Monday, July 14, 2014

Flax to Linen, the 1765 Way, Part II

In 1765, John Wily recommended planting tobacco or another weed-discouraging crop the year before you planted your flax field. Any weeds that "come up with the Flax," he said, "will be very hurtful to it, unless picked out, which is very troublesome," (31). Luckily, after I planted my flax patch in April, I could afford to weed it by hand in lieu of any tobacco crop last year. I weeded my patch every couple weeks or so, but for the most part weeds didn't seem to be a big problem. To mimic eighteenth-century reliance on natural rainfall, I didn't water my patch at all. 

The images below give you a sense of what a flax season might have looked like two hundred years ago. You'll note that, initially, the plants actually didn't end up that thick and that there were a number of disconcerting blank patches of soil. This seemed less of a problem as the plants got taller and appeared crowded enough to encourage thin stems, as Wily recommended.

April 16th, plants 0.5-0.75" tall.

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May 5th, plants 1.5-3" tall.

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May 23rd, majority of plants 11.5-15" tall. I initially thought the plants were bent over because of a heavy storm the day before, but over the next month they seemed to do this regularly. I suspect it has to do with moisture content.

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June 7th, majority of plants 25-30" tall. I noticed the first blooms on the 6th, exactly two months after planting.

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June 9th, now in full bloom.

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June 28th, plants ranging between 26" and 37", with the majority around 35" tall. Notice that those on the edges of the patch, lacking the support of neighboring plants, are inclined to fall over.

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Here's the patch the day we harvested it, July 11th.

A few days before harvesting, I noticed half a dozen inch-long, fuzzy caterpillars in the patch. They seemed to only be eating the leaves. From what I can tell, they're Virginia Tiger Moth caterpillars. They got to my flax late enough that it didn't matter, but I wonder how much damage a large number might do if they hit the plants early in the season.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Shoes and Rigs aboard the Charles W. Morgan

One of the first things I noticed about the professional sailors aboard the Charles W. Morgan during my leg of the 38th Voyage last month was the diversity of their clothing. This was nowhere more evident than in two particular parts of their wardrobes, their shoes and their "rigs," the leather holsters in which each sailor carries several tools. 

I suppose I had assumed that there must be some sort of agreed-upon standard for footwear, the best shoe for shipboard work. In fact, there were as many brands and styles as there were sailors aboard the Morgan. Aaron Gralnick told me that he adopted open shoes several years ago because "feet stink downstairs," and that he hates socks because they're just one more thing to put on when you have to get up and go quickly. The soles of these shoes, he finds, wear about about every two years. Nobody goes barefoot. Despite longstanding myths to the contrary, it seems that sailors in earlier periods also almost always wore shoes. You can read more about early U.S. Navy footwear here







Before boarding the Morgan, I'd never heard of a "rig" in the context these sailors use the term. Each crewmember wore a belt and a leather holster, in which they carried a knife and a marlinspike. As Aaron Gralnick told me, "My spike is a hammer, a finger, a spike, and a fid. My knife is for so much more than just cutting." Cassie Sleeper carries knife, a marlinspike, sometimes a flashlight or a spoon, and a whistle. "You don't want to find yourself in the water without a whistle," she said. She also has a pair of DeWalt clippers for cutting line in another leather holster. In the case of all of these tools, they are tethered to the belt or rig with a line long enough to allow easy use but not so long that, if dropped, the tool might hit and damage the deck. 

Rigs show individuality. Some people decorate their rig with embossed designs or elaborate stitching, and some ships have standard patterns new crewmen can use. Aaron had even heard stories of current sailors seeing someone wearing a certain style of rig and knowing which ship they'd come from.









Thanks to the crew of the Morgan for their hard work during our trip and for providing such fine examples of skilled professionals at work. It was great to watch them operate the ship and to see what they chose to wear while they did so. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Aboard the Charles W. Morgan on the 38th Voyage

It's been almost a week since I was aboard the Charles W. Morgan for my leg of the 38th Voyage (due to a weather delay, we ended up sailing on Sunday, the 15th). Some surprise visitors to our house have been preventing me from writing about the trip sooner. Someone abandoned a mother cat and four kittens on our property, but I'm happy to say that they are all now doing just fine and waiting for good homes.

Not 38th Voyagers. They might have potential as a ship's cats some day, though.

Anyway, the Voyage was amazing. We boarded the Morgan on Saturday evening in New London and spent the night at the dock there. About fifteen of us slept in small two-tiered bunks in the fo'c's'le until a wake-up shout at 5 A.M. We spent the rest of the day at sea, partly under tow from a large tug. Around mid-day, though, we cast off the tow rope, the crew set almost every sail, and the Morgan cruised under her own power for two hours. That was what I was waiting for, and it was just as exciting as I expected. 

The Charles W. Morgan under sail.

Aloft on the Morgan.

When I wasn't watching the crew move around the deck and go aloft, talking with the other Voyagers (including an artist, an economist, a dress historian, a literary scholar, a wildlife conservationist, an ethnomusicologist, and maritime historians) or marveling at the dozens of pleasure boats of all sizes that followed us on our journey, I took some time to speak with the crew about what sorts of clothing they pack and choose to wear as professional sailors in 2014.

Aaron Gralnick has been sailing tall ships almost ten years, and he brings five days' worth of clothes on sea voyages, figuring that, in that time, "I'll either get on shore and find a laundry or we'll be at sea and people won't care." 

Aaron Gralnick

Among other things, his wardrobe includes a fleece jacket and foul weather pants and a coat. Aaron told me that he isn't a fan of hoods on raingear because they impede his hearing, but that he does wear a waterproof hat and gloves (the latter only when on deck, not aloft). Sailors have two foul-weather options these days: "Grundens," a brand of completely waterproof clothing, and more breathable options. The former are completely waterproof but not breathable and thus too warm for some weather, while the latter breathe but are not quite as waterproof. For Aaron, as for nineteenth-century sailors, "good foul-weather gear is worth its weight in gold."
Aaron Gralnick

Aaron has found that most of his work clothing lasts two or three seasons, and he usually packs a dress shirt and a tie, wrapped up and buried in his sea bag, as his "schooner bum camouflage" for going ashore. "Stuff has to last," Aaron told me, "because you can't just run to REI in the middle of the season." So, he says, you have to be particular but also realize that you only have so much space for your stuff aboard ship.

Overhearing me talk about the historical preferences of sailors for short jackets, Aaron pointed out that he often wears a vest, but rolls it up in back to better access his knife and marlinspike, part of the "rig" carried by each crewmember (watch for a forthcoming blog post on these).

Cassie Sleeper has been a professional sailor since 2007 (for many such people, that means working aboard ship 9-11 months a year). Because she doesn't go home to Los Angeles during the working season, everything she needs goes into a 55-lb. seabag, a backpack, and a purse. It takes her two days to pack. First, she gathers everything she thinks she needs and lays it all out. The next day, she starts taking stuff out, thinking about what she actually requires for a given voyage in a given season and climate. Sometimes, she tries layering everything on at once to see what she could wear in cold weather. By the end, she usually ends up with two pairs of work pants, two or three pairs of work shorts, three work shirts, a pair of long underwear, her foul weather gear, enough socks and underwear for at least a week ("Your underwear is going to be hanging out to dry on the ship, so you have to consider what kind to bring.") and two dresses or sets of nice clothes ("Sometimes, on a ship, you forget you're a girl, so when you go into port you dress up."). 

Cassie Sleeper

Cassie's foul weather gear includes a $400 raincoar with clear hood side panels. She finds that Grundens are harder to move in but that the linings of breathable coats wear out in patches. She also usually packs a pair of work shoes, foul weather shoes (if her work shoes aren't waterproof, as the ones she was wearing on this voyage were), work sandles, and a pair of nice shoes. "We're all sort of brand-name people," Cassie told me, pointing out the commonality of Carhartts pants as an example.

Cassie Sleeper

"You bring cheap clothes," Cassie says, "because you're going to ruin them." It takes her about a year and a half to go from new jeans to work jeans to ruined jeans. The pants she was wearing on this voyage were new last October.
Cassie Sleeper

Ryan Loftus has been sailing tall ships for three years. Like most of the crew, he wears Carhartts or Dickies pants. He also packs cheap shorts and white tee-shirts for long voyages ("They're durable, and you don't care if they get destroyed"). 
Ryan Loftus

Ryan's foul weather gear includes a Grundens jacket, bib pants, and rubber sea boots. His work pants last him a year or two, depending on the work, and he usually packs three sets of work clothes and three sets of casual, a pair of work shoes, a pair of Chacos sandles, and sea boots. Ryan pointed out that the T-shirt he was wearing was new that day, and the shorts he was wearing were new as of the ship's first sail a few days before.

Ryan Loftus

Watching and talking with the Morgan's professional crew gave me a lot to think about when it comes to how sailors, in 1814 or 2014, weighed choices about fashion and function. And, although part of me hoped it would rain a little so I could see what sort of rain gear they broke out, I was mostly happy to be out on such a historic ship on such a beautiful day. You can follow the ongoing progress of the Morgan here.

Thanks to the staff of Mystic Seaport, particularly Katharine Mead and Erik Ingmundson, and the crew of the Charles W. Morgan, for all their work making the New London-Newport leg such a success.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Off to Sea

I'm heading off for Mystic Seaport tomorrow for my leg of the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan. She's currently anchored in New London, Connecticut, and by this time tomorrow, I should be comfortably ensconced in one of the berths in the fo'c's'le. On Saturday, we'll sail from New London east along the coast to Newport, Rhode Island. During this time, I'll be observing how the crew moves around the ship and talking to them about how their clothing choices combine fashion with function. If it's rainy, I might even get a chance to try out my own new rain gear, a recent gift from Nicole (more on that later). Being on board the ship under sail will give me plenty to think about as I work to reproduce nineteenth-century maritime raingear later this summer.

The Charles W. Morgan under sail, June 7, 2014, from here.

The Morgan has been out for her first trials under sail over the past few days, and the New London-Newport cruise will be the first leg in a journey that will take her up to Boston and back to Mystic over the course of the summer. You can follow the Morgan's voyage over the course of the summer using this cool chart. I'll have much more to share when I get back.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Kux/Alrichs House

Last August, Nicole and I attended a meeting of the New Castle County (Delaware) Historic Review Board, a committee that monitors historical preservation issues here in northern Delaware. We drove over in case no one showed up to speak against the main agenda item, a demolition request by the land conservation organization Delaware Wild Lands. The organization owns property near Port Penn, Delaware, and a brick house, constructed around 1760, known as the Kux/Alrichs House. As it turned out, the meeting was the best town meeting I've ever attended and a shining example of civic preservation support. Besides the permit applicant, no one spoke in favor of demolition. Historians, architects, archaeologists, genealogists, descendants of the Alrichs family, Port Penn residents, and others each took their three-minute turn to address the committee. Some demonstrated the architectural significance of the house, an early example of Dutch architecture in the area. Some argued that the house required only minor stabilization, not the costly and nonprofessional renovation estimates Delaware Wild Lands was using to justify demolition. Some argued that the house should not be moved (another proposal of Delaware Wild Lands) because of its association with the landscape and buried archaeological resources. Some argued that Delaware Wild Lands might subdivide a small parcel around the house and sell it to a historical preservation organization. David Orr, an archaeologist at Temple University, spoke movingly about how there was really no "wild land" in Delaware, how people had been modifying the landscape since prehistory, and how Delaware Wild Lands needed to be a steward of the entire landscape, rather than an imagined wild land.

The Kux/Alrichs House, Port Penn, DE.

I agreed with all of that. And I figured it demonstrated the sort of community opinion that would dissuade Delaware Wild Lands from pursuing demolition. Perhaps they might consider boarding up the windows, reinforcing the roof, and simply preserving the house until, some time in the future, they were better prepared to take advantage of this unique resource. It had lots of potential, as a visitor center, a nature education hub, or a historic site. After all, I thought, wouldn't a nature organization destroying a historic house be just as offensive as a historic house paving over wetlands for a new parking lot?

Rear view, Kux/Alrichs House.

The New Castle County Historic Review Board has no power to forbid demolition. The best they can do is withhold a demolition permit for as much as nine months to encourage the exploration of alternatives to demolition.

Brickwork, Kux/Alrichs House.

On May 27, nine months and one week after the meeting I attended last August, Delaware Wild Lands demolished the Kux/Alrichs House.

The Kux/Alrichs House.

The University of Delaware's Center for Historic Architecture and Design documented parts of the house, but, as far as I can tell no fragments of the house were saved, including a dated brick near the kitchen window. Delaware Wild Lands had offered the house or portions for free to any taker with a clear plan for moving the structure. That no one was able to meet the organization's offer reflects the substantial expense of carefully moving a historic structure. Moreover, historical preservation standards, including the typical requirements for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, emphasize the importance of a building as situated in its original landscape or location.

Staff with the University of Delaware Center for Historic Architecture and Design's Mid-Atlantic Historic Building and Landscape Survey documenting the Kux/Alrichs House, from here.

We cannot and should not preserve every scrap of the built environment. Something old isn't necessarily worth saving. I'm not bemoaning progress or advocating tighter restrictions on private property rights. Some might say that the Kux/Alrichs House was not significant. No signer of the Declaration of Independence ever lived there. It was never a Revolutionary War hospital or a stop on the Underground Railroad. According to the organization's executive director, Delaware Wild Lands is in the "business" of land conservation, not historic preservation (see the comments here).

The Kux/Alrichs House and later addition.

But can we make the distinction between land conservation and historic preservation so easily? For 254 years, the Kux/Alrichs House sat quietly in the middle of farm fields, the hub of a man-made, agricultural landscape. Peter Alrichs chose the spot to built his house for the same reason Native Americans stayed in the area for hundreds of years. It sat on fertile, high ground near the river. By 2014, the house was one of only a handful of eighteenth-century structures still standing in southern New Castle County. This didn't necessarily make it the best candidate for a museum. But it also meant that people who consider themselves steward's of Delaware's land should have realized that this house was part of the landscape itself.

The Kux/Alrichs House within its historical landscape.

The expenses of preserving this structure, with no residents, in a rural area where vandalism or liability were minimal risks, would have been minor, perhaps even less than the cost of demolition. I suspect Delaware Wild Lands decided many months ago that the house wasn't worth preserving, no matter the cost. Far better to clear the land, plow over the foundations, and preserve a wild landscape.

The view from the Kux/Alrichs House.

And the main reason Delaware Wild Lands said they could not sell the house on a small parcel of land and the reason demolition was better than preservation? The Kux/Alrichs House sat on a 250-acre plot just south of Port Penn, Delaware, where humans have cut firewood, raised crops, and hunted the game drawn to the river for centuries. What was the rush to get rid of this piece of the landscape?

Delaware Wild Lands leases these 250 acres to hunters.


Whalemen and Waterproofing IV: The Recipes

This is the fourth of four posts in which I discuss the evidence related to waterproof clothing used by New England whalemen in the mid- and late nineteenth century. You can read about documentary evidence here, visual evidence here, and material culture here. This material informs my project to recreate waterproof garments for the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, an undertaking I'll continue to cover in future posts here.

The Charles W. Morgan passing the New London Ledge Lighthouse under tow on the first leg of her 38th Voyage, May 17, 2104, from here.

By the mid-nineteenth century, when the Charles W. Morgan sailed, weatherproofing treatments included oilskin and oilcloth, painting, vulcanization and the application of natural rubber, and other chemical treatments. These categories are somewhat artificial, especially when you pay attention to the overlap of ingredients in recipes. I've found no evidence for the use of pine tar in the nineteenth century despite references to "tarred" clothing (I think the word survived after sailors and others abandoned the actual material). Later, in The Waterproofing of Fabrics (1903/1914), Stanislaus Mierzinkski recommended synthetic tar for "cheapness and durability," (67, thanks to Joseph Privott for bringing this book to my attention).

Speaking of chemistry, I've included substantial quotations from primary sources below for those who may be interested in the chemistry of historical waterproofing. I won't pretend to understand the molecular nature of these recipes, but I would welcome any insights from professional or avocational chemists. I've also added links for some of the more peculiar ingredients, should you be interested in reading about those details as well. These are just a sampling of recipes, not a comprehensive compilation. For drawing my attention to both Mackenzie's and The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book, I owe a debt to Claudia P. Iannuccilli's "Clothing of New England Whalemen, 1840-1869" (MS Thesis, University of Rhode Island, 1994).

For those of you less interested in chemical recipes, look out for the "verdict" section below each original recipe, where I discuss the feasibility of recreating certain waterproofing methods. Please forgive the wordy nature of this post

Oilskin and Oilcloth
Oil-based waterproofing recipes abounded in the mid- and late nineteenth-centuries. Of course, the simplest oilskin production technique was simply to apply repeated coats of oil. Richard Henry Dana mentioned this method, as I discussed previously, and it appears in Henley's Twentieth Century Book of Recipes, Formulas, and Processes (1907). This book also mentions some other intriguing and simple recipes, including diverse ingredients such as bullock's blood, pipe clay, and rosin, but it post-days my period of interest, the nineteenth century. Earlier recipes include this one, intended for a variety of fabrics and based on linseed oil and several chemicals, from Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Recipes (331-332):
To make a Composition for rendering Canvas, Linen, and Cloth durable, Pliable, and Water-proof. To make it Black. First, the canvas, linen, or cloth is to be washed with hot or cold water, the former preferable, so as to discharge the stiffening which all new canvas, linen, or cloth contains; when the stiffening is perfectly discharged, hang the canvas, linen, or cloth up to dry; when perfectly so, it must be constantly rubbed by the hand until it becomes supple; it must then be stretched in a hollow frame very tight, and the following ingredients are to be laid on with a brush for the first coat, viz., 8 qts. of boiled linseed oil, 1/2 oz. of burnt umber, 1/4 oz. of sugar of lead, 1/4 oz. of white vitriol, 1/4 oz. of white lead.
The above ingredients, except the white lead, must be ground fine with a small quantity of the above-mentioned oil, on a stone or muller; then mix all the ingredients up with the oil, and add 3 oz. of lampblack, which must be put over a slow fire in an iron broad vessel, and kept stirred until the grease disappears. In consequences of the canvas being washed and then rubbed, it will appear rough and nappy; the following method must be taken with the second coat, viz., the same ingredients as before, except the white lead; this coat with set in a few hours, according to the weather; when set take a dry paint-brush and work it very hard with the grain of the canvas; this will cause the nap to lie smooth.
The third and last coat makes a complete jet-black, which continues its color: Take 3 galls. of boiled linseed oil, and ounce of burnt umber, 1/2 oz. of sugar of lead, 1/4 oz. of white vitriol, 1/2 oz. of Prussian blue, and 1/4 oz. of verdigris; this must be all ground very fine in a small quantity of the above oil, then add 4 oz. of lampblack, put through the same process of fire as the first coat. The above are to be laid on and used at discretion, in a similar way to paint.
Verdict: Not suitable for reproduction due to potentially toxic ingredients.

Here's a simpler recipe, from the 1886 Techno-Chemical Receipt Book (383):
To Make Sacking Water-proof. Dissolve 1 part of rosin in 20 parts of coal-tar oil, and filter the solution. Let the sacking lie in it for 5 days, and then rub it with litharge or lime. Then dissolve 1/2 part rosin in 4 parts of coal-tar oil, immerse the sacking several times and rub again with litharge or lime. 
Verdict: Not suitable for reproduction due to potentially toxic ingredients.

Painting
In White Jacket (1850), Herman Melville described constructing a jacket from an old shirt and various other materials. He hoped to use the shipboard paint stores for the final step: "Six brushes-full would make it water-proof," (123). He was foiled, however. "It had been my intention to make it thoroughly impervious, by giving it a coating of paint. But bitter fate every overtakes us unfortunates. So much paint had been stolen by the sailors, in daubing their overhaul trowsers and tarpaulins, that by the time I--an honest man--had completed my quiltings, the paint-pots were banned, and put under strict lock and key." (3-4)
Ships carried a variety of paints, such as the "black, red, green, yellow, and white ship's paint" described as aboard an East Indiaman in the 1859 edition of Jack Ariel (185). Shipboard paint could include a variety of chemicals. As the 1860s-70s patents of Massachuesetts citizens Tarr and Watson and succeeding litigation indicate, paint mixtures for ship bottoms, included Stockholm (pine) tar and benzine or antinomy and copper oxide. You can see an inventory of the paints (and many other objects) aboard the whaleship Virginia in an annotated 1847 list here. The whole point of paint on a ship was the same as paint on a fabric jacket. Paint protected organic materials and metal from water and thus deterioration.

Verdict: Difficult, though not impossible, to reproduce a proper period paint recipe, depending on ingredients.

Vulcanization and Rubber
Besides vulcanized cloth, waterproofing recipes sometimes incorporated raw natural rubber (caoutchouc). Both the 1886 Techno-Chemical Receipt Book (322) and the 1867 Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Recipes (348) offered similar recipes for waterproofing leather. Here's the one from Mackenzie's (the first recipe also appeared in that book's 1825 edition, 48):
To Prepare Water-proof Boots 1. Boots and shoes may be rendered impervious to water by the following composition: Take 3 ox. of spermaceti and melt it in a pipkin, or other earthen vessel, over a slow fire; add thereto 6 drs. of India-rubber, cut into slices, and these will presently disolve. Then add, seriatim, of tallow, 8 oz.; hog's lard, 2 oz.; amber varnish, 4 oz. Mix, and it will be fit for use immediately. The boots or other material to be treated are to receive 2 or 3 coats with a common blacking-brush, and a fine polish is the result.
2. Half-pound of shoemaker's dubbing, 1/2 pt. of linseed-oil; 1/2 pt. of solution of India-rubber. Dissolve with a gentle heat (it is very inflammable), and rub on the boots. This will last for several months.
Here's another recipe, "To make an Oil-skin Coat or Wrapper" that also involves India-rubber, from the 1854 New Household Receipt-Book (133):
If a stout coat or wrapper is wanted, let the material be strong unbleached or brown calico. If a light one is preferred, make use of brown holland. Soak it, when made, in hot water, and hang dry; then boil ten ounces of India-ribber in one quart of raw linseed oil, until dissolved; this will require about three hours' boiling; when cold, mix with the oil so prepared, about half a pint of paint of any color which may be preferred and of the same consistency as that used for painting wood. With a paint brush lay a thin coat over the outside of the wrapper, brushing it well into the seams. Hang it to dry in a current of air, but sheltered from a powerful sun. When thoroughly dry, give it another coat; dry as before, and then give a third and last coat. The wrapper, when well dried, will be ready for use.
Verdict: As far as I can tell, no one sells natural rubber for anything other than industrial purposes today. Let me know if you have of a source of bulk cauotchouc. Not to mention that the first recipe above requires spermaceti, a product no longer available since we're not harvesting sperm whales (although I've run into some interesting attempts at substitution involving jojoba and coconut oils).

Other Chemical Treatments
Besides the above methods, nineteenth-century books offered a variety of waterproofing techniques based on materials other than oil, paint, and rubber. Here's one of the most interesting, from the F.G.D. Bedford's 1875 Sailor's Pocket Book (375):
To Waterproof Cloth.
Make after the following manner two separate solutions:--1st. Dissolve one pound of sugar of lead in one gallon of water. 2nd, Dissolve one pound of alum in one gallon of water. Dip the cloth first in the solution of lead and when nearly dry drip it in the solution of alum, then dry it in the air or before the fire. This process may be used for coats after being made up.
Verdict: Not suitable for reproduction due to a potentially toxic ingredient.

Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Recipes (1867 edition) offered a similar concoction (347):
Porous Water-proof Cloth This quality is given to cloth by simply passing it through a hot solution of weak glue or alum. To apply it to the cloth, make up a weak solution of glue, and while it is hot add a piece of alum (about 1 oz. to 2 qts.), and then brush it over the surface of the cloth while it is hot, and it is afterwards dried. Cloth in pieces may be run through this solution, and then run out of it and dried. By adding a few pieces of soap to the glue, the cloth will feel much softer... It is the best to dry this first in the air, and then in a stove-room at a low heat; but allow the cloth to remain for a considerable time, to expel the moisture completely. This kind of cloth, while it is sufficiently water-proof to keep out the moisture and rain, being quite impervious to water, is pervious to the air.
Verdict: Suitable for reproduction.

Here's another similar one from the New Household Receipt-Book (1854) (132-133):
Take a quarter of an ounce of yellow or Castile soap, and one gallon of rain water; boil for twenty minutes; skim, and when cold, put in the cloth or garment; let it remain soaking twenty-four hours; take it out, and hang to drain; when half-dry, put it into the following solution:--alum, half a pound; sugar of lead, quarter of a pound; dissolved in four gallons of rain water. let the cloth be thoroughly soaked, and then hang to dry. This process entirely destroys the capillary attraction in the fibres and threads of the cloth, and the rain or wet pours off the surface without lodging or penetrating through the cloth. The solution has no effect in altering the texture or appearance of the cloth or article immersed. Great care must be taken as regards the sugar of lead, not to leave it where children or any persons ignorant of its qualities can get access to it, as it is a powerful poison.
Verdict: Not suitable for reproduction due to a potentially toxic ingredient. The above recipe highlights the toxic nature of "sugar of lead" (lead[II] acetate), which is primarily dangerous when ingested.

The 1886 Techno-Chemical Receipt Book offered two more possibilities, based on isinglass, alum, soap, and paraffin (383)
Soap for Water-proofing Woollen Cloth and other Fabrics. Prepare the following solutions: I. Thirty-three parts of isinglass in 66 parts of water. II. Sixty-six parts of alum in a like quantity of water. III. Sixty-six parts of white soap in 500 parts of water. Filter the solutions, then pour them together in a vessel standing on the fire, and let the mixture boil up. Then take it from the fire and apply it with a brush to the back of the fabric. When dry brush it against the grain and later on with the brush dipped in water in order to remove all the lustre. The fabric is then dried. For thing woollen and cotton fabrics and silk take half the quantity of water and soak them in the fluid. 
A New Water-proofing Compound is prepared by melting paraffine, and adding gradually a suitable drying oil, stirring well to insure intimate mixture; it is then poured into moulds the shape of bricks of blocks, and allowed to cool. The fabric to be rendered water-proof is rubbed over with a block to the compound, warming the rubbing face gently if the atmosphere is cold, and then ironing the clothing with a warm iron or passing it between hot rollers. The application of this compound to leather and textile and felted fabrics gives excellent results, as, although it renders the cloth thoroughly water-proof, it is not impervious to air.
Verdict: Suitable for reproduction


If you've made it this far, perhaps you're as surprised as me at how many of these recipes are not feasible today. We can't get caoutchouc or spermaceti, although I'm happy to concede the loss of the latter since it means the preservation of the sperm whale. Quite a few things that apparently made great waterproofing agents also turned out to be rather toxic, such as various lead-based compounds. In the end, only four of the above methods are really feasible for me, although I have friends who have had success recreating historical paint recipes as well. Treating cloth with coats of linseed oil is perfectly safe, as are Mackenzie's 1867 glue/alum recipe and the 1886 Techno-Chemical compounds of isinglass, alum, soap, and paraffin. These are the methods I'll be exploring and considering for recreation in my next posts on this subject.

In this project, I've benefited from the insights of an exceptional group of generous scholars. They include Nicole Belolan, Matthew Brenckle, Linda Eaton, Charles Fithian, James L. KochanJoseph Privott, and David Rickman. Thanks also to museum staff members Maribeth Bielinski, Rebecca Donohue, Katharine Mead, Louisa Watrous, and Chris White at Mystic Seaport; Michael P. Dyer at the New Bedford Whaling Museum; Dan Finamore at the Peabody Essex Museum; and Betsy Tyler and Sylvia Hickman at the Nantucket Historical Association.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Whalemen and Waterproofing III: Material Culture

This is the third of four posts in which I discuss the evidence related to waterproof clothing used by New England whalemen in the mid- and late nineteenth century. You can read about documentary evidence here and visual evidence here. My final post will cover recipes for waterproofing. This material informs my project to recreate waterproof garments for the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan.

Anyone who researches historical material culture, the objects used by people in a certain time, knows that some things survive in more numbers than others. There are several reasons for this. Some things are more durable than others. That's part of why we have more seventeenth-century furniture in museums than we do seventeenth-century glassware. Some things are prettier or draw more sentimental attachments than others. That's why historical societies have so many porcelain dinner sets and fancy wedding dresses and so few tin plates and everyday garments. Some things were just plain disgusting or entirely disintegrated by the time people got done using them. That's why we have so few examples of waterproof clothing today.

I wasn't entirely surprised by the lack of material evidence for this project. After all, I spent some time writing a thesis about ready-made clothing between about 1750 and 1825, so I know how rare original garments associated with working people are. Speaking of which, I had the unique chance to examine the underdrawers, undershirt, and trousers of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a few weeks ago in the collections of Mystic Seaport. Based on construction details and quality, it's my opinion Dana sewed his own drawers and undershirt, and perhaps his trousers, aboard ship during his 1830s voyage.

A studio photograph of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s (from left to right) wool flannel underdrawers, wool flannel undershirt, and cotton trousers. Courtesy Mystic Seaport.

Mystic Seaport also owns Dana's tarpaulin (painted canvas over straw) hat. I'll write about such hats in a later post, as there are quite a few of them in museums today, unlike any other type of waterproofed apparel item. For instance, I've yet to find any surviving examples of waterproofed shoes, besides the India-rubber ones discussed by Mike Woshner in India-Rubber and Gutta-Percha in the Civil War Era (1999; 142-146).

There are actually even fewer extant waterproofed garments than I expected, even ones from after the nineteenth century. I think it's for two reasons. First, until at least 1900, raincoats, especially ones designed for shipboard use, were not an everyday thing, and there were far fewer of them originally than there were, for example, wool coats. Second, from the evidence I've encountered, waterproof garments gathered dirt and grime, smelled, and could quickly become uncomfortable. Why would anyone save something like that?

Besides the visual evidence presented in my previous post, there are a handful of actual objects worth mentioning. For example, here's a very intriguing pair of oilskin (fabric saturated with oil) trousers, about which there isn't much other information, from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum.

"Oilskin Pants" from Margaret S. Creighton, Dogwatch and Liberty Days: Seafaring Life in the Nineteenth Century (Salem, MA: The Peabody Museum of Salem, 1982), 2.

Among surviving nineteenth-century rainwear, items associated with Civil War soldiers are the most common. Confederate soldiers sometimes slept on painted cloth and oilcloth groundcloths, and most federal soldiers carried a government-issued India-rubber poncho or a similar "gum blanket" groundcloth. Some soldiers and officers bought their own raincoats and "talmas," or cloaks. Such India-rubber garments were produced with vulcanized seams, binding pieces together with melted rubber and no stitching. This makes reproducing a proper India-rubber rain garment impossible, even if I could source the proper materials, because I don't have the necessary heat-sealing equipment required for vulcanizing seams. Still, these garments are pretty cool.

The India-rubber raincoat of Pvt. George Stinchfield, 12th Maine and a photograph of Lt. Col. Edward Whitaker wearing a similar coat, from Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Union (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1991), 128. For details of similar coats, see Mike Woshner's book, cited above.

Stonewall Jackson's raincoat, likely India-rubber, from William C. Davis, Rebels and Yankees: The Commanders of the Civil War (London: Salamander Books Limited, 1990/1999), 15.

Two views of the Civil War "talma" (India-rubber cloak) of Lt. Col. James Deems, 1st Maryland Cavalry (U.S.), from Heritage Auctions.

As for civilian rainwear, there's not much out there. I had the chance to briefly examine the oilskin coat of R.A. Fall in the collection of Mystic Seaport the same day I studied Dana's clothing. Fall was from Watertown, NY, and served aboard the Carib around 1890. Fall's coat, made from some sort of oilskin, is machine-sewn and features buttons, snaps, and a corduroy collar.


Two views of R.A. Fall's oilskin coat, circa 1890. Courtesy Mystic Seaport.

Here's an incredible oilskin coat from Robert Falcon Scott's 1911-1913 hut on Cape Evans, Antarctica. It underwent conservation before being returned to the hut.

The circa 1910 oilskin coat of Scott's Russian horse-handler, Anton Omelchenko, from this blog.

With so few examples of nineteenth-century waterproof clothing left today, and essentially no garments like the jackets mentioned in whalemen and other mariners' accounts, reconstructing such a garment will require combining documentary, visual, and material sources with my understanding of period patterning and construction techniques and a little bit of guesswork. The biggest challenge will be determining just how to waterproof such a garment. Making a jacket is easy. Coating it with some sort of compound may prove difficult. Stay tuned for my next post, on the chemical recipes I'm considering.

In this project, I've benefited from the insights of an exceptional group of generous scholars. They include Nicole Belolan, Matthew Brenckle, Linda Eaton, Charles Fithian, James L. KochanJoseph Privott, and David Rickman. Thanks also to museum staff members Maribeth Bielinski, Rebecca Donohue, Katharine Mead, Louisa Watrous, and Chris White at Mystic Seaport; Michael P. Dyer at the New Bedford Whaling Museum; Dan Finamore at the Peabody Essex Museum; and Betsy Tyler and Sylvia Hickman at the Nantucket Historical Association.