Thursday, May 8, 2014

Whalemen and Waterproofing II: Visual Evidence

Note, 9-24-15This post originally appeared on May 8, 2014, but it was recently and inexplicably deleted from my blog. Thanks to the foresight of folks at Mystic Seaport, I'm reposting it based on an archived copy. This may lead to slight formatting errors.

This is the second 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 the next two posts will cover material culture and recipes for waterproofing. This material informs my project to recreate waterproof garments for the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan.

Images of people wearing raincoats in the nineteenth century are scarce. It makes sense; most photographs in this period were formal, posed portraits, and most people wanted to look their best, not like they had just stepped in out of the rain. Occupational photography, images of men and women proudly wearing their work clothing and displaying their tools, is an exception, but I've yet to find an image of an identified sailor wearing rain gear. I suspect the first image below shows a sailor or fisherman in his work clothes, and there are a number of photos taken by Herbert Aldrich during an 1887 Arctic whaling voyage that show what appear to be waterproof clothing (in the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum; thanks to Michael P. Dyer for this reference). I did encounter one sketch of a sailor wearing a waterproof hat and possibly jacket, shown below, but otherwise I have not found any illustrated evidence beyond catalog advertisements. The other images showcased in this gallery offer examples of the variety of garments used by all sorts of people to combat rain the late nineteenth century. Most are, by my best guess, made from rubberized, or India-rubber, fabric. For more examples of such garments, check out Mike Woshner's India-Rubber and Gutta-Percha in the Civil War Era (Alexandria, VA: O'Donnell Publications, 1999). As I discussed in my last post, some waterproof clothing was relatively colorless, and it would be hard to detect those garments in photographs. I also suspect some of these examples, especially those with long tails, were unsuitable for work aboard a sailing ship, where sailors favored shorter, less encumbering jackets.

Daguerreotype of a man wearing a waterpoof "Sou'wester" cap and raincoat, circa 1850, from the Matthew R. Isenberg Collection, via the Design Observer Group.

Ambrotype of a man wearing a raincoat, circa 1860, from eBay.

Ambrotype of English surgeon Walter Rivington in a waterproof cap, coat, and trousers, circa 1860, from Capitol Gallery.

Detail of a sketch by Edward Haskell in his journal of the 1862 voyage of the merchant ship Tarquin, from Margaret S. Creighton, Dogwatch & Liberty Days: Seafaring Life in the Nineteenth Century (Salem, MA: The Peabody Museum of Salem, 1982), 3.

Detail of glass negative of Sanitary Commission workers in Washington, D.C., showing a man wearing a rain coat, 1863-1865, from the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the most iconic (albeit posed, after the war ended) image of a Civil War soldier in rain gear: a Quartermaster Department model wearing a poncho, from a series of photographs taken in 1866, from the Army Quartermaster Museum.

Two views of a tintype of three men wearing rain coats, circa 1870, from eBay.

Tintype of a young woman wearing a rain poncho, circa 1880, from eBay, via Tuesday Johnson's Historical Indulgences.

Tintype of two men, one wearing a rain coat, circa 1880, from eBay.

The project I'm working on won't end up looking much like these garments, but they do show you the sort of raingear available in the late nineteenth century. If only I could find a good source of rubberized cotton, I'd be making India-rubber raincoats in a heartbeat. In the mean time, I'll have to make due with some more homemade waterproofing techniques. Luckily, there were quite a few of those in the nineteenth century. Stay tuned for more. 

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.

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