A Sailor's Underwear

What Clothing at Sea Can Tell Us

Original content by: Tyler Putman

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Imagine yourself sailing off Cape Horn, at the southernmost tip of South America.  The weather is frigid, with biting winds and freezing water washing over the deck of your ship.  You would want the warmest clothing you could find.  If you could sew, maybe you would make something like these, the underwear that a 20-year-old Boston man named Richard Henry Dana Jr., made in 1835 when he was aboard a brig called the Alert.

Before the Panama Canal opened in 1914, sailing around Cape Horn was the fastest way to sail between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, but that part of the trip could still take weeks of fighting through stormy weather.  Dana had already gone around the Horn once on his sailing voyages, and so he knew what to expect this time.  He brought with him warm pants, jackets, waterproof hats, along with a shirt and underwear made from a warm, fuzzy wool fabric called flannel.  Dana knew these pieces of clothing would help keep him warm and dry.

Today, plenty of people save special clothing like wedding dresses and military uniforms, but who saves old underwear?  It turns out we can learn a lot about what it was like to be a sailor in the 1800s from Dana's rare undergarments.  For example, they show us that even though he had no sewing experience before he became a sailor, by 1835 Dana could sew sturdy and durable clothing like these.  Dana was a skilled and respected sailor, and we might assume that all his hard work would have required a muscular build.  But, based on his undershirt, we can tell that his upper arms were actually smaller than average.  The clothing he wore on his voyage helped keep him warm and dry, and he decided to keep his undergarments, a pair of pants, and a waterproof hat as souvenirs of his days at sea.  Soon after his voyage ended, he got to work writing a book titled Two Years Before the Mast, a bestseller filled with excitement.  His clothing reminds us that sailing involved at least as much hard work and discomfort as adventure.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. What would you take to stay warm and dry on a sailing trip around Cape Horn?
  2. What sort of things do you save? What makes them special to you?
  3. If your keepsakes some day end up in a museum, what might they tell people in the future about your life and personality?