This is the first 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. The other posts will cover visual evidence, material culture, and recipes for waterproofing. This material informs my project to recreate waterproof garments for the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan.
"This is the time for oil-skin suits, dreadnoughts, tarred trowsers and overalls..."
-Herman Melville, White Jacket; Or, the World in a Man-of-War, Volume I (London, Richard Bentley, 1850), 158.
Staying dry has always been a problem for sailors. In the nineteenth century, various authors and scientists proposed new ways to waterproof textiles and garments, multiplying the options of waterlogged mariners. By 1850, "Jack Tar," the typical British sailor, so named for the use of tar for waterproofing purposes aboard ships, might as well have been called Jack Oilskin, Jack Paint, or Jack Vulcan. The latter reference sounds a little like science fiction to our post-Star Trek ears, but in the mid-nineteenth century the term summoned up images of the Roman god of fire and the novel process of vulcanization, whereby men such as Charles Goodyear adhered rubber to textiles (for a slight precursor, one might look to Englishman and raincoat eponym Charles Macintosh). Other novel garments proliferated as well. In an 1860 report, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy protested against a ban on the purchase of patented articles by the Navy, including a reference to the "seamless pea jacket and cap" used by common sailors (230). The Seamless Clothing Manufacturing Company made many such pressed and shaped felt garments around the Civil War (for more on Civil War waterproofing, see this thread). Earlier maritime clothiers also avoided unnecessary seams. Robert Byfield's 1825 tailoring manual Sectum included details about both sailor's jackets "without either back seam or side seam" (37) and trousers "without any side seam" (39). I suspect, however, that Byfield and other, earlier tailors were more concerned with cutting construction time, and that the idea of seamless garments as particularly waterproof only came later. Having worn a variety of hand-sewn, seamed wool garments in heavy rains, I can say that I've never noticed that seams leak any worse than other portions of such garments. I'll pay more attention next time. Perhaps seam leakage became more of a problem with machine sewing, as John E. Smart suggests in Clothes for the Job: Catalogue of the Collection in the Science Museum (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1985, 13).
The crew of Whaleboat no. 2, a living history organization, wearing sailor clothing of the 1812 period on a cloudless day. Photo by Blair Pershyn.
Aboard a whaleship such as the Charles W. Morgan, sailors turned to many different garments in cold and wet weather. In White Jacket, Herman Melville provided one list of such clothing: "gregoes, pea jackets, monkey jackets, reefing jackets, storm jackets, oil jackets, paint jackets, round jackets, short jackets, long jackets, and all manner of jackets" (157). To get a sense of what one whaleman took to sea, you can see James S. Johnson's account of his entire 1854 outfit on the first page of his log in the collection of the Providence Public Library (thanks to Matthew Brenckle for this reference). Joshue Fillebrowne Beane, an 1860s whaleman wore an oilskin jacket regularly (191). Early sailors attempted to waterproof some garments by covering them with pine tar. In 1785, the enslaved man Jack ran away from the sloop Alice in Philadelphia wearing a pair of "old Trousers, much tarred," and an Irish indentured servant fled from a York County, PA, estate wearing "an old deep blue coat, torn at the elbows, and tarred about the shoulders" and "an old broad-rimmed tarred hat" (The Maryland Journal, 8/19 and 9/2/1785). In later years, when sailors used other waterproofing techniques, many still called such garments "tarred." In 1846, John Ross Browne related in Etchings of a Whaling Cruise a story featuring an old whaleman wearing "a tremendous sou-wester, a greasy duck jacket, and a pair of well-tarred trowsers, something the worse for wear," (171).
When waterproof clothing wore out, sailors made their own garments aboard ship. Richard Henry Dana, Jr., bought two oilskin/oilcloth coats, two matching trousers, and two tarpaulin hats for his mid-1830s merchant ship voyage (according to inventories transcribed in the Ward Ritchie Press 1964 edition of Dana's famous narrative, Two Years Before the Mast, 375-377). Later, he and his fellow crewmen prepared for bad weather with new clothing they made aboard ship (thanks to David Rickman for bringing these inventories and quotations to my attention):
Several of us clubbed together and bought a large piece of twilled cotton, which we made into trowsers and jackets, and giving them several coats of linseed oil, laid them by for Cape Horn... Several of the crew made themselves tarpaulin jackets and trowsers, lined on the inside with flannel. (288-289)
Each of us made for himself a suit of oil-cloth or tarpaulin, and these we got out, and gave thorough coatings of oil or tar, and hung upon the stays to dry. Our stout boots, too, we covered with a thick mixture of melted grease and tar, and hung out to dry... In the forenoon watches below, our forecastle looked like the workshop of what a sailor is,--a Jack of all trades. Thick stockings and drawers were darned and patched; mittens dragged from the bottom of the chest and mended; comforters made for the neck and ears; old flannel shirts cut up to line monkey-jackets; south-westers lined with flannel, and a pot of paint smuggled forward to give them a coat on the outside; and everything turned to hand; so that, although two years had left us but a scanty wardrobe, yet the economy and invention which necessity teaches a sailor, soon put each of us in pretty good trim for bad weather, even before we had seen the last of the fine. (355-356)Of course, it wasn't just up to the sailor what he wore onboard. The captain of the whaleship Edward on an 1849-1850 cruise called several crewmen "down out of the rigging and made them take off there Oil Skin Jackets before going aloft, he would not have men go aloft he said with their over clothes on, they could not do any work." (Francis Barrett, Journal Edward, Nantucket Historical Association, as quoted in Iannuccilli, "Clothing of New England Whalemen," 23). Clothing enabled and restricted certain movements aboard ship, and the Edward's captain apparently believed oilskin jackets slowed the work of the ship's sailors.
The Charles W. Morgan on a rainy day.
I still have questions about waterproofing in the nineteenth century. What sort of garments could sailors choose for raincoats and protective headgear? How did tailors and seamstresses construct such items? What sort of chemicals went into waterproofing? Perhaps most importantly, did these methods actually resist water to anything like our contemporary standards? These are questions I'll consider in upcoming posts. In the mean time, enjoy the benefits of a synthetic raincoat next time you're out and about on a drizzly day!
Here are some useful secondary sources for those interested in maritime clothing: