Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Monkey Jackets, Pea Jackets, and Roundabouts

One of the biggest challenges facing scholars of historical clothing is deciphering the terminology used to describe garments. What, for instance, are we to make to the various terms used to describe men's jackets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Advertisers in the second decade of the nineteenth century described "monkey jackets," "pea jackets," and "roundabouts" for sale in the same announcement. For these writers, then, the terms referred to distinct types of garments. Most people, however, probably used such terms interchangeably, referring to the sort of tail-less jackets, both single- and double-breasted, favored by sailors. If their precise descriptions remain difficult to discern, the advent of these descriptions is still an interesting way to consider how people understood clothing.
“Pea jacket” was in use in America by at least 1720, when William Glan deserted the Princess Amelia in Boston harbor wearing "a dark coloured Pea Jacket lined with blue baize,” as advertised in the Boston Gazette on May 16th, 1820 (Incidentally, "pea coat" does not appear until the 1780s).
Later, "roundabout" entered the vernacular as another term for men's jackets, as in 1798 when apprentice Colin Carters ran away from Thomas Whitney's Lexington cabinetmaking shop wearing "a round-about sailer's jacket, and overalls of a brown mixed cloth." (Stewart's Kentucky Herald, September 18th, 1798).
"Monkey jacket" is an an even later term, absent from newspapers until the second decade of the nineteenth century. This advertisement from Philadelphia auctioneer John Dorsey appeared in Poulson's American Daily Advertiser on December 10th, 1813. It is a fitting reminder that these terms did not simply replace each other over time, but were rather used interchangeably and seperately in a market that held stunning variety.

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