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A Old Bluejacket Tradition Long Gone: Tar Hats to Flat Hats


My affinity for early Twentieth Century U.S. Navy Uniforms, especially those from the enlisted ranks, is increasing even if I am financially restrained from pursuing my most desired pieces when they surface onto the market. On some rare occasions, an artifact that I would love to add to my collection is listed and flies beneath the radar of fellow collectors leaving me the opportunity and wherewithal to bring it home.

I have written several articles (including considerable research for each) related to elements of uniforms from the first few decades of the last century ranging from rating badges, enlisted jumpers and head coverings and yet there is much that I am still discovering. The overwhelming focus of this site has been directed at naval artifacts and my collection is heavily weighted with U.S. Navy artifacts however I cannot consider myself to be an expert in these areas. One item of the enlisted naval uniform that I have much to learn about is surrounding the dress blue cap, known by many as the “Donald Duck Hat” or simply, the flat hat.

To delve into the full history of enlisted headwear and the entire life of the dress blue cap, I would need to write a multipart series of articles in order to give the hat its proper due (perhaps that will be a future project?). For the purposes of this post and to reflect the pieces that I have in my own collection, this article will be constrained with a narrow and specific focus.

Though flat hats were an integral part of the enlisted naval uniform for well over a century, it has been more than a half-century since the Navy retired them from usage.  The earliest references to the flat caps were seen in the Navy Uniform Regulations of 1833 as the Navy began to standardize wear for seaman and petty officers.

This wide-brimmed black hat was worn by enlisted sailors many years ago when the Navy first began. Painted with tar, the wide brim kept sun off a sailor’s face (source: Naval History and Heritage Command).

ART. 601. The outside dress clothing of the petty officers, seamen, ordinary seamen, landsmen, and boys, shall consist of blue cloth jackets and trowsers (sic), blue vest, blue cloth cap or black hat, black handkerchief, and shoes, when the weather is cold; when the weather is warm, it shall consist of white frock and trowsers, black or white hats, or blue cloth caps, as the commander may direct, having regard to the convenience and comfort of the crew, black handkerchiefs and shoes.

In the 1833 regulation, there is no specific mention of “flat hat” as the term itself wasn’t part of the vernacular in use regarding the headwear at the time. Of the two references (in bold) referring to blue or black headwear, the cloth cap is the early example of what we know today as the flat hat. “Black hat” is referencing the various broad brimmed black tarpaulin headwear that were worn for several decades by enlisted sailors in the mid-to-late 1800s. These are actually (sennit) straw hats that were coated with tar that provided the sailor with a waterproof head covering that could withstand the rigors of shipboard life. The caps were adorned with a ribbon that was the forerunner of the hat talley that would be seen on the flat hats.

As the uniforms evolved with technology, the hats advanced. Painting straw hats with tar began give way to new methods for waterproofing such as creating a tarpaulin cover. Further advancements that helped in the reduction uniform expenditures and conserving the very limited space aboard ship but allowing sailors to have a single hat instead by making the hat convertible from a standard sennit to a waterproof one. by fitting the hat with a two-piece cover fabricated from oilskin or oilcloth fabric provides the desired effect.

 

Aside from the black (flat straw) hats, sailors also began wearing blue cloth cap that was the forerunner of what was later known as the dress blue hat for enlisted personnel. By the time the American Civil War began, the blue cloth caps were the most commonly worn hats by petty officers and seaman. The long ribbons that encircled the black hats were transitioned to shortened (without the extended streaming tails) versions and some were adorned with the name of the sailor’s ship name (sans “U.S.S.”) added by hand using gold paint. Late in the Civil War, there were some instances of entire crews having their talley’s embroidered (with gold bullion) in lieu of the painted vessel names. The gold wire-bullion embroidery became common (though still not standardized) with for flat hats in the 1883 naval uniform regulations. Another aspect of the blue caps was that they were soft and formless leaving sailors to customize their caps to suit their individual style by adding stiffeners or filling (almost pillow-like) to give them a personalized shape. In 1866, the black hat tarpaulin hats were no longer used.

As the American Navy was advancing from wooden hulls and sail to ships made of steel and powered by steam, the uniforms worn by crews changed with their needs. Changes to the dress blue hat were made in 1883 that remained, keeping the flat hat’s appearance consistent for the next 40 years. The U.S. Navy didn’t have the uniform supply system in place that exists today (which truly came into being as World War II was looming on the horizon in 1940) leaving sailors subject to acquiring or even making various uniform components. Flat hats conformed to a regulation standard but would vary in the diameter of the top (9 to 11 inches) which differed as it conformed to the size of the sailor’s head. Dress blue hats included a broad leather sweatband that is seldom visible in surviving caps due to the cotton shirt lining that has been sewn in for both comfort and to conceal the damage to the cowhide (due to sweat and repeated, prolonged usage).

Though heavily worn, the embroidery on this USS Newark (C-1) is nothing short of stunning though the hat could not have been worn aboard ship or while on duty (Source: eBay image).

In the years leading up to the Great War, the flat hats became more standardized with cotton linings being sewn in at the manufacturers, effectively eliminating the variations of various printed patterns on the linings for subsequent caps. Still, sailors would either heavily customize their caps with almost gaudy embroidery and fancy needlework (typically on the crown) however such embellishments were unauthorized for wear aboard ship. Caps with these decorations were worn ashore and during liberty or leave periods. Though modern Navy regulations have all but eliminated the personalization of uniforms, sailors have always found a way to add their own custom touches over the last century and a half. Flat hats with such personal flair are exceedingly scarce and never fail to draw the interest of collectors.

Although they might appear to be, tally ribbons were never tied to flat hats. A closer examination of the ribbons reveal that the ribbon was wrapped around the outside of the cap (even with the sweatband), trimmed and the ends tucked beneath the bow that was already secured to the cap with a stitch. Once secured beneath the bow ribbon would be stitched around the circumference of the hat.

This flat hat has the post-1940 “U.S. Navy” tally.

This flat hat is of the 1933 pattern but was issued during WWII.

In 1933, the design of the flat hats changed once again with more standardizing in the shape and materials of the hat. Gone from the flat hats were the broad, head-size dependent thin and very flat top along with the printed cotton fabric lining. Also, the rigid hat stiffeners were changed leaving a more slouchy, beret-like appearance. The design gave the hat a pronounced for and aft appearance with the front portion of the top rising upwards, seemingly drawing more attention to the tally. The tallies also experienced a material change from the gold bullion wire ship and command names in favor of a gold colored thread, producing a low-profile lettering across the face of the talley that did not discolor with tarnish or verdigris. By 1940, the U.S. was rapidly growing its forces and building ships in an effort to catch up to the immense threat that was spreading in Europe and the Pacific. Ships of all classes were under construction in shipards up and down both coasts. To reduce the difficulties in managing ship identifyers for enlisted caps for each existing, under construction and planned naval vessel, the decision was made to eliminate the ship names from tallies and replace them with “U.S. Navy.” It has been suggested that this change was done as a security measure surrounding ship-movement but the notion that the presence of uniformed sailors in a port would be more obvious than the large battleships or aircraft carries is somewhat ridiculous.

One of my most recent flat hat acquisitions was one that I happened upon a few hours before the online auction listing was set to close. The dress blue cap was one that fit perfectly within my Navy collecting focus (see: Focused on Niche Areas of Collecting: USS Washington). The flat hat, a post-1933 design included a tally that indicated it was from the USS Seattle and yet there are a few questions regarding the hat design and tally combination. To help illustrate these questions, I have summarized the timeline of the ship below.

A flat hat from the USS Seattle, the former armored cruiser USS Washington, that dates from the interwar period of 1933-1940 (Source: eBay image).

USS Washington/USS Seattle Timeline

  • 1906, August 7 – Commissioned USS Washington (ACR-11)
  • 1916, November 9 – Renamed “Seattle”
  • 1920, July 17 – Reclassified (CA-11)
  • 1927, August 29 – Changed Status to Receiving Ship
  • 1931, July 1 – Classification changed to “Unclassified”
  • 1941, February 15 – Reclassified (IX-39)
  • 1946, June 28 – Decommissioned from active service
  • 1946, July 19 – Stricken from Naval Register
  • 1946, December 3 – Sold and eventually scrapped

The tally of the USS Seattle flat hat shows some wear but is in good condition, overall (Source: eBay image).

USS Seattle’s reclassification from a combatant ship (a heavy cruiser) to a receiving ship transformed her role in regards to crew assignments. The mission of a receiving ship is two-fold: to serve as a location to receive newly inducted recruits as their personnel records are established, they are issued uniforms and initial training is conducted before they are sent on for to complete training and assignment to their permanent command. The other role of a receiving ship is to serve as a location for sailors who are nearing the end of their enlistments to be processed out of the naval service, having been transferred from their commands to await discharge. Receiving ships also served as locations for judicial proceedings such as courts martials.  Sailors who were processing in would have most likely been issued dress blue caps with a generic “U.S. Navy” tally to be worn until they reached their permanent duty station. Depending upon the time that it takes to outprocess, sailors awaiting discharge would have worn the tally of their last command.

Stenciled to the back of the leather sweatband of the USS Seattle flat hat is the sailors name: Feldt (Source: eBay image).

In attempting to determine the age of the cap and tally, it could only be pinpointed a range of years between 1933 and 1940 due to the time-period for the pattern of the hat (1933-1963) and the elimination of ship names from cap tallies. With some researching of the sailor’s name (“FELDT”) stenciled to the backside of the leather sweatband, the date range could be narrowed down by searching the ship’s muster rolls. It is most-likely that Feldt was part of the crew of the Seattle responsible for the in and out processing of the transient sailors that were temporarily assigned to the ship.

On April 1, 1963, the Navy unceremoniously brought about the end of the the dress blue cap, having been relegated to an item that sailors stuffed into their seabags, seldom seeing wear since being issued at bootcamp. Since the World War II, the white hat (lovingly referred to as the “Dixie Cup”) was popularized due to its ease of wear and that it could be rolled up and stowed into the back of the trousers, concealed beneath the jumper when in doors and not in use. With the vast numbers of wartime films depicting sailors in their dress whites and blues wearing their white hats cocked forward, aft or to the side, rolled edges, or hand-formed to a number or shapes, the versatility of the white hat (worn with all of the enlisted uniforms while the flat hat was only worn with dress and undress blues) drove the dress blue cap out of use. So many of the caps were made during WWII that the Navy supply system was still issuing them into the early 1960s.

 

Related Articles:

Naval Enlisted Flat Hats:

Navy Uniform Head Coverings

Other References

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