Thomas Chew’s Dress Shirt
This fine linen dress shirt belonged to Thomas J. Chew, who served as purser on USS Constitution during the War of 1812 and saw action in the battle with HMS Guerriere.
As purser, Chew was the ship’s business agent, paymaster, grocer, and shopkeeper rolled into one. During battle, the purser was stationed in the cockpit to help the surgeon dress the wounded. Pursers received a salary of $40 per month and two rations per day. Beyond the salary, pursers like Chew could realize great gains selling clothing and supplies to the crew while at sea. With no competition and a captive market of 450 crew members aboard a frigate, there was room for extraordinary profiteering.
Judging from the several items of his clothing that survive, as well as his portraits, Thomas Chew was clearly a fashionable dresser as is reflected in this shirt, which is made of fine linen. Based on its style and construction, the shirt was likely made between the years 1810 and 1820. It exhibits techniques typical of the period, including fine gathering and minute stitches.
The shirt is in excellent condition for its age. Currently, the piece is a light tan color with minor spotting throughout, but would have originally been bleached white. The body of the shirt is constructed from one piece of linen 29 inches wide and 68 inches long, joined and stitched together on the left. As made, the shirt, including the collar, is 39 inches long. The shirt’s high collar allowed the upper corners to obscure the wearer’s jaw and reach his cheekbones, while allowing a wide swath of the cravat (neck tie or stock) to show, as befits a fashionable shirt of this period.