James E. Taylor's Tools

A Cabin Boy's Ditty Bag on the Charles W. Morgan

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

This ditty bag, as well as all the tools, were owned by cabin boy James E. Taylor (1901-1964), who served on the whaleship Charles W. Morgan in 1918-1919.  He came from a family where he was the second oldest of five brothers, and three sisters.  At the time Taylor set sail on the Morgan in July of 1918, he was just 17 years old.  In a letter he wrote from Barbados to his mother, Annie M. Taylor, he said he had been at sea for 9 months before touching land in April of 1919.  It was during the closing days of World War I, so the Morgan sailed "way down south" because of possible German submarines.  Perhaps surprising for a cabin boy, Taylor said he "was at the wheel for seven and a half months."  The Morgan returned to New Bedford in September of 1919. Taylor later served in the Merchant Marine.

Most of the tools were used for making or repairing sails, or for caulking.  A variety of 3-sided sail needles were made in England by T. Hessin & Co. or James Smith & Sons.  English needles were preferred because of their superior quality — they neither broke nor rusted.  Also included were sailmaker's pricks which were likely used for splicing rope.  The sailmaker's palm was made of rawhide or metal, and was used to protect the hand.  It served in a similar fashion to a thimble.  Some had additional protection for the thumb to prevent rope burns.  The grommet cutter, which came in different sizes depending on the hole needed, was used to cut or punch holes in the sail to pass rope through.  Grommets were used in high stress parts of the sail.  The twine used to stitch sails was coated with wax, which was helpful in reducing friction.  The ditty bag also contained a large block of yellow beeswax, most likely used for the purpose of treating uncoated twine.

A variety of tools were used to caulk a ship.  First, a heavy iron mallet, known as a beetle, was used to drive iron wedges into seams in order to open them up before caulking.  Then, caulking irons were used to pack or put cotton or oakum (hemp fiber soaked in pine tar) into the seam between the planks, making it watertight.  A jointer, similar to a mason's trowel, was used to smooth the joint between the planks.

Also included in the ditty bag were woodworking tools, such as chisels, augers, and gimlets, all hand tools used to drill holes in the timber.  The gimlet was smaller than the auger, and was used to drill small holes without splitting the wood.  The ditty bag also included a wooden screwdriver handle, which would have been used with interchangeable heads, allowing Taylor to never be at a loss when needing to tackle a variety of screws.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Where might Taylor have acquired the skills of sailmaker, caulker, and helmsman at age 17?
  2. Did teenagers in the early 20th century have less of what we think of as a "childhood"?
  3. How do you think OSHA would react today to this kind of work being performed by a 17 year old?