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.Verdict: Not suitable for reproduction due to potentially toxic ingredients.
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.
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.
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.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):
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.
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.Verdict: Not suitable for reproduction due to a potentially toxic ingredient.
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.
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. Kochan, Joseph 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.