When Herman Melville’s title character ships aboard USS Neversink in the novelized memoir White Jacket, he is desperate to procure a garment that will protect him during the passage of the frigid waters off Cape Horn. Unfortunately, the ship has been three years from home and the purser’s store is depleted of warm clothing. He must settle for a linen frock (a sort of large overshirt), which he quilts and pads with “old socks, old trowser-legs, and the like.” It is not a seaman-like garment, nor one that sheds the ever-present spray, sleet, and rain.
What White Jacket wanted was a pea jacket. Basil Hall, one of the most prolific British naval writers of the period, called a pea jacket “a sort of lumbering shaggy surtout, or curtailed great-coat, capable of being wrapped round the body, so as to cover the thighs.” The pea jacket of the early nineteenth century bore only a superficial resemblance to the modern garment we call a “pea coat.” While today’s pea coats hit the leg at about the middle of the thigh, those of this early period swathed the wearer in wool to below the knee. An 1825 clothing cutter’s guide published in London offers some tantalizing hints as to its dimensions. They were manufactured in six sizes. The average sized jacket (a size 40) was 40 ½ inches long down the back, which would place it below the knees on most men. The wide sleeves made the garment easy to pull on over a monkey jacket, and the wide cuff gave “room for tucking one hand in the other sleeve.” The jacket was double breasted, and the buttons were placed five inches from the edges, “which will give them a good lap over, as they are generally worn in cold countries.” Most took six buttons per side, and closed down to the waist. A standing collar, 4 ½ inches deep, “stood up close round the neck,” and the lapels could button across to seal out cold breezes. The cutter’s guide also stipulates that the garments were usually cut of “blue or olive Flushing [a coarse, blanket-like woolen], and were lined with either blue or green baize, to the bottom of the body and sleeves.”1
American references to pea jackets do not suggest any variation from this plan. Rather than Flushing, however, American tailors used other coarse, thick fabrics. Most woolens of the period (many imported from mills in the north of England) were tightly woven and “fulled” which created a dense, warm cloth almost impervious to all but the most persistent rain. John D. Dyer of Boston furnished “Kersey Pea Jacketts” to pursers at the Charlestown Navy Yard both during and after the War of 1812.2 Isaac Cook offered “Pea jackets of stout blue plains.”3 In 1819, some pea jackets were made of “Bearskin, lined with Baize or flannel.”4 The shortage of fabric during the war caused manufacturers to switch from blue cloth to drab, a sort of indefinable color between grey and brown, although pre-war descriptions of runaways and deserters suggest that drab pea jackets had been common for many years.5 Some, if not all, pea jackets were lined with “heavy bais [baize]” and closed with horn buttons.6 This is confirmed by an advertisement for a deserter from the Lake Champlain fleet, who had on when he ran “a pea-jacket of a brown colour, with horn buttons.”7 The tradition of issuing drab pea jackets continued after the war, and they gained a reputation for being sturdy and serviceable. A critic of the slop system in the 1820s and 1830s noted that “The pea jackets are the only articles that are fit to be worn, and only such of those as are made of drab cloth; those that are made of what is called blue cloth are very near as good to keep out rain as [a] dyed blanket would be.”8
Not all seamen possessed pea jackets. For one thing, they were bulky and difficult to pack in a bag, and if they became wet, took days to dry. Their high price probably formed even more of a deterrent. One Boston tailor sold “50 pea Jackets” to USS Constitution at a cost of $8.50 each.9 Those made by Isaac Cook for USS Siren were manufactured of coarse kersey and cost even more ($12.00) than a month’s pay for an able seaman even before the purser’s markup.10 Nevertheless, this was likely to be the only form of foul weather clothing most seamen owned, and absolutely necessary for making a passage in the North Atlantic.
1 Robert Byfield, Sectum: Being the Universal Directory in the art of Cutting. (London, H.S. Mason: 1825), 34-35.
2 John D. Dyer to Board of Navy Commissioners, 5 March 1816, in Proposals, Reports, and Estimates for Supplies and Equipment, 1814-1833, RG 45, E 328, vol.4. NARA. Kersey was a heavy twilled woolen.
3 Isaac Cook to John Rodgers, 12 March 1816, in Proposals, Reports, and Estimates for Supplies and Equipment, 1814-1833, RG 45, E 328, vol.4, NARA.
4 Joseph Granier to Navy Board of Commissioners, 18 Jan 1819, in Proposals, Reports, and Estimates for Supplies and Equipment, 1814-1833, RG 45, E 328, vol.4. NARA.Bearskin was not made from the fur of a bear, but was a woolen cloth with a long napped finish- making it fuzzy like a bear.
5 Amos Binney Letterbook, 1810-1814, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA.
6 Thomas Sheppard to Navy Board of Commissioners, 18 Jan 1816, in Proposals, Reports, and Estimates for Supplies and Equipment, 1814-1833, RG 45, E 328, vol.4. NARA.
7 The Vermont Mirror, 5 Jan. 1814.
8 William McNally, Evils and Abuses in the Naval and Merchant Service Exposed; With Proposals for their Remedy and Redress (Boston, Cassady and March: 1839) 31.
9 Amos Binney voucher to John Kuhn, 28 Oct 1813, in Fourth Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, RG 217, Box 39, NARA.
10 Amos Binney voucher to Isaac Cook, 24 Jan. 1814, in Fourth Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, RG 217, Box 39, NARA.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.