One of the reasons for my recent visit to Winterthur was to see a special exhibition of historic needlework. WithCunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroideryis a wonderful show, filled with stunning needlework that ranges from schoolgirl samplers to masterpieces by professional embroiderers. While some of the pieces might represent more skill or sophistication than the sailor's uniform and sea bag back shown here, none had a better story behind them. (Click on the photos to enlarge them to see the details.)
Standardized uniforms for enlisted sailors in the American navy were still a relatively new notion in the 1840s-50s, when this uniform was created. While sailors were required to wear the Navy-issued uniforms while on board ship, there was more leeway in what they could wear on shore. The shore-going uniform could be proudly embellished and embroidered to suit a sailor's tastes, as well as to reflect his skill with a needle. (Here's part of another elaborately embroidered shore-going uniform, a dark wool blouse from c. 1862.)
This rare summer uniform and sea bar were owned, worn, and likely embroidered by Warren Opie, born in 1835. Growing up in a large family of comfortable means in Burlington, NJ, Warren's childhood effectively ended with his cordwainer (shoemaker) father's early death in 1848. Warren's mother struggled to support the family, and several of Warren's sisters were sent to live with other relatives. It's likely that Warren, too, felt the family's financial pressures, and in 1850, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy for a three-year tour of duty with the rating of a second-class boy. He was fifteen.
Warren served on the steam frigate Susquehanna, the flagship of the four-ship squadron commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry on his historic trip to Japan between 1850-1854. Warren would have had considerable time to make this sea bag and uniform on the long voyage between Norfolk, Va and Japan; it's possible that he learned to sew from his father, or perhaps from some of the other men in the crew. While the uniform shows the typical patriotic motifs – stars, eagles, anchors, and flags – popular among sailors, his bag features his parents, his two closest sisters, and landmarks from his hometown in New Jersey. Warren was visiting exotic countries on the far side of the world, but it's clear his heart still remained at home.
In Japan, Commodore Perry presented a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the ruler of Japan in an elaborate ceremony involving nearly all the American sailors in his squadron and thousands of Japanese officials, soldiers, and attendants. Records show that one of the American ship's boys carried the president's framed letter in the procession. It's tempting to imagine Warren, dressed in this splendidly embroidered summer-uniform, as the boy performing this important task.
Unfortunately, there's no documentation to tell what became of Warren after his three-year-tour was done; he last appears in navy records as having been promoted to "landsman," a full member of the crew. No one knows if he died at sea, or jumped ship in some foreign port, or returned to New Jersey to live a long and contented life, nor is there any record of how his uniform landed in the hands of the dealer who sold it to Mr. Du Pont for his collection. It's all another history-mystery – but what a wonderful legacy Warren Opie left in his embroidery!
Above: Summer uniform of an enlisted sailor, worn by Warren Opie, 1850-54, linen, silk, wool. Sea Bag, owned by Warren Opie, 1850-54, linen, silk, wool, cotton. From collection of Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.