equipment or crew-used items aside from wardroom china or silver service elements. Enlisted uniforms (flat hat tallies before WWII and uniform shoulder UIC patches from the 1950s-on), depending on the era, can bear the ship’s name. In my collection are pieces that fit into a different category: ship-associated. These artifacts range from folk/trench art to sweetheart or family (homefront) pieces that serve as reminders of the sailor’s service rather than being derived from the ship itself.

Distracted by the fantastic blue and gold colors along with the name of the ship, I initially believed the pillow dated to the early decades of the 20th century (source: eBay image).

One such piece, associated with one of the ships that I focus my collecting upon, was listed at auction several months ago and caught my attention for several reasons. Brightly colored and adorned with felt-applique lettering and naval adornments, a homefront pillow that bore some similarities to another navy piece that was already in my collection (see: Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers). As I reviewed the listing, I began to focus on the similarities shared between my 1918 Navy pillow and this one that was being listed with the initial thought that it might pre-date 1916 (when the USS Washington ACR-11 was reclassified and re-named). I set my bid amount and waited for the auction close as the date that the pillow was made was quite secondary to my desire to have a piece associated with the Washington, regardless of the era or specific hull.

The only original image of the WWII battleship, USS Washington (BB-56) that I have in my collection, shows the bow of the most-decorated non-carrier of WWII slicing through the slightly rough seas of the Pacific. Her two forward mounts of her main battery appear almost diminutive in the absence of objects of scale.

The pillow arrived a week after my successful auction bid secured win, and I spent some time carefully and gently cleaning the artifact as the felt fabric, though not brittle, could easily tear. The backside of the pillow shows considerable fading having been exposed to a constant light source for years (perhaps placed on the back of a sofa near a window). My assumption of the date of the pillow continued as I overlooked a very obvious indication of the true age. It wasn’t until I began to truly examine the pillow while making descriptive notes (just prior to authoring this article) that I finally recognized the most obvious indication of the artifact’s age. On the bottom corner is a felt applique representation of a chief petty officer’s cap device. The “U.S.N.” lettering was near-entirely horizontally aligned adhering to the pattern used by the device’s WWII design.

Despite my “discovery” of the USS Washington pillow’s actual age, it is a rather unique piece for the WWII-era considering that most of the WWII homefront pieces were silk-screened imagery on satin fabric.

Regardless of the age, the Washington piece fits nicely into this narrow niche of my collecting while keeping me selective with what is added to my collection. Finding the balance in collecting, as with life, helps maintain my sanity, keeps the hobby enjoyable and helps me to avoid cluttering my home and making life miserable for my family.

 

 

 

 

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.