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Navy Cracker Jacks: No Toy Surprise


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.

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

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.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

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:

 

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The Militaria Collector’s Search for the White Whale


The hunt. The search. The quest for the prize. Seeking and finding the “Holy Grail.” We collectors tend to describe the pursuit of those elusive pieces that would fill a glaring void in our collection with some rather lofty terms or phrases.

We wear our collection objectives on our sleeves while pouring through every online auction listing, or burning through countless gallons of gasoline while making the rounds from one garage or yard sale to the next. Antiques store owners (whom we think are our friends) have our lists of objectives to be on the lookout for.

A close-up of the USS Astoria's first commanding officer, Captain George C. Dyer, wearing his choker whites and the rare white garrison cover (source: Brent Jones Collection).

A close-up of the USS Astoria’s first commanding officer, Captain George C. Dyer, wearing his choker whites and the rare white garrison cover (source: Brent Jones Collection).

Militaria collectors (any collector, for that matter) thrive on the hunt and feed off the adrenaline rush that comes from achieving each victory as they locate and secure the piece that has seemingly evaded every search effort. Hearing that they’ve missed an opportunity by seconds due to some other collector beating them out only fuels their passion. Losing an auction because they tried to play conservatively with their bidding propels them through the twists, turns, hills and valleys of the emotional roller coaster.

Searching for militaria can be an exhausting endeavor. For the last two years, I’ve been searching for a piece and while I can’t say that I’ve been through these scenarios, I did manage to feel an amount of elation when I achieved success with my objective.

This shot shows Captain George C. Dyer departing the Astoria wearing his dress white uniform and the white garrison cover (source: Brent Jones Collection).

This shot shows Captain George C. Dyer departing the Astoria wearing his dress white uniform and the white garrison cover (source: Brent Jones Collection).

 

I’m not wanting to repeat myself (which I do quite often, considering all of my previous posts), but let me state that I do not consider myself any manner of expert on military history or militaria. I assert that I have a broad-based knowledge on a narrow scope of U.S. military history (20th century) with a primary focus on the U.S. Navy. So when I discovered an item that I had previously never knew existed, I was quite curious and subsequently needed to obtain it.

 

An acquaintance (who had contributed photos for my first book that I published in 2009) has a website that is the public face of his extensive and invaluable research on the USS Astoria naval warships. On this site, I noticed some new images that he had recently obtained and published showing the first commanding officer, Captain George C. Dyer, of the USS Astoria CL-90 turning over command of the ship and departing amidst his change of command ceremony.

Pictured here with an early WWII chief radioman's eight-button, dress white uniform jacket, the (yellowing and aged) white garrison cover is a bit more distinguishable from a khaki variant.

Pictured here with an early WWII chief radioman’s eight-button, dress white uniform jacket, the (yellowing and aged) white garrison cover is a bit more distinguishable from a khaki variant.

For the ceremony, the ship’s crew is turned out in their summer white dress uniforms. All appeared to be normal until I spied the unusual uniform item – the commanding officer was wearing a garrison cover (hats in the Navy or Marine Corps are known as covers). Affectionately known as a (excuse the crass term) “piss cutter,” I knew that the garrison was available for use with the (aviator) green, khaki, (the short-lived) gray and the blue uniforms, but I had never seen a photo of this white variety. Garrison covers are not particularly stylish, but due to their lightweight and soft construction, they are considerably more comfortable than the traditional combination cover (visor caps) alternatives.

A Garrison Comparison: at the top is the white garrison (compared with a WWII khaki) demonstrating that, though it is yellowed, it is the rare white cap.

A Garrison Comparison: at the top is the white garrison (compared with a WWII khaki) demonstrating that, though it is yellowed, it is the rare white cap.

Plentiful and very readily available, the khaki versions are quite frequently listed or for sale at antiques stores and garage sales. The green, gray and blue garrisons are a little bit more rare yet turn up with some regularity. The white garrison is the great, white whale. Considering that it was not well-liked in the fleet during the war (when it was issued), it is now extremely rare for collectors seeking to possess all of the uniform options. The white garrison is truly the white whale among World War II navy uniform items.

 

I added the vintage garrison cap officer's crest device to the white garrison cap.

I added the vintage garrison cap officer’s crest device to the white garrison cap.

Seeing this hat in the photos fueled my quest to obtain one for my collection. The very first one I had ever seen listed anywhere became available last week at auction. I placed my bid at the very last second and was awarded with the holy grail. Yesterday, the package arrived and was both elated and saddened as my quest was fulfilled.

No longer needing to hunt for this cover, I feel as though I have lost my way… a ship underway without steerage. What am I saying? I have plenty of collecting goals un-achieved!