A tiny suit of sailor clothes in the Museum’s collection tells a lucky story of survival. The duck frock and trousers, both carefully decorated with embroidery and piping, belonged to John Thomas Jefferson. In 1867, when he was scarcely 12 years old, he enlisted in the US Navy. A boy in both rank and age, he joined Constitution’s crew in July. By then, the venerable old warship served as a floating classroom at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Jefferson’s duties were light and it seems he was frequently detached to serve on the Albemarle, Admiral Porter’s pretty little steam launch. It was the same launch that Lt. William Barker Cushing had used to blow up the Confederate ironclad Albemarle during the Civil War, and it was now the old admiral’s personal plaything. On October 19, 1867, Porter and his friend Capt. Lewis decided they wanted to go for a cruise, but “concluded first to go on board of the Constitution and observe [the Albemarle’s] rate of speed before starting on the trip.” Twice the launch steamed by at 11 knots, but as she returned to take the officers on board, the boilers suddenly exploded.
|John T. Jefferson in 1868, wearing his dress blues and holding an unsailorlike accessory- a book! USS Constitution Museum collection.|
|J.T. Jefferson’s frock and trousers. USS Constitution Museum collection.|
As early as the War of 1812, US Navy sailors wore white frocks with blue collars. In 1815 Boston Navy Agent Amos Binney sought “five hundred cotton Frocks, one yard long from the collar, the collar, cuffs, and bosoms lined with blue nankin [nankeen, a plain-woven cotton].” Although there are no images of American navy frocks during the war, the description offered by Binney sounds very much like the decorated frocks worn with increasing frequency in the 1830s and 1840s. It is possible that this fashion was retained for thirty years afterward, not so much because slop clothing tended to be conservative in cut, but rather in honor of the 1812 generation.
|Boatswain’s Mate George Brown, wearing a duck frock with nankeen bosom and collar, 1837. From The Family Magazine; or, Monthly Abstract of General Knowledge (boston: Otis, Broaders & Co., 1837)|
Jefferson followed the old sailor tradition by embellishing his clothing with embroidery. A narrow, naturalistic vine of foliage follows the trousers’ fall, or front flap. Contrasting white stitching decorates the frock’s blue scalloped cuffs. Wavy white cotton gimp outlines the bottom edge of the cuffs and the edges of the neck, while two white embroidered stars complete the collar.
|Details of J.T. Jefferson’s frock and trousers. USS Constitution Museum collection|