Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Impression: American Merchant Seaman (1760-1780)

American Merchant Seaman (1765) in 2015
The origin of this impression was a 2014  invitation to participate in an event organized by the Newport Historical Society to be one of the historical interpreters helping to depict the events surrounding Newport's 1765 Stamp Tax Riot.  Less than a month before the event, I was asked if I could portray a sailor, so with assorted working class small clothes and a striped wool hat from my collection, I put together something passable for that era.    The event was well researched and well run, and I found it such fun that I decided to significantly up my game for the following year's 250th anniversary commemoration

It has become my favorite impression.  The photograph, above, shows me on the morning of the 2015 event - called the Newport Stamp Tax "Protest" because one cannot get a police permit for a riot - sporting the results of my research and the fruits of a collaboration with a fine tailor, Patrick Eckelmann.

Brown Kersey Sailor's Jacket by Pat Eckelmann

“[1777] a brown sailor jacket, and an under ditto, near the same color, of Germans Serge, bound with a binding something lighter.”  - NJ Runaway newspaper description

 This reconstructed merchant seaman's jacket is based on extensive period documentation and is suitable for an American sailor from the 1760s to about 1780.  A complete review of seafaring dress mentioned in NJ runaway and deserter descriptions in the period between 1734 and 1782 reveals 16 references to blue sailor jackets, most dating from the mid 1760s onward, but also five references to brown sailor jackets in the 1760s and 1770s, as well as examples in several other colors.

Kersey, along with other coarse, water resistant wool fabrics, is well documented for sailor’s jackets during this period.  Because I haven't found a good source for period correct German Serge, and because it is underrepresented in the hobby, Brown Kersey Wool was used for this reconstruction.   I also decided to have the coat body lined with white wool flannel.  In the same NJ runaway ads, when linings are described for Sailor’s jackets they are either white or red wool flannel. 

Single breasted sailor jackets were a prevalent style in this period.  Mine has small brass buttons with buttonholes worked in white silk twist. It has no collar or lapels and two small pockets, lined with osnabrig. The short skirts cut away at the front, which is less common than straight skirts but still decently represented in period illustrations, particularly in the 1760s.  It has slashed sleeves with placets and four brass buttons

Sailor clothing in this period was sometimes bound with tape, either a similar shade as the coat body or considerably lighter.  In keeping with the 1777 runaway description, above, the binding for this brown kersey jacket is 1” worsted twill tape vegetable dyed to a golden brown color.  It took all 5 yards I provided to bind just the the coat edges and the sleeve placets with ½” showing. 

Trowsers were quite  common seafaring dress in this period, and there are many examples in contemporary illustrations and runway descriptions, where they are often simply called ‘sailor’s trowsers’:

[1768] “long striped cotton trowsers”
[1768]  “white tow trowsers”
[1772] “long Osnaberg trowsers”
[1773] “a pair of check trowsers”

Sailor trowsers during this period were not wide legged slops, but nor were they close fitting.  They     
tended to taper with the leg until reaching just above the ankle.
Detail: striped linen ticking trowser eyelets and vent

My trowsers are of natural linen ticking with a blue and white stripe. They have a narrow, two button fall with 3/4” pewter buttons provided. The trowser stripes are vertical except for the waistband in which the are horizontal. The waistband has 2 large 1” pewter buttons (provided). The legs end above the ankle and brown and red tape (provided) closes the back vent.

One unusual feature of these sailor trowsers are the pockets.  Several of the 1774 -1775 watercolor illustrations made by Lt. Gabriel Bray, such as the one that appears below, depict sailors from H.M.S. "Pallas" wearing trowsers with side seam pockets.   Mine are lined in osnabrig.

The rest of clothing for this impression was not purpose-made specifically for it but was among my collection and suitable for a variety of interpretations.  The short brimmed, round blocked hat is one that appears in period illustrations, but also stands in for the cut down military hats worn in 1758 by General Abercrombie's ill-fated forces in the attack of the defenses of Fort Carillon on Lake Champlain.  The shirt is small-checked linen with narrow cuffs that close with sleeve links.   

It was not necessary to wear an under jacket or waistcoat with a sailor jacket, and in warm weather it was often discarded.  Sleeveless waistcoats worn by sailors in period depictions often have stripes, sometimes running laterally.  I'm working on two striped waistcoats now that could work well for this impression: one a double breasted hybrid in striped calamanco and another single-breasted, without skirts, with lateral stripes in red and yellow linsey-woolsey.

The stockings I wore for the Newport event were knit light blue wool thread, though I also wear gray
Detail:  Watson and the Shark (1778) by J.S. Copley
ones of sock length with these trowsers.  Small, buckled shoes, rather than bare feet, were worn by sailors ashore as well as on shipboard.  The cotton neck handkerchief is a spotted bandanna in a period design, though I'll eventually find one in black silk as an alternative neck covering.  It can be knotted lower down on the neck than I'm wearing it here, sometimes worn with the triangle of the bandanna unfolded at the back of the shoulders, as seen on the sailor in the painting at right.

 Jack ashore needed protection from foot pads and the press gang, and sailors with a stick, cane or cudgel of some sort are extremely common in period illustrations. Mine is an antique burl handled cane with a stout knob and lovely dark patina.

18th century linen canvas ditty bag by Tim Abbott
How one inhabits the clothing and uses the material culture lies at the heart of an effective impression and engaging historical interpretation.  I'm particularly pleased with the ditty bag I researched and made myself for this impression.  I'll document and describe the process that went into constructing the bag and knotting the lanyard in a subsequent post, as well as share the antique sail maker's and rigger's tool I've acquired for its contents. 

1 comment:

  1. Hello. Do you recommend any particular printed resource for your period persona. I'm a resident of Gloucester MA, and would like to pursue something similar.