The USS Constitution Museum has spent years combing though seaman protection certificates, size rolls, prisoner of war records, and other documents to find out what sailors physically looked like during the War of 1812. Sailors came in all different shapes, sizes, and ethnicities, but the average sailor was 5 feet 6 inches tall, the most common eye color was gray (a shade of blue), and the majority had brown hair worn short or tied back in a short queue (braid).
To get a complete picture, however, we must also ask what sailor clothes looked like. Sailors certainly put a great deal of effort into looking like seamen. Their clothes embodied the skills and knowledge of their profession, and signified that they were “part of the club.” Without his jacket and trousers, the sailor seemed to lose a little bit of himself.
A recently discovered document gives us a glimpse of the ready-made “slop” clothing provided to USS Constitution’s very first crew in 1798.
“Statement showing the quantity of clothing & Provisions forwarded from Philadelphia to Henry Jackson, Boston for the use of the Frigate Constitution, vizt.
200 pair blue wool Trowsers [sic]
103 “ Duck ditto
29 pcs Bandanna Handkerchiefs
106 pair Wool Draws [sic]
180 blue outside Jackets
300 red under Jackets with sleeves1“
Cut high in the waist and loose in the leg, sailors’ blue woolen or white duck linen trousers afforded seasonal comfort and freedom of movement. Seamen wore white-spotted red cotton “bandanna” handkerchiefs around their necks, usually neatly tied with a square knot. Handkerchiefs came in “pieces” of twelve, so the ship received a total of 348. Wool flannel drawers provided an extra layer of warmth as well as acting as a barrier for “body soil.” The blue woolen “outside jackets” were probably double-breasted and short in the body. The under jacket or vest featured sleeves. Worn under the jacket in cold weather or alone in warm, it was a versatile garment.
This list is not complete, however. It leaves out some essentials. It is unlikely that Constitution sailed with only these garments available to sailors. We can fill in the gaps using the slop clothing requested for the frigate USS United States around the same time. Besides the jackets, vests, drawers , and trousers, the ship received 200 wool felt round hats, 300 check shirts, 200 pairs of shoes and pumps, and 200 linen frocks, a sort of large overshirt designed to keep grime off the clothes worn below.2
Factoring in all of these items and comparing them to the pictorial record and original garments gives us a pretty good idea of the wearing apparel worn by the common seamen on Constitution and the other frigates in the closing years of the eighteenth century.
1 Henry Jackson to William Dagget, 20 April 1798, Subject Files, Navy Records Collection, RG 45, National Archives and Records Administration.
2“List of Sundries for the United States,” 12 July 1798, Subject Files, Navy Records Collection, RG 45, National Archives and Records Administration.
Matthew Brenckle Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.
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