Friday, May 23, 2014

Whalemen and Waterproofing III: Material Culture

Note, 9-24-15This post originally appeared on May 23, 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 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.

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