Wednesday, February 3, 2016

What's In My (Conjectural) 18th Century Sailor's Ditty Bag?

1774 watercolor by 2nd Lt. Gabriel Bray of the 44-gun "Pallas", Captain the Hon. William Cornwallis commanding
The hand tools of the rigger and sail maker remained remarkably similar from the mid -18th century to the dawn of the 20th.  The industrial revolution would eventually produce innovations in cotton sailcloth manufacture, machine sewing and metal grommet construction.  The folk art embellishments found on some of the items used by sailors on wooden ships unquestionably reached their highest artistic development during the 1800s.  Nonetheless, the basic tools of the sailor, the materials from which they were made, and their general forms and functions, carried right through this last great age of sail.

My reconstructed ditty bag with antique, original sailor items
A sailor kept a variety of small tools and personal items in his ditty bag.  Most of these tools were primitive but highly functional - even quite beautiful -  and often made by the same individual who used them.  Some, like seam rubbers and serving mallets, had highly specialized uses for sail making or  rigging, while others were more versatile.  I carry tools for both of these shipboard occupations in my ditty bag.

Selecting the right contents for my conjectural 18th-century sailor's ditty bag required additional research.  This was less a question of identifying the sail making and rigging tools typically used by sailors on wooden ships and carried in their  ditty bags or other small containers, but of what forms and designs were appropriate for the mid to late 18th century.  There is also the considerable challenge of finding original items, or fabricating new ones, that are appropriate for this earlier era even if of a later provenance.  Some are rare, some are quite expensive, and most of these nautical antiques on the market today date from the 19th rather than 18th century.

19th century Ditty Bag and contents: Southold Historical Society, Long Island

Ditty Bag and contents: Maine Maritime Museum, Topsham ME

Later Ditty Bag and contents, Mystic Seaport Museum
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, most of the tools or containers carried in a sailor's bag were made from organic materials - hardwoods, bone, horn, leather and hemp.  Aside from the legal and ethical issues associated with ivory possession today, sailor tools or boxes made from whalebone would have been extremely uncommon in the American merchant service between 1760-1780, except perhaps from Nantucket with its advanced and specialized whale oil economy. Metals such as iron and high carbon steel, highly vulnerable to the effects of oxidation in the marine environment, had limited application for needles, forged hooks and knives.  Tin or brass may also have been used for the thimbles of leather palms in this period, as they would be later.

Here is a brief summary of the smaller sailor tools that were likely in use during in the period of my merchant sailor impression between 1760-1780, and images of what I currently carry in my ditty bag:

Fids & Bodkins

Wooden or bone fids and bodkins are nearly always among the contents of old ditty bags.  Fids are  blunt tipped cones of various lengths, usually lathe turned, and used to separate rope stands or "marl" when splicing. Usually these are of wood, though later they were sometimes made of whalebone. I have a plain, 12" vintage hardwood fid  in my ditty bag.

vintage hardwood fid, modern bovine bone bodkin, modern beeswax square
Iron marlinespikes, used for the same purpose as fids, are documented in mid-19th century nautical collections and might also date from this early period - the word came to recorded English in the early 17th century - but from a practical standpoint they are apt to punch through all but the heaviest canvas ditty bags so I have neatly sidestepped the question of their definitive provenance for this impression.  They became much more common as steel cables and ultimately synthetics replaced hemp fiber rope.

Bodkins are very small awls made of bone or pointed wood  that are used for needle hitching and other fine sewing and splicing tasks. Riggers made use of them and probably sail makers as well.  I have a very small bodkin of modern manufacture made from cow bone which was very useful in splicing hemp cord marline through ditty bag grommets.

modern 3" bovine bone fid
Needles & Needle Cases
My original, hitched needle case with its curved needle and a more recent one
(from Vinalhaven, Maine)
Iron and later steel needles were indispensable at sea. Steel needles used for sail making today have tapered and flattened ends and very sharp points for piercing heavy canvas: mine are from Wm. Smith & Son, Reddich, England.   Sail maker's needles come in different sizes and some historic examples are also curved, such as the one in the image, above that came with the needle case.  I'm not sure which of these innovations might have been available to sail makers in the 1760-1780 era and have not made a comprehensive study of them. 

Keeping needles in a rust and mildew proof container was essential at sea, and there were several types of these used during the last great age of sail.  Probably among the oldest, but used by sail makers right into the 20th century, was the grease horn.  these were tips of ox horn, sometimes with a small leather thong to attach it to a sail maker's bench, containing iron needles impaled in tallow.  These are more practical for use on land but are sometimes found in association with ditty bags.  My original horn with its tallow and needles may be seen in the image of my ditty bag contents at the top of this post.

The other type consist of hollowed out wooden tubes with fitted end caps, usually lathe turned and sometimes covered in needle grafted or hitched  macrame twine coated with tar.  I own two antique examples, one of each style, though I believe the style unhitched wooden needle case is more appropriate from the mid 19th century on based on.  While they were in concurrent use during much of the 19th century, there is provenance for a needle hitched cane needle case dating from the very early 1800s and possibly earlier.  More recent examples are hitched in cotton twine rather than linen or hemp, but it is very hard to tell the difference under the tar.  Mine is an unusual variant with a wider area of decorative needle grafted macrame below the hand whittled end cap, and comes from an old collection in Vinalhaven, Maine.  It is much larger than the mid to late 19th century example of a turned and decorated wooden needle case, also pictured below.  For my 1760-1780 impression, the larger needle hitched one is probably as good as it it gets.

original needle cases

Cord, Twine and Beeswax

modern 4mm tarred hemp marline and hemp sail twine
Cordage and seaming twine suitable for this era should be made of hemp.  I found modern suppliers for both. I carry small diameter (4mm) tarred hemp marlin provided by American Rope & Tar LLC in my ditty bag to worm rigging and for decorative knotwork like the three-strand Turk's Head knot in the image, above.   Hemp seaming twine requires wax, the same as for lighter linen thread, and for this there is beeswax.  I have a modern cake of beeswax but am anticipating delivery of an old and well used vintage piece from a nautical collection. 

I do love the smell of the Stockholm tar that was used for my tarred marline.  You can also buy tarred seaming twine, but it has a burnt, acrid smell and is extremely sticky. I have a ball of both types of twine from R&W Rope, but keep the tarred stuff in its own little bag.

Seaming and Rigger's Palms

A leather palm with a rawhide or metal thimble was a requirement for cordwainers and other leather
two vintage seaming palms
workers as well as for sail makers and riggers to protect their hands when pressing needles through thick materials. The same basic style of seaming palm was used interchangeably among the leather working and sail making professions, but riggers eventually developed a specialized palm that more fully protected the thumb. The contents of antique ditty bags almost always include palms, sometimes several of them. I have two vintage seaming palms that probably date from the late 19th or early 20th century (shown at right).  The larger one with a brass thimble came from a nautical collection in England, and one with a thick leather covered thimble came from the West Coast of the US. 18th century palms may have been of an even simpler, primitive style than these examples, but they will do until I can find better documentation for them.
Bench Hooks

19th century (1845) fixed sail maker's bench hook with a fixed eye

The sail maker needed to keep the canvas taught when sewing with needle and palm, and his "third hand" was a tool known as a bench hook or sail hook.  This was an iron hook with a narrow, sometimes even scorpion-tailed tip, and was attached by a hemp cord to the workbench or another item well fixed in place and so the sailcloth could be pulled tight without piercing it.  I have seen 19th century examples with two basic eye forms.  The one pictured at left dates from 1845 and is part of my collection.  It comes from southwest England and has a simple, fixed eye.  The other type has a swivel so the sail maker can turn the canvas without needing to reset the hook.  Vintage examples of these mundane but necessary tools of the sail maker's trade are extremely rare today and I was fortunate to acquire my two bench hooks even with their mid-19th century provenance.  One has a swivel and one is fixed.

Rigging / Sail Maker's Knives & Sailor's Clasp Knives

The knives used by riggers and sail makers do not have narrow points. The older ones have either squared tips or sheepsfoot blades, ideal for cutting heavy canvas without tearing.  One modern maker contends that that spine should be left unhardened so that it can absorb the blows of a mallet, but others familiar with 18th century metallurgy remain unconvinced.  Ward Oles of At The Eastern Door tells me; " A properly forged knife with an equally appropriate drawn temper should take not only the repeated blows of a mallet but also resist deformation, especially with a heavy 1/4" spine."

Before they were made produced and purpose made in places like Sheffield, England, rigging knives

Asian fishing knife
were often sailor fashioned, and could be a simple as a cut down knife blade with a wooden handle.  There are 19th century examples with hemp twine fancywork either hitched or grafted over the handles.  I do not own one of these, yet, but if I master the art of needle grafting, I'll probably make one for myself.

Caution: I picked up  the antique iron friction folding knife (at right) that is sometimes described in online auctions as dating from the 18th century. It is actually a Asian peasant's fishing knife,  used for mending nets.  Not sure if it originates in China or SE Asia, but regardless it does not have a plausible application for my 18th century American nautical impression.

Serving Mallets and Serving Boards
Serving mallet
"Worm  and parcel with the lay / Turn and Serve the other Way"   

Natural rope fibers are vulnerable to rot, a particular problem for a sailing vessel's standing rigging that is constantly exposed to the elements.  The solution was to treat the rigging so that water was unable to penetrate between the strands of the big cables.  Smaller diameter strands were "wormed" between the marl so the rigging diameter became cylindrical, then wrapped in the same direction - with the lay - with strips of tarred canvas. This was secured by "serving" small diameter marline as tight as possible all the way down the cable in the opposite direction.  The tools used to serve the large diameter rigging were known as serving mallets and were almost always made of hardwoods.  Over time the groove in the side of the mallet would become worn down from constant abrading against the wrapped rigging, with well used examples appearing almost crescent shaped in profile.  The marline would also wear grooves in the mallet on either side of the handle.  I have a vintage serving mallet that shows very little wear at all, and it is too large to fit in my ditty bag.

For smaller diameter rope there were serving boards made from a single piece of hardwood (or whale
lignum vitae serving mallet and mahogany seam rubber
bone) with a curved, almost scooped head.  Later examples sometimes have offset scoops, or reels attached to the handle to hold the serving line.  Mine is older and sourced from southwest England.  It is made of lignum vitae, among the hardest and densest grained of all hardwoods.  Here it is, at right, along with the prize artifact in my collection...a mahogany seam rubber

Seam Rubbers

Creasing a seam in heavy canvas or leather required pressing with something strong and easy to hold inn the hand that would neither tear the material nor crack under strain.  A sail maker would do this with a hardwood (or whale bone) tool that came to be known as a seam rubber.  The earliest ones were very basic tools, just a wedge of hardwood with a blunt edge, but by the 19th century there were becoming increasingly elaborate and some are masterful works of folk art. These are highly collectible and you are lucky if you can find an original for less than a new car payment. Mine came from Westport, Massachusetts and my car has not been repossessed. It is made of mahogany, a 6" long with a 2" wedge that curves at the base to form two hearts at the sides. The handle tapers from the middle and the geometric pummel is known as a chamfered cube.


A final note of caution:  There is much in this post, and the one preceding it, that remains conjectural for the mid to late 18th century.  Early ditty bags of  incontrovertible provenance remain elusive and it is possible that they came into use several decades after the period of my maritime seaman's impression (1760-1780).  Likewise, some of the hand tools used by sailors became more refined during the 19th century and may have been more primitive than some of what I've managed to collect.  My seam rubber may be too pretty for the late 18th.  Then again, perhaps it is fine.  The agnostic historian will opt for omission in the absence of definitive evidence.

These are valid areas for further inquiry.  On the other hand, this collection also provides me with opportunities for historical interpretation in appropriate settings, and teaching moments matter.

from The Elements and Practice of Rigging And Seamanship, 1794, by David Steel

1 comment:

  1. A Really useful blog. We have a fairly large collection of 19th Century sail making tools at the Stromness Museum and this post really helped me research the uses of the tools.

    If you can recommend any other good sources (in print or online) I'd be really grateful.

    Thank You