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. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Documentation and Reconstruction of a Hybrid Style Double Breasted Waistcoat in Striped Calamanco

I'm collaborating with a fine tailor, Patrick Eckelmann, on a new 18th century waistcoat project. What I have in mind is a hybrid waistcoat that features both single and double breasted elements. It will feature a wonderful historic textile known as striped calamanco that is virtually unrepresented in the reenacting community, and the garment when finished will be suitable for several 1760s-1770s impressions.

While double breasted waistcoats fully came into their own after 1780, they were by no means unknown in prior decades. Examination of NJ runaway descriptions from period newspapers in the decade between between 1768 and 1777 reveals quite a number of individuals who wore double breasted jackets, waistcoats and vests in a variety of fabrics, as the following excerpts illustrate:

“ [1768] a double breasted swanskin jacket with black spots, and brown mohair buttons”
“[1769] two striped jackets, one of which is double breasted, without sleeves”
“[1769] a blue and white homespun striped double breasted under jacket without sleeves”
“[1770] blue double breasted [jacket], without sleeves, or lining, metal buttons”
“[1771] two snuff coloured cloth jackets, the under one short, double breasted”
“[1772] a blue double breasted vest”
“[1772] a striped Bengal jacket, double breasted”
“[1772] a cotton and worsted double breasted jacket”
“[1773] lincey Woolsey [vest] , double breasted, of a reddish colour”
“[1773] a red vest without sleeves, double breasted”
“[1775] a light coloured new double breasted under jacket, of fulled lincey”
“[1777] a blue double breasted jacket”

Occasionally such descriptions also contain references to a distinctive cut or construction:

“[1773] double breasted [jacket] , the fore parts red nap, the back parts striped lincey”
“[1773] a short lightish double breasted under jacket with metal buttons and no skirts”
“[1774] a red frize waistcoat double breasted, with pewter buttons on one side and none on the other”

There are also references to waistcoats and jackets made with calamanco, including “a striped calamanco jacket” and “a calimancoe striped waistcoat, with a number of small buttons”: both worn by Irish servant runaways in 1773. Another runaway in 1776 wore "a sleeveless jacket, with the fore parts of red serge, the back parts calamanco”

During the second half of the 18th century, calamanco was a thin worsted fabric, often striped in multiple colors but sometimes also checked, damasked, or with a satin weave. Norwich, England was famous for it.

The striped calamanco cloth that I have located for this reconstruction is a 17" by 60" bolt of fabric made by Eaton Hill Textile Works, and is closely matched to an 18th century example. It has stripes in several widths and arrangements and features an astonishing eight colors, including red, pink, yellow, two shades of green, light brown, black and white.

There is considerable variation in style, construction and fabric in contemporary runaway descriptions to support a choice of striped calamanco for this waistcoat reconstruction, and also for utilizing a different fabric for the back parts if there is not enough calamanco material for the entire waistcoat. Likewise, while small buttons covered in the same fabric as the front waistcoat panels are an appropriate choice, there is enough variation in the button descriptions in these runaway descriptions to support other options.

Regarding the pattern of the waistcoat itself, while general trends in double breasted waistcoat construction are discernible from 1750 to 1780, there is far more variety in the available documentation than might at first be suspected, and there are still exceptions to every rule. One of the earliest contemporary images of a sailor wearing a double breasted waistcoat, for example is the sketch (at left) held in the collections of the National Maritime Museum (UK). The central figure is a Scottish Captain whose underjacket appears to have no skirts and has a narrow distance between the paired rows of buttons. This is thought quite typical of such waistcoats from the 1780s onward, yet this sketch is thought to date from about 1750.

A second portrait from the same time period (below, at left) shows a gentleman in hunting dress wearing a double breasted striped waistcoat. The subject was a Welshman and President of the Society of Sea Sergeants. His collared double breasted waistcoat with flap pockets and cutaway skirts has small self covered buttons, with a single, third button in the center to close the two bottom halves and perhaps one as well at the collar. The stripes in this case are lateral.

Gwynne’s waistcoat is an early example of a variation of the double breasted style dating from at least the 1750s. It is actually a hybrid with both single and double breasted elements. Typically one or more of the bottom buttons on such waistcoats were single breasted, with those above arranged in two, widely spaced double rows. This button configuration is similar to those found on regimental coats of the 1750s but usually these waistcoats are without lapels.

The hybrid waistcoat style seems to have been popular with

sporting gentlemen like Gwynne based on surviving portraits of the period, but there is variation even among these examples, with skirts of different cuts and lengths and different numbers of single buttons below the double rows. The example at right depicting a gentleman named Francis Burdett dates from 1762-1763 and is one of a series of portraits made of fellow members of the Markeaton Hunt during this time by portrait painter Joseph Wright of Derby. Burdett's waistcoat is typical of the rest worn by his hunting companions: a hybrid with long skirts that are either squared in the typical 1750s style or just slightly cutaway. It is unlined, with two self covered buttons that close the bottom of the waistcoat and a wide double row of small buttons above.

There is actually a surviving example of a hybrid waistcoat from the collections of Snowhill Manor in Gloucestershire that dates from the 1760s.

It is made of red, yellow, cream and blue silk, lined with natural linen, and fastens with small flat self covered buttons. The fore parts are striped while the back parts are solid. The skirts are shorter and appear to be more cut away in the fashion that became popular in the 1770s. The pocket flaps lack button closures.

Although the images below may be reversed, it appears that this double breasted waistcoat was designed to fasten over the left row of buttons rather than the right. The rows also curve slightly inward as they rise toward the center and then curve out again as the approach the shoulders. There are four small buttons that close the bottom, single breasted portion of the waistcoat, and one that closes the neck. It has false side vents and a true back vent.

This waistcoat provides the template for the major design elements of our hybrid waistcoat reconstruction:

· - The front panels will be vertically striped calamanco, while the back panels may be white
· - It will have two rows of 9 or 10 rather than 11 small self covered or thread covered
    buttons per row, arranged in a slight curve.
· - It will have at least three small buttons that close the bottom of the jacket front.
· - It will have short cutaway skirts
· - It will have two scalloped pockets without buttons and no collar.

Unlike this surviving example, the reconstructed hybrid waistcoat will be unlined, and it may either lack or include the top button to close the neck at the tailor’s discretion. Instead of silk and linen, it will be constructed of worsted calamanco and serge. It will not be reversible; that is, it will only button on one side, and it will button on the right rather than on the left.

When it is finished, this striped calamanco and serge hybrid waistcoat ought to work nicely for several of my historical impressions, including that of a 1760-1780 American merchant seaman, among whom striped waistcoats were a popular choice. I could see it working as part of my 1758 New Jersey Provincial Regiment impression as well, for no waistcoats were issued to this unit in that year and soldiers who had them would have likely worn civilian ones. It might likewise do for an early Revolutionary War American militia or even Continental Army impression, especially those units where a wide array of civilian coats were collected and distributed to soldiers. The greatest challenge may not be finding an appropriate, documented use for this 18th century garment, but reconciling its bold stripes and array of colors with the fashion sensibilities of our own era.

When it is ready, I will of course post pictures. I hope to have it available for this year's Boston Massacre. If so, look for me among the angry sailors.