Bluejackets of the Steel Navy
It took a long time for the ferment and excitement of building the new Steel Navy to filter down to the average bluejacket. While the new ships were gestating on the drawing boards and the shipbuilders stocks, someone had to keep the Old Navy going, as obsolete as it may have been. The enlisted men of the fleet were therefore oriented toward sail, smoothbore cannon, and and wooden walled ships long after the transition to steel was actually underway.
The bluejackets of the 1880’s were a polyglot crew, enlisted from seaports and merchant marines of half a hundred nations. Colourful old Admiral David D. Porter described them as “as fine a body of Germans, Huns, Norsemen, Gauls, Chinese, and other outside barbarians as one could wish to see, softened down by time and civilization…”
These “freelances” seasoned with a smattering of American boys rescued from “perdition” by the grace of the recruiting officer, had, in Porter’s words “no sentiment for our flag….they ship for our money.” Personnel turnover during the late 1880’s ran to nearly sixty percent annually.
In an effort to improve the calibre of American seamen, the Navy had employed the apprentice system since 1875. Training started when a boy was between fourteen and eighteen years of age. Often a runaway from home, the aspiring seaman passed a cursory physical examination at the recruiting office, reported aboard an unseaworthy old relic moored to a run down pier in one of the moldering navy yards, and signed his articles of enlistment. In this ancient craft, known as a receiving ship or “guardo”, the new apprentice drew his outfit of hammock, uniforms, and ditty box, and was put to work sweeping the decks and polishing the brass until a full draft of recruits had accumulated.
Then it was off to Coaster’s Harbour Island at Newport, Rhode Island, and the old stationary training ship NEW HAMPSHIRE for classes in seamanship and gunnery as well as the traditional academic subjects suitable for a school of teenaged boys. Classroom work was spiced by drills in sail handling, signaling, infantry tactics, and small boat handling. After about six months of shore training, the apprentice transferred to the JAMESTOWN, PORTSMOUTH, or one of the other large sailing vessels of the apprentice training squadron. One year afloat, generally taken up by two long cruises to European or South American waters, completed the “school of the topman”. Duty in one of the regular warships of the Steel Navy followed, until the apprentice reached the age of twenty one, when he was discharged to re-enlist as a seaman.
Unfortunately, most did not ship over. Although there were more than one thousand apprentices under training in 1888, fewer than sixty graduates from the previous ten years of the program were still in the service. Of the entire enlisted force of 7,900, only forty six percent were native born.
As steel warships began to enter the fleet the output of the sail training ships became less and less relevant to the needs of the service, but in spite of the increased rumblings of officers of progressive inclinations, the old breed continued to have their way. Respected officers like Porter and Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce maintained that a shift to schooling in machinery and ships of steel would produce a force of “deckhand” instead of “sailors”. Others simply loved the ways of sail and resisted its decline almost instinctively. For all of its inefficiencies the apprentice system did gradually bring about a reversal in the proportions of native and foreign born sailors: by 1899 more than three quarters of the bluejackets in the fleet were U.S. citizens.
Other factors also contributed to the appalling turnover in personnel. Men who found the Navy life not to their liking were frequently allowed to purchase an “ordinary discharge” after one year of service. For those who reenlisted faithfully until finally forced out of the Navy by old age or failing health, there was no provision whatever for retirement pay. An aged sailor’s only hope for sustenance after discharge was to gain admission to the Old Sailor’s Home in Philadelphia, but that institution always had more applicants than vacancies. The Military Retirement Act of 1885 granted pensions to retiring soldiers and Marines, but through an incredible oversight in Congress the Navy was left out, and it took until 1899 for new legislation to be passed granting sailor’s retirement pay after thirty years of naval service.
Another major source of dissatisfaction was the low regard in which enlisted men were held by the general populace. “No sailors or dogs allowed” was no joke, but rather was the general practice at restaurants, theatres, and hotels in most coastal cities. Not until 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt lent his personal support to a courageous chief yeoman, Fred J. Buenzele, who had instituted legal suit in a test case against the proprietor of a Newport dance hall notorious for it’s discrimination against sailors, was public opinion finally mobilised in favour of the bluejacket and laws were passed making discrimination against Army or Navy personnel in uniform a misdemeanor.
It must be admitted that Jack was often a rough fellow who was inclined towards carousing on his rare visits ashore. Many sailors were so chronic in their misbehaviour that they lived in a perpetual state of restriction broken only by shore liberty at once in every three months as mandated by Navy Regulations. Unfortunately, the social gap between the old line officers and seamen was so vast that little constructive attention was devoted to personnel problems. A natural result was that a high desertion rate added to the chronic personnel shortages. Despite the fact that deserters could lose their citizenship for life, the desertion rate was more than fourteen percent in 1901 and almost as high for the next two years. A study of the desertion problem led to the interesting conclusion that a nine percent rate was to be normally expected – one percent would leave on account of poor food, another because of the crowded living conditions, three percent because of the restricted opportunity for liberty ashore, and four percent by reason of “the restless spirit which is found in many of our young men.”
As increasing numbers of new ships were completed and commissioned during the 1890’s, the need for crewmen caused pressures on the enlisted training system to increase inexorably. A new training station at Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay, but this facility did not become operative until after the war with Spain. By 1899 the output of the apprentice training ships was so far behind the needs of the Navy that a parallel system was set up to bring older but inexperienced recruits in as “landsmen.” A training station for landsmen was established at Norfolk and a squadron of five to seven ships was assigned to the new program in addition to a similar number for apprentices.
Nevertheless, by 1904 the situation had deteriorated to the point where the Navy was unable to man some of its new ships and drastic steps had to be taken. The training squadrons were abolished, the minimum age of enlistment was raised first to sixteen and then seventeen years, and the apprentice and landsman systems were combined into the basic arrangement that has continued to this day. Recruit training was concentrated at shore stations in Newport, Norfolk, and San Francisco, and a new facility at what is now Great Lakes. Illinois, was started. After four months of basic training, “apprentice seamen” were examined, those who passed were advanced to ordinary seamen, and all future training was carried out “on the job” in regular ships of the active fleet. Only the lowly “coal passers,” the entering rate of the engineering force, continued to be brought in separately for a few years before they too were integrated into the system. This group of sailors, described as a “class of men, in which beach combers are highly represented, as a temporary refuge from want and misery,” continued to have a high desertion rate and attendant morale problems well into a later era.
Basic personnel corrective action had been so long delayed that the Navy had to struggle on for several more years with severe manpower shortages. In 1906, when the authorised enlisted strength was about 38,000, the actual number was 4,500 short of this figure. Major recruiting drives were organised in which traveling parties scoured the country and ships toured coastal and river areas. Not until 1908, for the first time in the history of the New Navy, was the authorised strength actually reached.
The growing technical complexity of the Steel Navy also new emphasis on advanced training. Beginning in the 1890’s the more promising second-cruise men had been sent to classes for gunners and artisans at the Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C., and later in training for diving, electricity, and torpedoes at the Torpedo Station in Newport. These schools were gradually improved and expanded. After the electrician rating was establshed in 1898 new schools were also set up in Boston, New York, and Mare Island, and in 1902, a new artificer’s course was started in Norfolk. The big drive for improvements in target practise was supported by a practical course for gun captains aboard the monitor Amphitrite. A school for firemen was organised in the cruiser Cincinnati. Radiomen and yeomen, even bandmen courses were instituted. Truly, this was, in the words of Secretary of the Navy William H. Moody, “an era of training.”
By 1909 the “bluff, jolly, illiterate, profane, and picturesque man-of-war’s men of the old school” were disappearing fast, along with the old expertise in marlinspike seamanship. A new breed of “sea mechanics,” as President Roosevelt called them, were to become the “highest type of sailormen” for the years ahead.
Enlisted Life on Ship and Shore
Except for the apprentice or training cruise and brief layovers in decaying “guardos” (receiving ships), Jack spent most of his enlistment on board seagoing warships if not actually at sea. He was blessed with little in the way of material possessions. His outfit consisted of a canvas hammock, mattress with two covers, a pair of white blankets; two suits of blues and three of whites, a grommet frame and two cap covers in each colour, a watch cap, oilskins, a neckerchief, jackknife with lanyard, two suits of underwear, six pairs of socks, two pairs of shoes with blacking and a brush; a bowl, cup, and plate of white agate-ware; and iron knife, fork, and spoon, a small canvas bag for clothing, and a wooden “ditty box” for personal effects and trinkets. During daylight hours the hammock, mattress, and blankets-neatly rolled and lashed with seven turns of manila line-were stowed in “nettings” on the upper or spar deck, while the clothing bag and ditty box were kept in racks on the gun deck.
It was said that the sailor was the only person who ate under the place where he slept, and slept above the place where he ate. This riddle aptly described the multi-purpose use of the gun deck in ships of the period, both wood and steel. The crew was divided into “messes”- twenty two in a large cruiser like Olympia – each responsible for its own sustenance. Every man was allotted ration money of nine dollars each month. One member of each mess, usually someone who was “too small to be a shellman and too dumb to be anything else,” served as full time as mess cook or “berth deck slusher” for his shipmates, drawing provisions from the Paymaster’s storerooms and preparing and cooking them under the supervision of the ship’s cook. At sea, the rations ran heavily and monotonously to such easily preserved basics as beans, rice, “canned Willie” (corned beef), tinned mutton, salt pork, flour (usually made into a pudding or “duff”). ship’s bread or hardtack, tea and coffee, and molasses for flavouring. Each month it was customary to “commute” one quarter to one half of the ration and turn the cash over to the individual mess cooks to do the best they could on the local market when in port. On the Asiatic Station they could do quite well.
Three times a day the crew lowered the bare wooden tables and folding benches from their racks between the overhead deck frames and the “belly robbers” dished out the simple fare, concocted into such sailors’ delights as “dunderfunk,” “lob dominion,” “plum duff,” “skillagalee,” “slum,” “slush,” and had “sea pie.” As soon as the hungry sailors “scoffed” down their meal, everything was cleaned, and restowed as before. At night the bluejackets’ hammocks were slung from the numbered hooks on the overhead deck frames, under the stowed mess tables, high above the deck.
Each event in the daily routine was heralded by bugle call or boatswain’s pipe. When the ship was in port the day began at 5:00 A.M. with “all hands, up all hammocks, roust out, lash and carry.” After a quick mug of steaming “jamoke” (coffee), the barefooted sailors swept down the decks and hosed them off with sea water. At 7:30 each man drew a pail of fresh water at the scuttlebutt (which would have to last the entire day), and washed himself, and sat down to breakfast. Colours were at 8:00, sick call at 8:45, and divisional quarters ate 9:30. Various drills and evolutions, such as “clear ship for action” or “arm and away” then occupied the crew until 11:00, when jack had an hour for mending his clothes and other personal business. Mess call at noon was followed by another session of instruction or drill until supper at 5:30 P.M. At 7:30 all hands mustered by the hammock nettings to draw their bedding and to hear a prayer by the chaplain. Taps was sounded at 9:00 P.M., by which time many sailors were already asleep in their “dream sacks”.
The routine was sometimes varied with boat drills in the harbour, or when circumstances permitted, the landing force might be sent ashore for a few days of battalion drill. Pithching tents on some isolated island or beach, sandy bluejackets would struggle with unfamiliar evolutions involving heavy rifles and a light field gun or two.
Sunday morning was captain’s inspection. with “General Muster” on the third weekend of each month. At this awesome Special Full Dress ceremony, with the entire ship’s complement drawn up in ranks, the Paymaster’s clerk called the complete muster roll starting with the Chief master-at-arms, the senior enlisted man of the crew. As each bluejacket’s name was called in turn he would salute, sing out his rate, march forward around the capstan and go below.
Sunday church services, conducted by the “sky pilot” were attended by the officers as a matter of duty and by a faithful few of the crew as a matter of conviction. Hymns were sung to the accompaniment of a guitar or mandolin, or occasionally to a pump organ played by a lady volunteer from ashore. Some seamen were real authorities on the Scriptures, but most took little stock in religion. A few clung to superstitious beliefs in “Davy Jones, ” “Adamastor, ” and the “Flying Dutchman.” A favourite legend was that whenever a sailor died at sea his soul rose up to inhabit the body of a white gull or albatross.
The crew was organised into two watch sections and at sea the schedule was watch-on and watch-off, around the clock. If the ship happened to leave port on an odd numbered day of the month, the starboard section took the first underway watch, with accordance to the time honoured practice of the sea. Routine drills, general quarters, target practice, and cleaning duties kep the off watch section from getting lazy.
Relaxation came after working hours in port and during the dog watch at sea. The four hours between 4:00 and 8:00 P.M. were divided into two short “dodge” or dog watches so that the crew would not have to stand the same cycle of duty day after day. During this time the men of the off duty section were free to amuse themselves with games of “acey-deucy” and Spanish pool” (a form of checkers), yarn-spinning by the old-timers, and with music and dancing. Some ships had a gramophone or pianola for the crew’s amusement, and in the flagship the band played twice a day. Nearly every ship had one or two mascots, which ranged from cats, dogs, and goats, to monkeys and parrots. The Kentucky was renowned for its pet bear, which crewmen would goad into roaring at strangers, while the Oregon’s pride was “Dennis the pig,” rescued from the Cristobal Colon at the Battle of Santiago. (Pig mascots were always named “Dennis.”)
Jack loved all kinds of athletic amusements. Baseball, football, boxing, and swimming were all high on the list. Boat racing was was the sport most closely associated with the Navy, however, and it was a great point of pride for the ship to have the speediest barge or whaleboat. On the Asiatic Station the champion ship beame the “Cock of the Station” and flew a purple flag emblazoned with a red rooster. As many as fourteen husky seamen manned the oars of each of the swift pulling boats, and the grueling races were usually four miles straightaway, with the finish line at the squadron anchorage. All hands invariably wagered large sums on their ship’s boat, and as much as $15,000 might be won or lost in a single race.
Holidays were always celebrated with skylarking and entertainment. Amateur minstrel and vaudeville shows were a great favourite, with the stage set up amidst elaborate decorations on the quarterdeck. If foreign men-of-war were in port there might be an exchange of visits, with each crew vying to outdo the other in lavishness. Christmas was the most nostalgic of holidays afloat. Small trees were hoisted to the trucks and rigged to the yardarms, and on the gun deck signal flags, bunting, and greens added a not of cheer. The swinging mess tables were heavy laden with roast turkey, boiled ham, fruit of all kinds, nuts, sweet bread, plum pudding, and cakes. The more talented humourists in the mess regaled their shipmates with after dinner speeches on such topics as “Reminiscences of the brig” and “What it is like to have money.” Later the crew assembled on deck for three legged and potato races, greased pole climbing, pie eating contests, and wrestling and boxing matches.
Many bluejackets turned their off duty hours into extra pay, and chief among these were the amateur tailors found in every ship’s crew. “regulation” uniforms were available from the Paymaster’s storeroom, but Jack much preferred a “tailor-made” outfit with extra wide trouser bottoms and lots of sewn fancy work on the collar and pocket seams. A skilled “sheeny” could turn out a uniform a day on his “hurdy-gurdy”, and for his efforts received five dollars- a respectable sum, considering that an ordinary seaman’s pay was just 24 dollars a month. Other bluejackets specialised in hammering silver dollars flat and carving them into gleaming “buzzards” (eagles) for petty officer sleeve emblems. Older hands skilled in the boatswain’s art wove fancy ornamental “thrum mats” out of hemp, or braided white sennit lanyards decorated with hundreds of intricate knotted “Turk’s Heads.” The ship’s cook and the “Jack-o’-the dust”- the Paymaster’s storeroom helper- made a tidy profit baking ten-cent pies from dried apples, flour, and lard “appropriated” from the crew’s mess rations.
Every ship had it own “bum-boat man”, or civilian merchant, who rowed out to the anchorage twice daily, after the noon and evening meals. with his stock of pies, cake, and candies, and tobacco. Sometimes a woman served as vendor and several of these became legendary characters, known throughout the fleet. “Old Kate” with her basket of fruit and notions was a fixture at the Washington Navy Yard for more than forty years, while Annie Daly, a young and pretty Brooklyn widow, catered sundries to the armored cruiser New York for several years and eventually married one of the crew.
Hard liquor was strictly forbidden on board ship. Navy regulations permitted the sale of beer, however, and this commodity formed the bum-boat man’s principle stock in trade. Although no individual was permitted to purchase more than three bottles at a time, it was not unusual for a ship’s crew to “splice the mainbrace” with eight or nine hundred bottles of the foamy stuff on a warm summer’s day.
In spite of the renowned alcohol detecting abilities of “Jimmy Legs”, the ship’s Master-at Arms”, the more incorrigible members of the crew frequently risked punishment by contriving to smuggle liquor aboard. Boat coxswains were notorious as “rum-runners.” Sailors were sometime struck blind by improvised “man-or-war cocktails”, and the abolition of prison irons on board ship was protested in the name of “the officer or man who has seen one or more members of his crew crazed and violent from the effects of West Indian “rot-gut or other poison”. As late as 1903 the commander of the Asiatic Squadron lamented that “a number of good men died during the year from drinking shellac mixed with wood alcohol.”
Jack did not spend all of his time on board his ship. Shore leave was much loved but sparingly granted. Men were ranked in conduct classes based on their current behaviour and past infraction of rules. “First Class” limited to those with untarnshed records for the last six months or more, entitled a bluejacket to full pay and all of the liberty rated by his watch. “Second Class” just one step down, rated liberty only once every two weeks and permitted the sailor to draw one half his pay. “Fourth Class”, where a majority of the crew often seemed to end up unless an amnesty of the crew was declared was limited to the single leave every three months that was required by Navy regulations, and one quarter pay. When restrictions became too wearing a man might take his chances on leaving and returning by way of the anchor chain.
On reaching the pier or landing, a group of bluejackets would sometimes hold “tarpaulin muster” before taking off for the flesh pots, throwing all of their money into a neckerchief to be safeguarded by the most sober of the number until just enough was left to get the gang back to the ship. Then would follow roistering times in the waterfront dives, fist fights with the sailors from other nations, police baiting escapades, or visits to tattooing parlours where a man could be embellished from head to toe with multi-coloured designs, even to simulated carpet slippers on his feet.
In the ports of Japan there were opportunities for rickshaw rides to visit country temples and rest houses, or to hire bicycles for a more strenuous outing. A Salvation Army hotel in Yokohama and a Sailor’s Home in Nagasaki (purchased by the men of the cruiser Charleston) Provided clean and decent accommodation, in sharp contrast to the unsalubrious conditions prevailing on most waterfronts. In China the bluejacket was assailed by all of the degradations of a decaying empire: lepers dying at the city gates, opium dens, vice of every description, and beachcombers of all nationalities eager to steer the gullible youngsters to a fleecing. Other ports in Asia, South America, and Europe were often nearly as bad. In the United States the sailor was regarded as a pariah and denied entrance into most decent establishments. His money was welcome, of course, in the saloons, dance halls, and brothels of such notorious districts as New York’s Bowery and San Francisco’s Barbary Coast.
The medicines available to “Microbes”, the ship’s doctor were of little efficacy against many of the exotic diseases of the Orient or tropics that jack was exposed, let alone the ubiquitous venereal infections and common contagions. all too frequently the crew would be mustered to see one of their number depart “by the starboard gangway”, forbidden to enlisted men in life. Turned over, it formed a polished chute for the burial at sea of a canvas shrouded corpse.
“Seraphs don’t wear blue jackets; bluejackets are not wearing wings”, was an aphorism of the day. When Jack staggered back to his ship, it was with the knowledge that he would have to “face the stick” at captain’s mast. Once a man was over leave he usually figured he might as well prolong his fun to the bitter end, and nine days and twenty three hours after becoming overdue he would turn himself in to the nearest ship or U.S. Consul as a straggler, thereby avoiding the charge of desertion by an hour. While normal transgressions like straggling or returning “drunk and dirty” were not punished lightly: a few days in the “pie house” (brig) were a sure reward, thieves were given “the book” if apprehended. The convicted offender would have his sentence read in front of the assembled crew, the hatband bearing his ship’s name in gold would be ceremoniously stripped off, and he would be put ashore with his pay and meager belongings to fend for himself, disowned and disgraced.
In spite of all this, Navy life was not considered particularly hard. In comparison with the lot of the labouring man ashore, especially during the recurrent depressions, it offered steady pay, regular meals, and security. Many seamen lead a generally clean and sober life, learned skilled trades, advanced to responsible positions, and were in all respects a credit to their country. As Rear Admiral “Fighting Bob” Evans proudly declared, “You don’t need armor when you have men like mine”
The above is excerpted from The American New Steel Navy by CDR John D. Alden, USN, (Retired)
The crew of a warship must function as a team, with a precision gained through training and intense drills. This photo of the crew of the battleship OREGON in 1905 shows just one of the many groups of men that manned Navy warships during this period. Though this photograph portrays what is seemingly a single, unified crew, subtle hints of division can be seen. For example, the officers are seated on benches in the front row, while the enlisted men stand crowded around on deck, with one even standing on the shoulders of another, hanging on to a stanchion.
Life at sea was constructed around a series of complex hierarchies. The integration of a crew on board ship went only so far as duty required. Naval hierarchy created a huge gulf between officers and enlisted men, establishing two distinct worlds on board a ship. Officers and enlisted men worked together closely, but they ate and slept separately, avoided fraternization, and even had different levels of hygiene available to them. Even within these two worlds, further divisions occurred. Chief Petty Officers — the senior enlisted men, a rating established in 1893 — were generally afforded separate living and eating spaces, and distinctly different uniforms.
And while all officers enjoyed far more improved living conditions than enlisted men, senior officers enjoyed a superior level of comfort and privacy to junior officers. The system was based on “deference and precedence”.
Rations & Mess Gear
The berth deck of the cruiser BOSTON, photographed in 1888 (below). It is a cluttered, multi-purpose space. Racks for storage line the bulkheads. At the far end, a table is set for a meal. The men in this space would sling hammocks from numbered billet hooks, which can be seen on the overhead beam. Note how narrowly spaced these hooks are.
Officers and enlisted men took their meals in separate spaces. Officers enjoyed the privacy of the wardroom, an area off-limits to enlisted men. Below is the wardroom of the battleship OREGON.
Officers and enlisted took their meals in separate spaces. Officers enjoyed the privacy of the wardroom, an area off-limits to the men. Below is the wardroom of the cruiser BROOKLYN. Officers sit around a table complete with tablecloth and nice dishware. Stewards — usually African-Americans or foreigners — stand at the ready.
The two groups of men on board ship used separate dishes and silverware for their meals. Below, sailors on board the cruiser OLYMPIA sit for a meal, with worn dishes and bowls on the table before them. Note that their table is suspended from lines, and that one sailor on the left is sitting on the deck for his meal.
Pay, Advancement, Schools (1918)
Apprentice Seaman $32.60/month (during the war and six months after)
Seaman Second Class $35.90
Petty Officer 3rd Class $41.00
Chief Petty Officer $83.00
Pay ranges from $36.20 to $83.00/month, and for Yeomen, musicians, Hospital Corps, and Commissary branch from $32.60 to 83.00; further allowances are made for special duties. As all transportation is paid and a complete outfit provided for every recruit, the man has very few expenses and may deposit his savings with the Navy Department or have his money paid to his family at home. The savings pay 4% and are paid at the end of enlistment. Pay continues through sickness.
The next grade above Chief Petty Officer is Warrant officer, with pay ranging from $1,500 to $2,400 a year.; after six years service a warrant officer becomes a commissioned chief in a definite grade and after further service he receives the pay, etc. of a Lieut. Junior Grade and later of a Lieutenant.
Appointment as Midshipmen at the Naval Academy is opened to enlisted men under twenty years who have been in the Navy at least one year at the time of their appointment and who pass the examination. After four years training they are appointed ensigns with the pay at $1,700 a year.
Special schools for training in service are maintained by the Navy. The Artificer’s School is at Norfolk, Va. and is composed of classes of Shipwrights, Shipfitters, Blacksmiths, and Painters. The yeomen perform the clerical work of the Navy and some previous clerical experience is necessary. The Yeoman schools are located at Newport, R.I. and San Francisco, Cal. Training schools for electricians are located at the Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y., and at Mare Island, Cal. The cooks and bakers of the Commissary Department have schools in San Francisco, Cal., and Newport, R.I. The Navy Pay Officer’s School is located at Washington, D. C. The Submarine Service has a special school for instruction at the Submarine Base at New London, Conn. The Aeronautic School is located at Pensacola, Fla.
Life at sea was hard, and sailors worked up a sweat, and became covered with filth. A persistent problem with cleanliness during this period was the fine layer of coal dust that seemed to spread throughout the ship. Despite doing all of the physical labor, enlisted men were denied the use of modern hygiene facilities provided for officers. Sailor Frederick Wilson wrote in 1900 that: “Here on this ship they won’t allow us enough water to wash in. We have to get water to wash in any old place we can, from the feed pump while at sea, and from reserve tanks and boilers whilst in port. Of course, that is stealing and subjects you to punishment if caught, but we have got to get water, and will get it by hook or crook.”
Simple acts such as washing and shaving in the new steel navy were accomplished in separate parts of the ships by officers and enlisted men. Above (1913) and below (1899), a sailor shaves on deck, using a bucket (likely seawater) and a hand mirror.
Divisions between the men on board ship carried through to all levels of hygiene. Private bathrooms and toilets (called “heads”) were available to officers, but not to enlisted men. Below, an officer’s head on board the OLYMPIA features a flushing toilet, sink with hot and cold water, and a claw-foot bathtub.
Below, the enlisted head on board OLYMPIA has crowded bench seating, devoid even of dividers for the men.
The last major component of hygiene on board ship was laundry. Enlisted sailors handled their own laundry, scrubbing clothing and hammocks on deck and hanging them from lines to dry. The colorized postcard shows men with uniforms spread on deck, being hand scrubbed with scrubbing brushes. Officers once again relied on the services of their stewards for laundry. Below, Japanese stewards on board the cruiser BROOKLYN pose for a photo in the 1890’s.
Men lived their existence in “watches,” alternating 4 hours on duty, and 4 hours off. When off-duty, officers & men kept to their two separate worlds. There were few sources of enjoyment when passing idle hours. Reading, writing letters, or chatting with friends were common activities. Even when in port, sailors were mostly confined aboard ship, and made do with simple forms of entertainment. Officers existed in a hierarchy, and had different levels of comfort available to them for relaxing. All officers shared the private space of the wardroom, as well as their private berthing spaces. Senior & flag officers — commanders, captains, and admirals —were afforded what amounted to large suites aboard ship, for entertaining or relaxing. The Captain’s cabin on OLYMPIA was a space for entertaining guests and dignitaries. Note the sideboard, leather arm chairs, bookcase, plants, and throw rugs. There was a private head and bath tub adjacent. Enlisted men had nothing close to this type of luxury aboard ship.
Enlisted men aboard the cruiser OLYMPIA lounge around in hammocks, on deck, reading and napping.
The solace of the wardroom was once again a haven for officers. Officers enjoyed bottled beverages while reading, and are surrounded by niceties such as elaborate tablecloths and cut flowers. The enlisted men aboard the cruiser BROOKLYN, crowd below decks for some relaxation.
Note the band in the middle, which is composed of both white and African-American members. Other men behind the band are playing cards. This photo is an excellent example of integration in the Navy during this period —African-Americans can be seen throughout the photograph.
Most off-duty time was spent sleeping, “spinning a yarn” (telling sea stories), reading, eating, or perhaps gambling. Occasionally, while in port, there might be a social event aboard ship. Even in this social realm, enlisted men were often slighted. Below, officers aboard the cruiser OLYMPIA dance with women aboard ship. These may have been wives (who sometimes lived ashore in the port a ship was stationed) or women of local society.
Enlisted men were kept isolated from these social affairs, unable to mingle with the women above their station. Instead, they were often left to merely dance with each other, as seen in the photo below of the OLYMPIA.
Liberty was highly prized, especially in foreign ports.
Sport was always held in esteem. Games of every variety were encouraged between shipmates and other ships. Boxing was especially valued as a manly endeavour.
Many thanks to Dave Colamaria for permission to use portions of his text and images from Steel Navy.