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Unlocking the Secrets of Your Collection: Research is the Key


The cover of the 1913 U.S. Navy Uniform Regulations is very high quality in its construction.

Researching early military uniforms to ascertain a date or time period when they were issued or used can pose a challenge for collectors. Navy uniforms can be exceedingly difficult to pinpoint when it comes to dating them for a number of reasons.

Over the last few years, I have stressed that education and research materials only serve to enable collectors to make sound purchasing decisions. Knowing where to turn for information can be a daunting task for someone making their initial foray into this hobby. Simply knowing what research material might exist isn’t in the mindset of those seeking details about a uniform or uniform item.

This copy is complete with all of the details including tables and pertinent data.

When I started a serious approach to research (in this case, verifying a jumper as pre-World War I), I was in the dark as to where to look so I turned to Google to begin my investigation. With the understanding that information on the web is seldom complete or authoritative, the search results seemed to be ambiguous and quite vague, so I narrowed my focus to locating people I could glean information from. As with any relationship, time is necessary to determine whether an “expert” is truly knowledgeable in their professed field of experience, so there was a risk that I might have received some inaccurate data.

Wanting to have go-to resources at my disposal, I began to gather reference material that suited my needs. My collection being predominantly focused on the service of my relatives and ancestors, I knew that I had to get the details (i.e. enlistment dates, commands assigned to, campaigns they participated in, etc.) of their individual service records. Armed with hard facts, I could then pursue the pertinent reference materials such as individual unit histories, training manuals, and uniform regulations.

The plates are spectacular! This one shows the warrant officer shoulder boards and insignia.

Some of these materials are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, such as the Navy’s Blue Jackets Manual (issued to new recruits). Others are somewhat rare, making them difficult to find or posing negative impacts onto collecting budgets. One reference book I had been seeking was the 1913 United States Navy Uniform Regulations. I couldn’t locate one through various book stores or eBay. Fortunately for me, Google Books digitized a  copy and had the majority of the book’s content available for online use. Unfortunately, the missing portions were the ones I needed for my research. I was amazed to see that I could purchase a hard copy, printed and bound complete book for less than $10.00, shipped to my door! Naturally, I pulled the trigger and less than five days later, I had the needed reference book in my hands.

This plate shows the construction of the dress whites – bleached white duck and blue flannel cuffs and collar.

What arrived was a paperback book with a high quality glued-in binding that will withstand repeated viewings or being transported to collector shows much better than an original 100-year-old hardbound book with a weakened spine.

The chief and enlisted dress blues plate shows the proper wear and insignia placement.

Acquiring the 1913 regulations may not appeal to others, but for me this was like locating a missing piece that completes a collection. I’ve confirmed a piece as authentic and I can correctly pursue the remaining outstanding parts to properly complete my uniform display!

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Discerning Birds: U.S. Navy Rating Badges from WWI to WWII


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.

Pre-1913 Navy Rating Badges

This selection of pre-1913 dress white Navy rating badges demonstrate the scarlet chevron (eliminated in 1913) and the left-leaning eagle (discontinued in 1941). Photo source: US Militaria Forum

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).

Coxswain

WWI-era Coxswain rating badge that has been cut to form a shield shape. Photo source: US Militaria Forum

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).

WWI-era Ship's Cook second class

Note the left-leaning eagle on this WWI-era Ship’s Cook second class rating badge.

Pharmacist's Mate 2/c

This dress white Pharmacist’s Mate 2/c rating badge is pre-1941 as noted by the left-facing eagle and its slight right-lean on the perch.

 

During WWII, a handful of manufacturers provided dates embroidered directly onto the back of rating badges which nullifies the need for researching.

Pharmacist's Mate 1/c - WWII-era.

Following the release of the 1941 uniform regulations, the non-seaman branch ratings’ eagles were switched to face forward as the badge (as worn on the left sleeve).

Radarman 1/c

This Radarman 1/c was made in 1944 as noted by the embroidered date on the reverse.

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.

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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.