Posted by VetCollector
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.
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.
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:
- Collecting US Navy Uniform Ship Identifiers
- Breaking From Tradition Navy Shoulder Sleeve Insignia
- Militaria Bargains to be Had
Posted by VetCollector
Patch collecting is one of the most affordable aspects of militaria collecting and can be a highly rewarding venture to delve into the history and variations that are available. I am, by no means a serious collector of patches opting instead to be selective about the embroidered and colorful pieces of uniform history.
While the overwhelming majority of militaria collectors who have interests in patch collecting are primarily focused on United States Army unit and rank insignia, a smaller portion of us enjoy the eclectic realm of U.S. Navy enlisted rank insignia and the very colorful and meaningful progression of their designs through the ages. That historical progression along with all of its nuances is enough to fill a book (see U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885-1982
, by John A. Stacey) so with today’s article, I am instead zeroing in on a specific design from a seemingly specific era.
In the modern US Navy, rating badges are consistent in appearance and wear. From the design elements (eagle, specialty mark and chevrons) to the materials they are constructed from, they are all consistent. While this concept places emphasis on the uniformity of appearance and the unit-mindset (that all crew members work together as a single entity), it does restrict the ability for sailors to express and exhibit a measure of individuality and personal pride in their uniform appearance. The current rating insignia (in my opinion) have a rather sterile and sanitized appearance as they are all manufactured by a single source using one design pattern for each and every piece that is made. However, in previous years, sailors had much more freedom to instill their own spices into their uniforms.
Rating badge collectors might focus their approach from casting a wide net (collecting everything that comes their way) to obtaining every single variety of a specific rating over the course of its existence. I find my collecting efforts to be even more specific as I seek only a handful of specialties (Radarman, Radioman, Ship’s Cook and Pharmacist’s Mate along with a few others) from varied eras (WWI-WWII) on select uniform choices (such as dress blues, whites or khakis). Though my choice of eras might seem rather specific, a closer look at the uniform regulations and the changes imposed during that time-frame reveals that the design of the ratings experienced several iterations.
“All petty officers shall wear on the outer garment a rating-badge, consisting of a spread eagle placed above a class chevron. In the interior angle of the chevron, under the eagle, the specialty mark of the wearer shall be placed. The badge shall be worn on the outer side of the right or left sleeve, half way between the shoulder and elbow. Petty officers of the starboard watch will wear the badge on the right arm; those of the port watch on the left arm.” – Regulations Governing the Uniform of Commissioned Officers, Warrant Officers, and Enlisted Men of the United States 1886
Dating back to 1886, the design (as cited in the uniform regulations) of the eagle called for its wings to be spread. The eagle’s head also now faced toward its left shoulder (having previously faced to the right) and would do so until 1941 when regulations then called for the head to point to the wearer’s front (regardless of the sleeve it was to be worn…more on that later).
Prior to 1913, ships’ crews were divided into two watchstanding sections and were designated with terms that corresponded with the left (port) and right (starboard) sides of the ship which dictated which sleeve the sections’ petty officers would wear their rating badges. From 1913 onward, all petty officers whose specialties were in the Seaman Branch (such as Boatswain’s Mate, Coxswain, Gunner’s Mate, Turret Captain and Quartermaster) were right-arm ratings while all others in the Artificer Branch and Engine Room Force wore theirs on the left sleeve. What can make this confusing for new collectors is finding a rating badge (such as an electrician’s mate) with the eagle pointing toward the left shoulder. Finding this rating badge affixed to a dress blue jumper with it worn on the left sleeve would narrow the time-period down (given the embroidered pattern of the eagle had the eagle sitting completely vertical on the perch) to the inter-war era.
Though the practice started years before, during World War I, rating badges were customized by petty officers by trimming them from the traditional 5-sided shape (rectangle with the bottom corners cut away to form a point) to a contoured pattern. Fancy hand-stitching was then applied to follow the new shape (many times in the shape of a shield) providing a highly stylized appearance on the jumper shirt. As with many fads, this adornment fell out of practice as the Navy specified the pentagon shape and dimensions in a specific change (dated 16 February 1933) to the Navy Uniform Regulations.
In 1941, the Navy changed the eagle to point to the wearer’s front specifying that all non-Seaman Branch petty officers’ ratings have the eagle look to its right shoulder (rather than to the left). The Seaman Branch (which had grown to include Fire Controlman, Mineman, Signalman, Torpedoman’s Mate). In addition to the eagle’s direction, the eagle no longer included the slouched (or leaning) posture that had existed for decades.Though there is no provenance to support this, the idea for these changes was to have the eagle positioned for fighting (facing the enemy and standing tall).
During WWII, a handful of manufacturers provided dates embroidered directly onto the back of rating badges which nullifies the need for researching.
I have merely scratched the surface with these details. There are pages-worth of content that I could provide that provides additional points and factors to pay attention to in order to discern the date of manufacture (and use) of the rating badge, such as:
Cloth material (enlisted dress blue material changed between WWI and WWII, additional materials were introduced for WWII, etc.)
Rating Specialties (ratings were added/retired throughout this period)
In 1947, the most significant change that indicated a desire for uniform appearance across enlisted ranks was moving all ratings to the left arm with the eagle facing forward. The distinction between the Seaman Branch and all other petty officers was removed.
In the months to come, I will be providing additional articles in order to provide you with more insight into collecting rating badges and how to discern them without having to rely on others.
All images are the property of their respective owners or M. S. Hennessy unless otherwise noted. Photo source may or may not indicate the original owner / copyright holder of the image.
Tags: Enlisted Ranks of the U.S. Navy, Hospital Corpsman, Jumper Uniform, Metalsmith, Mineman, Navy Crows, Navy Ratings, Navy Uniform Regulations, Pharmacist's Mate, Radarman, Radioman, Rating Badges, Ship Fitter, Ship's Cook, Signalman, Torpedoman's Mate, US Navy