Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Tale of a Teenage Sailor (and Embroiderer), 1850

Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Susan reporting:

One of the reasons for my recent visit to Winterthur was to see a special exhibition of historic needlework.  With Cunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroidery is 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


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing about the exhibit and Warren's uniform. I recognized it immediately due to looking at the Winterthur website and reading about the exhibit this morning. I would love to go to the exhibit but since living in the midwest doesn't really accomodate going very easily I wanted to thank you for your report about it. I hope others can make it that live closer.

Shortbread and Ginger said...

Great post - very interesting! Looks like a fascinating exhibition.
Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

gio said...

Thanks for this post. The embroidery is beautiful and the story behind the uniform fascinating.

nightsmusic said...

I don't know why I was under the impression that a naval man worked on ship from morning to night. There wouldn't be that much to do in calm waters, would there? How monotonous it must have been. No wonder embroidery was a favored pastime. And this is just beautiful!

Too bad we don't know whatever happened to him.

Dana Huff said...

You piqued my curiosity, so I looked him up on Ancestry.com, and he is living with his mother in Burlington, NJ in 1850, but no other census records under his name after that. His mother died in 1863. I found her death record—24 November 1863 in Burlington. His sisters Caroline and Elizabeth were still in Burlington in 1860 and living with Elizabeth Opie. The 1860 census doesn't specify relationships, but I would guess she is an aunt or a cousin. I think I found his sister Ann in Philadelphia, and if so, she died in 1903. I find it interesting that none of the girls married, given the time. I can't find the little brother George after 1850. But you're right! I can't find any trace of Warren Opie. There are a lot of Opies in Cornwall, UK, and some other NJ families with that name.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

It is a wonderful exhibition - worth a trip for anyone in the Philadelphia/Wilimington area. But then, I think Winterthur is always worth a trip. *g* I took pix of almost every piece in the exhibition, so look for more posts in the future.

Thanks for the detective work, Dana. Apparently the captain of Warren Opie's ship was known as a hard disciplinarian (flogging had recently been outlawed by Congress, but doubtless some of the captains continued the "old ways"), and several of the crew had jumped ship. No way to tell now, but it doesn't sound like a great situation for a 15 year old boy - though of course the 19th c. viewed teenagers in an entirely different light than we do today. All those now-forgotten young people serving long hours for low wages on ships, in factories, in the military, in private service, and on farms - huge difference from playing sports & video games, hanging with friends, and studying for SATs!

rothcomilitary said...

I was very pleased to find this site. I definitely enjoyed reading every little bit of it It feels so nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject.

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