Premiering, ‘Are You A Pirate?!’


Please follow the YouTube link below to see the full performance of ‘Are You A Pirate?!’, a dramatic presentation I co-wrote and performed on December 2-3 in St Andrews! This ‘thesis on stage’ was the culmination  of three years of research and hand-recreation of a 1780s maritime wardrobe, hopefully making my academic work available and engaging to a wider audience (both in person and here online). This project was generously supported by the St Andrews History Department, my tutor Professor Gerard de Groot, the Mermaids student drama society, a £300 grant by the St Andrews Student Union, and the input of many friends and colleagues in the living history world, both in the USA and Europe. My co-performer and academic colleague onstage was the brilliant PhD student Peryn Westerhof Nyman. And since this is the first time I’ve had the chance to share it more widely, please do comment, repost, critique, and generally tell me what you think!

Our three main topics are as follows: 

Intro) ‘The Lowlands of Holland‘ – A 1776 reprinted ballad about a woman mourning her husband lost at sea. In finding this song, we were greatly helped by the input of 2016 Laidlaw Scholar Meg Hyland. (0:05-4:55) [Lyrics in full original form below.]


‘The sorrowful Lover’s Regrate: or, The Lowlands of Holland.’, 1776, Edinburgh Library.

a) ‘Dressing Sailor Fashion‘ – What garments were specific to seamen and women in maritime communities – how did they work and how was the wider fashions they created viewed by wider society? And further, what are the differences and analogies that can be made from this sillhouette to modern clothing? Watch as we dress piece-by-piece in the apparel of fisherfolk from Fife Scotland, examining and describing each layer in turn. Ultimately, we outline an argument that sailors and fishwives intentionally dressed in a highly specific and visible manner, even when this risked potential for violent impressment into the Navy. (8:30-1:15:17)


Anonymous artist, ‘The Press Gang’, 1774, Walpole Library.

b) ‘Why Pyrates Suck – and could be so much more?‘ – Pirates are the face of the 18th century to most audiences due to their recent revival in popular media – but how can historians critique their depiction and larger historical significance? Using the critical angles of violence, gender, and race, is it possible to move beyond Johnny Depp and make deeper themes and case-studies in nautical history appealing to modern viewers? Throughout this punchy section are also freely interspersed some truly terrible pirate jokes and puns… (1:15:34-1:33:26)

Recreation - tattooing.JPG

RI artist Forrest Curl hand-poking an anchor tattoo on Hermione’s main gundeck, July 2015.

c) ‘Why Authenticity Matters‘ – How do we move beyond ‘bullfacts‘, ‘Horrible History’, ‘Golden Age’ nostalgia, and teach about our past based on solid research? How is this process tangible and practical in the reproduction clothing worn by Peryn and myself? Can we flip our perspective on the past, recognize its agency and see another point of view on our present through this? How can we combine all types of evidence (visual, material, textual, etc!) to flesh out a fully nuanced vision of heritage? And how does our work this semester fit into other examples of modern public history projects which have successfully pushed understanding of history in pragmatic ways around the world? (1:33:28-1:45:16)


Hoisting the starboard main topsail aboard l’Hermione, summer 2015. [Philippe Leray]

And as always, tell me what you think – this is public history, and your input is vital! If anything in the video strikes a chord and resonates with you, or if you disagree, or simply want more information – comment below, or send me an e-mail.



Shellfish, Sma’lines, Seaboots and Shows: Semester 1 in Review

As the current semester draws to a close in St Andrews, I want to look back on the progress of the past months in my academic coursework for HI4997 , gains made in my related 18th-century living history pursuits, and equally get excited and update you, my readers, about upcoming public history projects in ‘fishy fashion’ and Georgian-era nautical recreation.


[photo by Amy Chubb]

‘Seven Months at Sea’ MUSA talk (Nov. 17)

The first major performance of this course was an hour-long evening talk I gave at MUSA (The Museum of the University of St Andrews) on November 17th. Entitled ‘Seven Months at Sea,’ it explored my time and lessons learnt in sailing in 2014 and 2015 on the recreated frigate l’Hermione, built by the Rochefort-based Association Hermione-Lafayette. This formative experience kindled my present interest in researching maritime history, and certainly gave fresh insight on the large difference between American and European perspectives on this period! Overall, my main themes throughout the presentation were that respecting authenticity adds integrity to any historical project, whether commercial or nonprofit, and that this type of history can be pragmatic and self-sustaining in both attracting and engaging audiences (in the case of Hermione, with ticketed admission providing 60% of the funding for an over $29 million project!). Diligent research and attention to detail also forces modern viewers to pause and look closer, and ideally allows them (and myself) to empathize and viscerally understand the experience of past generations: something which is not possible with cheap costumes or cynically commercial ‘history-lite.’ Whether this then means hauling on a recreated capstan to lift a ship’s boat, or simply handling my hand-stitched recreated wardrobe and personal effects (see below), the resulting connections made between past and present can be powerful. And crucially, when choices are backed by academic diligence, any lingering questions or issues of interpretation simply become a fruitful dialogue between the public and the historian about the research behind the endeavor. And, as always, the feedback of the incredibly varied audience at MUSA was one of the most rewarding pieces of being able to tell my story – for instance, unique input from fellow academics, or meeting an elderly former student who had worked in the whaling fleet off of Antarctica after graduating in the 1960s! Such encounters enrich my experience, and then allow me to offer further analogies and anecdotes in future discussions. While technical difficulties precluded me from recording that night’s performance, here is a link to footage of an analogous speaking engagement with my home-town’s Lincoln Historical Society in January of 2016 – please do get in touch if you’re interested in a repeat showing, or have any further questions, critique, or input of your own!


‘Are you a pirate?!’ Barron performance (Dec. 2-3)

As for drama, this Saturday saw the climactic performance of ‘Are you a pirate?!,’ an ‘academic play’ (imagine a costumed historical TED talk onstage) that I co-wrote with a fellow history student, Peryn Westerhof Nyman, and which uses clothing to discuss the wider perception of the 18th century maritime past. In its first portion, I began just in my hand-stitched underwear, and dressed piece-by-piece in the layers of a contemporary mariner’s wardrobe, explaining with each new garment how ‘sailor fashion’ functioned in practice, what it can tell us about contemporary society’s relation to those sent to sea, and the sources with which we can understand both. In its animated second portion, Peryn and I had a dialogue about pirates (whom I despise, but she finds fascinating), their legacy in pop culture, and the challenges and opportunities this genre presents for historians today. The play then concluded by discussing the educational work we’ve been doing this past semester, and, as at MUSA, had a heartfelt appeal to the self-fulfilling power of authenticity – that our memory and experience of heritage is as strong as we make it, and that we can use the past to both critique and build on our modern present.

‘Historical Foraging at the Eden’ nature walk (Dec. 4)

To get some fresh air after this performance, we also co-led a group on a seaside nature walk on the morning of December 4th, alongside Fife Coast & Countryside Ranger Tony Wilson, as a way to explore the natural and human past on the very ground where it happened; namely, the seashore of the Eden Estuary just northwest of St Andrews. For centuries, local fishwives walked ‘the Mussel Road’ from town to this long strip of tidal mudflat, and gathered shellfish for baiting fishing lines outside their homes along the town’s North St (see below). Without shellfish and fishwives, fishing could not have happened, and this was an attempt to remind participants of this neglected story, and to talk about what it may imply for current environmental beliefs. In short, the way in which the community regulated this over time, both environmentally and socially, can tell us a great deal about changing technology, economics, and the ways in which humans interact with their natural world, both in the past and today. Specifically, while increasingly industrial deep-sea net fishing dominated from the 1800s onward (but has since collapsed), near-shore line fishing continued unbroken from prehistory, and is now being re-asserted as a lucrative, environmentally friendly alternative. And tasting fresh scurvy-grass, dodging golf balls, and examining the fresh casts of lugworms at low tide in the bracing winter wind of Scotland was certainly a visceral way to explore this topic!

Material matters…

In practical terms, too, several material projects likewise bore fruit this past semester. First of all, working alongside the expert traditional basket-maker Liz Balfour (who has been partnering with the St Andrews Social Anthropology department’s SA4059 module, and working on a wider Woven Communities project on traditional basketmaking), two friends and I completed copies of three traditional fishwives baskets – a back creel, display cob and arm creel – for use in our outreach and educational programs. This work was made possible with a generous £300 grant from the St Andrews Student Development Fund. This meant not only the chance to learn a new skill (basket weaving) or to work with a new material (willow), but also to have useable copies of original artifacts that will allow us to speak to the fascinating story of fishwives, who were integral players in nearly matriarchal pre-industrial fishing communities, and provide us a fascinating and empowering case study in 18th-century gender history!

Additionally, with the labour of the master traditional cordwainer Sarah Juniper, as well as the insights provided by archival research alongside Jen Gordon, curator of the Fisheries Museum’s Costume Collection, I am now the proud owner of a pair of hand-made eighteenth century leather seaboots! While lesser period equivalents would have been cheaper, such as Continental clog-boots, or simply tarred canvas leggings tacked onto shoes, there is nothing more substantial and effective than such a pair of heavy thigh-high waxed footwear, which will allow me to work in small watercraft in wet conditions, wade through calf-deep surf while landing such boats, and tramp around in muddy inter-tidal conditions gathering bait, just as fishermen and sailors did historically.


[photo by Noel Heaney]

And in personal terms, smaller day-to-day sewing has resulted in other new useful pieces of wardrobe – a finer ruffled shirt for my ‘shore-going rig,’ a twin pair of striped linen petticoats for my colleague Peryn’s fishwife impression, new recycled ‘stocking-sleeves’ for my winter waistcoat, and other details. Such work allows both fresh research angles and new manual techniques, and is also simply the bread-and-butter of living and working in a recreated historical wardrobe, as we both hope to do professionally in museum work after graduating.

Finally, with the gracious help of Charlie Trzeciak, Learning and Access Officer at the Fisheries Museum, we have amassed all the necessary raw and finished materials to make a copy of a traditional ‘sma’line’ for inshore fishing – a technique which was practiced for millennia in Scotland, and only ended commercially, at least in Gourdon Scotland, in 1986[1]. With sources ranging from a local hardware store, to regional veterinary abbatoirs, to a traditional London ship chandler, sourcing appropriate materials in the modern day was a challenge over several weeks! Yet this is critical, since this copy will be a means of engaging visitors while it is built as an open-air demonstration (with a full 1,200 hooks whipped via spun horsehair to individual hemp strands along a larger-diameter line stretching over a mile), and will also be a way to preserve the embodied knowledge of a passing generation of Scottish fishermen whose hands-on ‘embodied knowledge’ otherwise risks being lost.

Combined with the above examples, these material projects are not just interestingly niche historical case-studies, or simply practical boons for my own historical recreation, but also fundamental for the living history programming I’m currently doing with school groups and weekend volunteering in Anstruther. A recent workshop attracted a healthy crowd of local youngsters, who were taught how to make sturdy rope from toilet paper, pierced their own nautical tattoos with ink and needle into the skin of grapefruits, and learned some basic tenets of seamanship, with more visits planned for the future.


[photo by Charlie Trzeciak]

And fundamentally, when children respond to the clatter of my hobnailed boots on the sidewalk, when elderly Fife residents animatedly recognize the distinct fashion of a recreated fishwife, or even when people simply stutter ‘Are you actually a pirate?,’ this is the past coming to life in a meaningful way for residents of towns who were universally maritime working communities until recently, and still strongly define themselves with this legacy today. The beauty of this public living history, to me, is its ability to combine archival research (including written sources contextualized alongside a wealth of visual and material research) with recreated material culture (including practical objects, theatre, and hands-on experience) that makes history relevant today and connects diverse audiences to their pasts.

So what, then, is to come after this onslaught?

First of all, reproducing the sma’line as discussed above, as well as a simpler hand-line in the boatyard of the Anstruther Fisheries Museum. Beyond spinning horsehair and splicing dozens of hook lengths, this may require tarring or ‘barking’ the line in a tannic acid bath when completed. Ideally, this will ultimately culminate in the ‘experimental archaeology’ of actually fishing using this recreated line in the waters of the Firth of Forth with the Museum’s Boat Club on a period-appropriate boat!

Secondly, in addition to outreach workshops this winter and spring, there is the potential for future collaboration with the Reaper, the Museum’s 1902 seventy-foot ‘Fifie’ herring drifter that tours Scotland’s coastal communities each summer; or equally, a return to the shipyard of l’Hermione in France to work on related programs there; or potentially other projects like the modern sail-borne shipping lugger Grayhound (which a friend recently returned from sailing aboard).

In professional terms, I hope to work this summer with the Fort Ticonderoga Association to continue advancing my manual training in historical tailoring. Yet, no matter where I find myself, I will continue to periodically publish and promote  new work and information – so stay tuned to see how this develops, and, as always, make this public history your own by sharing, commenting below, and e-mailing me for any further queries or conversation!


[photo by Amy Chubb]

[1] Celia Craig, A Tribute to the Women of Gourdon, 1837-1986 (James A. Bruce [printer], Stonehaven, 2015) – accessed via Scottish Fisheries Museum research library

Smurf or Sailor? (or, ‘When historical dress is lost in translation…’)

One afternoon in late autumn 2014 I found myself standing on a street corner in a steady fall downpour outside a post office in La Rochelle France, waiting for a friend to arrive. As people hurried by through the rain, I tucked up under the eve of the building’s roof, smoke from my pipe hanging in the damp air, and watched the faces in the crowd flowing along the tight pedestrian street. Significantly, I was dressed in the recreated clothing of a circa 1780 French Royal Navy sailor (see below), a wardrobe which consistently turns heads given its eccentric silhouette. That day however, one older woman in particular modestly looked me up and down as she came by along the narrow sidewalk; and then, after pausing for a second, she turned around back towards me. Striding up, she very genteelly leaned forward, touched my arm, and inquired in a very polite, curious, but animated tone, “What marvelous clothing! Is it some kind of ethnic dress – maybe some little village in the Balkans? Where are you from?!” As genuinely flattered as I was that this woman read my strange appearance as traditional rural clothing (and not just a cheap costume), and privileged that this interaction took place before tensions about refugees rose throughout Europe, this comment is just one instance of a larger issue which fascinates me – namely the ways in which people understand (or misinterpret) social and visual cues from historical clothing! Given the rather flamboyant subcultural fashion of late eighteenth-century sailors, this is something I encounter every time I wear recreations of historic maritime apparel in my living history work– and the following are a few overall themes I’ve gleaned from this experience, with anecdotes and reflection on what this means, both about seamens’ attire in the past and modern ideas about dress in the present.


Recreation of a sailor conscripted for service in Louis XVI’s Ponant fleet, c. 1780 (outside Cathedrale Saint-Louis de  la Rochelle, 2015).

Of course, some of the visual cues I present in my dress are highly recognizable, even if the conclusions drawn are somewhat simplistic. For instance, knee-breeches and shoe buckles both instantly read to most audiences as ‘circa 1700s’ fashion, or at the very least ‘olde-timey’. However, people commonly assume that such buckles are somehow ‘fancy’, not just a ubiquitous consumer item or a general century-long fashion, and there is (understandably) a total disconnect over the specific detail of me wearing my shoe straps pulled down towards the toe ‘sailor fashion’ (see this detail in the paired upper images below). This is of course not to say that I expect general audiences to know or instantly memorize the endless nuances of long-extinct footwear trends from over two centuries ago, but rather to hopefully acknowledge that buckled shoes were once as ‘modern’ as shoes today, and that we will all one day become “Old Squaretoes” (i.e., dressing in the outdated styles of our youth – see an original example of this at bottom below).


Similarly, given the trope of curled white wigs in most pop culture depicting the eighteenth-century, both simple and more elaborately styled period hairstyles that I’ve worn (see photos below) immediately read as appropriately ‘historical’, especially when I am wearing recognizable ‘buckles’ (side-curls) by my temples and using recreated hair powder. But there is the persistent belief that period hairstyles always used wigs or that they were invariably grimey and pest-ridden, rather than the deeper acknowledgement that (just like today) hairdressing was as fluid as fashion, that styles of hair could send subtle social signals, that coiffures (false or natural) shifted greatly in style over time and space, and could be intrinsically part of good hygiene. If someone tugging on my tightly wrapped queue or gingerly taking a whiff of recreated 1779 hair powder is an entry point into the subtleties of this topic, then so be it, because such opportunities are then often gateways into a deeper discussion of the social and intellectual history behind such practices!

The uniformity or lack thereof in my depiction is something that equally draws a sliding scale of recognition. For instance when portraying a French Royal Marine, depending on the occasion, I’ll wear either the full dress ‘grand tenue’, fatigue ‘petite tenue’, or the more daily shipboard attire, (see the differences in each with the slide below). Even if audiences cannot immediately identify the kingdom or branch of service which this recreation depicts (visible to the careful observer in the naval buttons and the fleur de lys, anchor and other insignia used throughout), they instantly recognize that I am portraying a soldier, with or without me carrying my firelock, because the outfit is visibly a uniform and therefore looks ‘official’. By contrast, the shipboard work clothing of the Marine clothing (at right), let alone the ‘motley’ sailor’s attire I otherwise wear, is far less recognizable, and therefore commands strikingly less social presence. This dichotomy is then drawn into even sharper contrast on the few occasions where I have portrayed an officer, where rank and status is immediately visible to anyone by the higher quality materials of a uniform which includes a sword, gold braid, epaulettes, plumes, sashes, and other embellishments, besides the presence of an official entourage or soldiers (see bottom image below). Again, I do not expect the average tourist to be aware of long-defunct militaria, but I am simply fascinated by the way in which clothing (or a uniform) still does very much ‘make the man’ and the effect that one’s appearance, polished or otherwise, can have on the behavior of strangers.



Recreated 1781 meeting between the Marquis de Lafayette (played by Tristan Emerit) and General Washington (played by Ron Carnegie) at the Siege of Yorktown (Yorktown, Virginia, 2015).

Other responses I’ve received from audiences are quite clearly conditioned by pop culture. For instance, whenever I wear a cocked hat (or ‘tricorn’), I instantly become a ‘pirate’, even if I am meeting visitors aboard a government warship – ideally, with sufficient social grace, this usually becomes an entry point into the economic warfare inherent in all eras of naval conflict, the legal boundaries of late eighteenth-century privateering, or alternately the way that popular media over the past two centuries has constructed a stereotypical image of ‘pirates’. In reality however, even ‘pirates’ simply dressed like the sailors they were, and would likely appeared both recognizably maritime and far more uniform than popular  imagination envisions them today – so this in particular is a giant and persistent muddle which must be carefully unpacked with primary research !


Note the relative uniform appearance of the distinctive maritime ‘slop clothing’ worn by  members of the recreated 1765 press gang of the  HMS Maidstone (Newport, Rhode Island). [Credit to John Collins Photography]

For those select visitors who are familiar with the modern subculture of traditional sailing, my luggage is often a particular object of curiosity. Rather than the large canvas duffel bags and smaller ‘ditty bags’ (see an original example below, at right) which abound in collections of 19th and  20th-century maritime museums (but which have no concrete evidentiary basis for use before 1800), and are often copied by Tall Ships crewmembers as a way to display their seamanship, I use a hundred-liter cow-skin valise largely based on a 1786 French government ordonnance[1] (see below, right). Whether it is a child in the airport or a senior pausing to visit my display, the fact that my bag (even if it’s not visibly luggage at first) is obviously made out of a cow is certainly a fruitful conversation starter!

And the passing similarities of my sailor attire with various folk costumes mean that I have been both mistaken in London’s Victoria Coach Station for a Spanish matador (given my short fitted jacket and square-topped 1780s-style round hat – see bottom left), and a Breton in regional costume (due to my petticoat breeches passing resemblance to traditional bragou braz – see bottom right).Alternately, the same simple red wool cap visible in my first photo (at top) has equally been assumed to be a revolutionary Phrygian cap, associated with 2013 lorry tax protests in Brittany, and elicited comparisons to both Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the Smurfs. So clearly, the responses of various audiences to my clothing are conditioned by their regional background, upbringing, and personality, things which can themselves be analyzed through the lens of history.

Most frequently (and ironically) when I’ve done living history volunteering while studying in Scotland, my distinctive blue wool Scotch bonnet is mistaken for a French-style beret. This is understandable perhaps, given the stereotypical legacy of the 20th century ‘Onion Johnnys’ . However, in France this same beret is paradoxically seen as Scottish, (something potentially explained by the recent foreign success of the TV series Outlander)! Alternately, if I wear this same cap slanted to the side (incorrectly for this period, and an error perpetuated by the show), it immediately becomes more recognizably military to casual observers in both nations. And to muddle things further, the only textual reference I have found for a sailor specifically wearing a Scotch bonnet is from the memoirs of Samuel Kelly[2], a Royal Navy sailor who sailed to Scotland in 1783-84, but who was himself from Cornwall! Again, the goal is not to get newcomers entirely lost in such arcane details, but just to acknowledge that something as distinctive as a dicing pattern (below, at left), as unique as military insignia, or as simple as the presence (or lack) of a pompom can change the larger cultural associations of what is in reality just various cultural variants on the theme of a very basic knitted wool cap.

Still yet other sartorial cues result in audiences that I interact with struggling to connect the dots of clothing that was once iconic, but is no longer in use. For instance, the bold combinations of patterns shown in period visuals of sailors (often with contrasting stripes, checks, prints, and bold colors in abundance) often results in my modern viewers thinking that they are confronting a clown, a prisoner, or simply someone who is far too ‘colorful’ or flamboyant to be accurate to the eighteenth-century – even though such an ensemble would have been quintessentially maritime to any contemporary observer (see above left and bottom left). In similar fashion, the highly distinct woolen fringe on a specifically maritime ‘thrum cap’ usually elicits comparison to either “Rastafarian” or “yeti”, as viewers struggle to understand what they are seeing (see below right). And the baggy ‘seat’ of a pair of breeches or trousers, whose fullness allows the wearer to bend, squat, or sit in an otherwise well-fitted garment, typically elicits nervous laughter, teasing of ‘bubble butts’, or even furtive questions about diapers. Similarly, while sailors are nearly always depicted in contemporary art carrying sticks, carrying a cudgel today constantly perpelexes modern viewers, and draws analogies only to genteel Victorian walking sticks (see bottom left). And again, all this is to be entirely expected, and is something I’m equally guilty of when I myself engage with specialists of other periods outside my limited 50-year period of study – yet such interactions, however clumsy, are valuable ways to break the ice and transmit valuable information using historical dress as a visceral educational medium.

Most interestingly perhaps, audiences unanimously equate my grime-stained work clothing with authenticity (although it has equally led some to simply assume that I’m homeless). This popular notion, that everyone in the past was constantly and universally filthy, is greatly misleading, but understandable given its continued reinforcement by Hollywood and other various forms of popular history.  Yet in reality, my clothing is not stained because it is pre-distressed or made up with theatrical products, but simply because I seek to do appropriate maritime work (tarring, painting, cleaning, eating, etc.) while wearing my period wardrobe, and seeing what additional understanding and empathy I can glean from it through this constant daily use. Of course, there is ample documentation for both ragged and well-dressed sailors, depending on context; but as a whole, it should be countered that humans in all eras, including historic mariners, strive to maintain their dignity and appearance whenever possible, just as I do today. And moreover I am fascinated by how this enthusiastic response from audiences towards my ‘grungy chic’ work-clothes speaks to the peculiarities of a modern world where designer jeans are bought pre-distressed, or where fast-fashion means that clothing is more disposable than ever before in human history.

What then can be concluded from this rambling discussion of historic dress and the pitfalls and advantages of its modern perception?

  1. General audiences do recognize oddly specific details, authentic materials and overall effort, even when they don’t know what they’re looking at. Inversely, pandering to audiences pre-existing notions of what they think history looked like may be far easier in social terms, but ultimately less rewarding (and disingenuous).
  2. My biggest drive as a historic educator comes from un-teasing the nuances of historical apparel, and I am most enthused, not just when people recognize these subtleties in the clothing I wear, but when I can, moving from the micro to the macro, use such details to carry across more substantial pieces of historical analysis.
  3. Finally, there is no such thing as a bad question only a bad response on my part (beyond visitors  socially clumsy or simply being rude). I am resigned to the fact that my most frequent questions will forever be “Aren’t you hot in that?” (or alternately, “aren’t you freezing” when it’s cold out…); but it is therefore my duty to think of creative ways to spin out all manner of questions, per the visitor’s interest, and create more fruitful exchanges about my own research and its relevance today.


As always though, please engage, comment, email, or post- tell me what you think!

[1] Mallard, ‘RÉGLEMENT Sur l’Ordre, la propreté & la salubrité à maintenir à bord des Vaisseaux, du premier Janvier 1786’, in Ordonnances et Reglemens, Concernant La Marine (Toulon, 1787). pp. 413-428, [valises specifically mentioned in  Article 33, p. 420 and Article 36, p. 424.]

[2] Crosbie Garstin (ed.), Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman Whose days have been few and evil, to which is added remarks, etc. of places he visited during his pilgrimage in the wilderness (New York, 1925). pp. 18, 80-84, 97, 103.

Are you ‘Bullfacting’ me!?

The following post will focus on ‘bullfacts’ and address various modern legends about the material culture and clothing of eighteenth century sailors, as well as what these misconceptions might say about our view of this topic in modern hindsight. But first: what is a ‘bullfact’ (a term I’ve coined myself)!?

‘Bullfact’ (noun) [bool-fakt]

  1. A bulls*#t history ‘fact’, often pithy and memorable in the telling, seemingly ‘common sense’, and ‘practical’, but entirely misleading and hopelessly inaccurate when critically examined.

‘Bullfact’ (verb)

  1. To actively misinterpret and promulgate false historical evidence (for multiple reasons) to general audiences, creating a ‘hyperbolic hindsight’ which at best presents an erroneous version of the past and at worst denies the agency and humanity of individuals who lived in it.

Bullfact’ (historiography)

  1. Nonsensical, apocryphal, ‘one-liner’ explanations for historic practices and beliefs which tell us more about modern visions of the past than they do about the actual history in question.

The dominant genre of ‘bullfacts’ involves practical explanations for socially driven history, two examples of which are detailed below;



See the  archetypal sailor’s headwear pictured at top right corner, in Matthew Darly, ‘Hats’ (hand-colored engraving), 1773, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, #1953-206.

In this vein, ‘bullfacts’ often emphasize function over fashion as the driver of choices, whether or not this is demonstrably false. For instance, the widespread mid eighteenth-century fashion for cocked hats (called ‘tricorns’ after the nineteenth century), found particular expression among sailors, who wore their own distinct subcultural styles of cocking (see the sailor at top right in the 1773 Darly image above). Furthermore, mariners are often depicted in period art wearing their hats ‘reversed’, that is, with the fan (normally at the rear) above the forehead (see the 1762 bosun at middle below). In response to these peculiarities, I have alternately heard from both museum visitors and employees that cocked hats gained popularity because,
a) they prevented the long barrels of period firearms from jostling headwear when shouldered,
b) they functioned as gutters in driving rain,
c) sailors wore theirs backwards to prevent them being knocked off while working,
d) “insert any explanation of your choice”.
Yet all of these reasons are simply too literal-minded; this would be akin to stating that certain modern subcultures dress in baseball caps because they all actually play the sport, or that they wear them backwards to prevent sunburn on their necks (see this contrast in images below)! It seeks to explain in ‘rational’ terms why certain subgroups develop idiosyncratic ways of dressing – and I am far more convinced seamen wore their hats ‘sailor fashion’ as a way to express their identity than for any practical reasons; rather, they simply imitated the dominant fashions of their shipmates, wore their hats the way they were expected to by society, and likely did not think as hard about it as we are doing in retrospect.

Another good example of overstating the practical versus the social are the various ‘bullfact’ explanations offered for fall-front breeches. In short, earlier styles of breeches with crotches that closed with a buttoned fly were replaced by roughly the middle of the eighteenth-century by a ‘fall’ closure: a fabric flap closed vertically over the crotch and buttoned at the waistband (see comparison images of both styles below). I have alternately heard it claimed that this pont [‘fall’ in French] could serve as a life-line attachment (with a rope passed through the flap to secure a seamen working aloft), or that this configuration made it easier for a drowning man to remove his legwear and escape. Both of these are patently ridiculous to anyone who has actually worn period legwear; two buttons are hardly sufficient to secure an adult’s weight from falling while working against a yardarm in any kind of weather, and even if a seaman could open his waistband while in the water, he would then have to also undo the multiple buttons and buckles at the snugly fitted knee-bands of his breeches to get them off. A more nuanced explanation for the popularity of fall-fronts is that fashion simply changed in overall cut, with the smoother lines of this closure proving more popular as the bottom hems of waistcoats gradually rose throughout the later decades of the century – and that sailors and the tailors and seamstresses who made their clothing simply followed these wider social fashions.


In broader terms, other ‘bullfacts’ clearly originate with flawed portrayals of sailors in popular culture, whether modern or historical. For instance, there is an oft-repeated claim popularized in 2007 by the television show MythBusters, that eye-patches were used by pirates to maintain their vision when descending below-decks on period ships. While seemingly logical, this flies in the face of the near-total lack of documentation for eye-patches, which, if they did exist, were simply a cosmetic affectation for disfigured veterans of naval service. Therefore this particular bullfact becomes a ‘solution’ to a historical problem which likely never existed. [For more detail on this argument, see here and here.]


[The supposed first pirate to wear an eye-patch; sketch of Rahmah ibn Jabir-al-Jalahimah, in Charles Ellms, The Pirates Own Book (Boston 1837. See original at. Alternately here.]

Still other ‘bullfacts’ involve explanations that anachronistically project modern ideas into the past. For example, sailors’ widespread smoking of tobacco in clay pipes does involve the disposal of broken segments of their long stems, but this has nothing to do with the transfer of pipes from mouth to mouth (where their breaking is often claimed by way of ‘bullfact’ as a health consideration), and far more to do with the fragility of a universally available, cheap (and therefore disposable) consumer item made of clay, which often breaks accidentally in daily use. And for a social example of the anachronistic ‘bullfact’, any rural fishwife hiking up her petticoats while collecting shellfish, or even physically carrying her husband through shallow water to a waiting vessel (to keep his legwear dry), was not concerned about the oft-claimed seductive power of showing her ankles, which far more reflects Victorian-inspired modern anxieties about sexuality than any contemporary eighteenth century beliefs. (#freetheankle below)

David Allan, 'Fishwife', late 18th century, [#D404, National Gallery, Edinburgh].JPG

David Allan, ‘Fishwife’ (hand-colored watercolor), late 18th century, National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Department of Prints  and Drawings, #D404.

‘Bullfacts’ also often equally and actively conflates evidence from one practice with another. For instance, the false claim that sailors’ tankards were glass-bottomed so that sailors could avoid being slipped ‘the King’s shilling’ in their drinks by impressment officers mistakes army recruiting bonuses for the navy’s legalized abduction of seamen, who were not offered an enlistment bonus when seized. A more nuanced instance is the widespread myth that tattooing began in Europe only after voyages to Polynesia in the last decades of the century, which, while true in etymological terms for the verb itself, ignores centuries of evidence for previous practice amongst both mariners and the wider population (with just one Italian example of this pictured below).

Tattoos on the arms of sailors Tarantino, Louis Ducros, 1778 [RP-T-00-493-10C Rijks].jpg

Louis Ducros, Rijksmuseum, ‘Tattoos on the arms of sailors from Tarantino’, in  album ‘Voyage en Italie, en Sicile, et a Malte’, #RP-T00-493-10C.

The most ubiquitous type of ‘bullfact’ (in my experience) is simply any number of factoids which present a misleadingly black-white narrative pairing ‘horrible history’ with outright nostalgia. ‘Horrible history’ here refers to the idea that everyone in the past was miserable, disease-ridden, impoverished, suffered and died early; in maritime terms, this runs that sailors in the past were all too syphilitic, wave-drenched, etc. to know happiness. One commonly hears, for instance, from historical guides and popular knowledge, that beds, living spaces, and even people themselves were dramatically smaller in the past; that hygiene was nonexistent; or that that basic items (for example, pins, nails, scissors, or any other mundane manufactured tools) simply didn’t exist ‘back then’. Yet even today, the berths and interior spaces of all watercraft are typically cramped because space is at a premium, not because of people’s height. Hygiene can be rudimentary at sea in any era by nature of the scarcity of fresh water (besides the fact that ‘washing’ does not always imply ‘bathing’); and eighteenth-century mariners lived in a world which was hardly ‘homespun’ but was rather experiencing the widespread impacts of a proto-industrial consumer revolution. [Or, as one museum friend quipped to this question, if nails did not exist until the modern era, surely Jesus was bound to the cross with cello-tape?] The necessary flipside of this ‘horrible conditions’ narrative is a nostalgic vision in which past mariners were heroic and superhuman for enduring such privations. For instance, one commonly hears unfounded ‘bullfact’ claims that red paint or cloth was used to prevent sailors from losing heart by hiding bloodstains (as if this would mitigate the sight of a shipmate being ripped in half by a cannonball), that sailors liberally dowsed their garments and even hair in tar to waterproof it (for which there is only steeply limited evidence for oiled clothing in the Georgian period, and none for hair), or that sailors were constantly barefoot (despite the nearly universal visual depictions, written sources, and archaeological remains indicating widespread use of shoes). Such a narrative where past mariners are both pitied and applauded for enduring contemporary living conditions simultaneously damns these men and puts them on an unrealistic pedestal, neither of which serve our understanding of maritime history.


This is the problem, not the solution. (Borrowed from

What, then, to conclude about ‘bullfacts’ and their function in research on eighteenth-century mariners?

-Firstly, such stories are a natural piece of the constant revision and reinterpretation of sources central to any historical project.

-Secondly, they are the inevitable result of being limited to less documentary evidence than researchers would ideally want, and the practical challenges in particular of provenancing folklore and oral history.

-Thirdly, they are a well-intentioned response by a general public eager to take part in and interpret the social memory of heritage.

However, in personal terms, my frustration with ‘bullfacts’ is how they consistently warp the human continuity that modern audiences can share with sailors in the past. And I flatly reject the belief that one needs to falsify or ‘improve’ history to make it a better story – indeed, no matter how much frustrating work it may require, diligent research often reveals that the glimmer of truth within ‘bullfacts’ is often far more remarkable than its  half-baked premise alone.

“Over-knickers, knickers, and under-knickers!” – or why the 18th century French Navy’s underwear matters…

Two years ago, while giving a ‘sailor fashion’ demo at the Rochefort shipyard of the recreated frigate Hermione , I was confronted by a middle-aged woman in my tour group who, after I had been describing my wardrobe for several moments, blurted out (in French), “Well, are you wearing historical underwear too??”  And I was! (Completely hand-stitched linen underwear in fact.) Trying to refocus the group’s attention however, and not knowing that the antique word for breeches – ‘culottes’ – now means ‘knickers’ in contemporary French [‘Granny panties’ if you’re American], I exclaimed indignantly, “Well yes! I’m actually wearing three layers of knickers! – over-knickers, knickers and under-knickers!” The haunting laughter of that tour group aside, today I’ll be addressing this question with reference to the French Navy of Louis XVI. Rather, what did late eighteenth century French mariners wear under their breeches and trousers – and why might these historical underpants actually matter?


Displaying a reconstructed ‘seaman’s estate inventory’ on the La Rochelle pier-side, in cooperation with the Association Hermione-Lafayette (March 2015).

The first problem is one of documentation: consider for instance the clothing you’re currently wearing, and how long you will (or likely won’t) keep it… Undergarments are paradoxically intimate AND expendable, and the same applies more broadly for any antique clothing, which typically either survives by accident — because it was lost, forgotten, or hidden — or because it was somehow exceptional, or worth preserving for emotional reasons. And given the intensive daily use and re-use of lower-class working garments, plus the elitist nature of collecting, upper-class apparel overwhelmingly dominates extant garments in most museum collections. Within such archives, maritime clothing is even rarer still, with most pieces being recovered in fragmented form from shipwrecks after having spent centuries underwater. And underwear is almost entirely absent, barring haphazard examples like the medieval bras recently found under an Austrian castle’s floorboards. All this would make finding even pieces of common sailors’ attire, let alone their underwear, as likely as finding a linen needle in a vast underwater haystack – after all, how can we infer the existence of a garment that doesn’t survive, wasn’t usually discussed in writing, and isn’t typically shown in art?

Yet the common misconception that 18th century men (and seamen) simply did not wear underpants is only partially true, something we can genuinely infer from a) material, b) textual, and c) visual sources.

A) Rare material survivors, like the twin examples of extant ‘drawers’ below show practical details of construction and function. Both are made of lighter-weight linen, have a 2 button front closure, and eyelets in the rear of the waistband for lacing which adjust their fit. They have a full seat, both to accommodate the long hem of a period male shirt, and to allow physical movement (sitting, riding, twerking, etc). And their crotches are noticeably open, allowing a man to easily urinate or undress, with any indecency covered by his thigh-length shirt. Additionally, the leg seams are hemmed to the outside to prevent chafing along the inner thighs, while tape ties under the kneecaps both serve to secure the over-knee stockings worn underneath, and to prevent the fabric from riding up or bunching uncomfortably. When worn under cloth or leather breeches, such layering – with body linens beneath sturdier external fabric – created a washable undergarment which absorbed perspiration, body oils and subsequent odors, and helped men at all levels keep clean, healthy and fashionable.


Underdrawers (linen), 18th century, French. Metropolitan Museum of Art, #1996.386.3.


Underdrawers (linen), c. 1750-1800, Europe/France. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, #1996-218.

B) As for texts, official naval ordonnances under the Ancien Regime do not appear to mention underwear; even rare examples of government-drafted ‘packing lists’ for personnel reviews which mention basic garments like shirts do not mention seemingly mundane undergarments.[2] However, comparison to royal decrees regulating the army can be fruitful; for example, separately issued linen drawers cited in the 1747 code for the French infantry’s dress[3] were replaced by linen-lined breeches by 1762 and 1779[4]. Lastly, dead sailors’ estate inventories DO sometimes list drawers (‘calcon’) in their detailed listings of possessions, suggesting their potentially more widespread use (see two examples below).


‘One drawers’, in Iventaire apres deces de Jean Lafargue, matelot’, 1778, Paris National Archives, MAR/C/7/157.


‘#3 – three bad drawers’, in inventaire apres deces de Pierre Giquel, matelot’, 1775, Paris National Archives, MAR/C/7/118.

C) And finally, while period visuals of underwear are rare, since men are typically shown either fully dressed (or, less commonly, in nightclothes, or simply naked), two notable exception are satires of wives ‘wearing the breeches’, and lingerie makers (see below). In the first one can clearly see bare male legs underneath the shirt’s hems, while the second shows stockings held up by individual pieces of woven tape, and finally the third depicts drawers are at bottom left amongst the linen vendor’s merchandise. At least in contemporary artists’ minds then, either separate drawers or simply shirts both constituted acceptable ‘underwear’.


Nicolas Guerard (engraver), ‘Presage Malheureux – Mauvais Menage et Debate Pour la Culotte’, 1689, National Library of France, ark:/12148/btv1b84074938.


John Collet (artist), William Humphrey (publisher), ‘The Battle Royal, or Who wears the Breeches’ 1774, Lewis Walpole Library (Yale University) Digital Image Collection, #774.06.15.01+.


Nicolas de L’Armessin, ‘Habit de la Lingere’ in Costumes Grotesques, 1695, National Library of France, ark:/12148/btv1b8407155i.

What then can we conclude then about the undergarments sailors wore, or didn’t? Long shirts tucked into their breeches may have served for some, while others may have worn legwear lined in linen; or indeed separate ‘drawers’ more akin to modern underwear underneath their ‘culotte’.

And finally, why does this matter?!

a) Underwear is a very human issue, which makes the radically different people in the past that I study feel somewhat more relatable. I also  wear hand-sewn drawers every time I work and live in historical garments, and find them far more comfortable than modern briefs or boxers, which both bunch up uncomfortably under well-fit breeches.

B) Drawers are a fine example of the challenge (and reward) of interweaving material, visual and textual sources, a real archival detective hunt from which multiple plausible interpretations are plausible!

c) The extending practical supervision of the state and elite commanders into the daily lives of seamen (via increasingly detailed government ordonnances) is visible in how underwear was regulated (or initially not), a trend which began in the late 18th century and continued on into the 19th and 20th centuries.

d) Finally, underwear was arguably more important than cannonballs. Well into the mid-20th century, disease killed vastly more people throughout each human conflict than combat wounds. And if one considers specific 18th century cases like the typhus epidemic which killed thousands of French seamen in a fleet assembling to invade England from Brest in 1779 (a deadly virus transmitted by bodily parasites) , the connection of naval undergarments and hygiene to the grand course of 18th century geopolitics cannot be overstated.

(above; Washing my dirty linens as a naval laundry demo, August 2016). [I’d say the soap in my hand is just as critical as the cannonballs stacked to my left – but what do you think!? Leave a comment, and spread the word!!]

[2] ‘Copie de l’instruction de la Cour, relativement à la division des équipages par escouades, & à leur équipemens; signée pour copie d’Orvilliers Brest 1779’, Available at: Accessed: 19 May, 2016. ; RÉGLEMENT Sur l’Ordre, la propreté & la salubrité à maintenir à bord des Vaisseaux, du premier Janvier 1786’, Article 36, in Mallard, Ordonnances et Reglemens, Concernant La Marine (Toulon, 1787). p. 424.

[3] ORDONNANCE DU ROY, portant règlement pour l’habillement de l’infanterie Françoise. Du 19 janvier 1747, p. 4.

[4] Règlement arrêté par le Roi pour l’habillement et l’équipement de ses troupes du 21 février 1779. [Strasbourg Library]. p. 4.

Introducing ‘Fishy Fashion’! (a maritime public history manifesto)

Consider the dress of a sailor over 200 years ago


Anonymous, ‘The Disconsolate Sailor’, c. 1780-90s, [National Maritime Museum, UK, PAF4290] [see original here]

Late 18th century maritime history is a remarkable subject whose legacy is still felt today. And yet its human dimension, the experience of common seamen, is often harder to access. While academic research struggles to reach a wider audience for lack of circulation or charisma, popular media actively misleads public imagination by pandering to inaccurate stereotypes of ‘pirates’, Hollywood formula and literal fantasy.

Yet real seamen *really* lived in a very real world wherein great naval squadrons decided imperial fortunes, merchant-men linked kingdoms  through worldwide oceanic trade, and deep-sea fisheries fed millions. Each of these was each dependent on men whose labor amidst the salt spray and wind appears astonishing to modern eyes. These men made historic change at sea possible. So how best can we tell their stories?


detail of, Nicolas-Marie Ozanne (artist, 1728-1811) and Yves-Marie Le Gouaz (engraver, 1742-1816), ‘Combat du Vengeur’, 1800, [Bibliothque Nationale de France, ark:/12148/btv1b84122598] [see original here]

I would present this blog as a wide survey of  c. 1750-1800  ‘sailor fashion’, presenting my ongoing research into the distinct occupational clothing that European (and especially French and British) sailors used to both work effectively and affirm their professional identity in wider society

Why focus on the late 18th century?

The period from 1750 to 1800 is recognizably modern, marked by technological change, intellectual sea-change, demographic boom, and imperial expansion. This period is also relatively recent, yet still beyond the pale of living memory, meaning for audiences it occupies a recognizable yet uncontroversial position in popular culture.

Why sailors?

Sailors were a distinct contemporary subculture with their own unique way of living, behaving, and dressing. Their flamboyancy and romance attracted interest from authors and artists, meaning we have a relatively strong visual and archival record which allows productive research. Sailors also played a key role in the  imperial rivalry between France and Britain, a decades-long economic and military contest which defined 18th century European politics and ultimately shaped world history.


Conrad Lotter (publisher), ‘Tableau de tous les pavillons qu l’on arbore sur les vaisseaux dans les quatre parties du monde’, 1781 [Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection] [see original]

Why clothing?

Everyone wears it! Clothing is both a fascinating measure of social values and practice, but also a fun, *human* way to teach history. By looking at the clothing sailors wore historically, we can also draw analogies with modern dress, and learn a great deal about their lingering influence on fashion today.


What will I be doing in coming weeks?

-living history outreach volunteering with the Scottish Fisheries Museum [website here]] on the dress and work of Georgian period fishermen in coastal Fife’s ‘East Neuk’

-preparing, sourcing materials, and rehearsing a play “Are you a pirate?!”; (or, my adventures as an 18th century sailor)“, to be performed in late semester 2 via the St Andrews University theater group ‘Mermaids’ [see Mermaids here]

-dramatic talk at Museum of the University of St Andrews on November 17th (5:30 pm) [see Facebook event here]

-ongoing archival research… (stay tuned for postings on what I’ve found recently!)


But also, what questions would you like addressed, what topics would you like to read about?! Comment here, on Facebook (Adam HL), or email me as appropriate ( – I’d love your input on this subject that I’m truly passionate about!


*NB: The use of the gendered pronoun ‘seamen/men’ is intentional here; while womens’ onshore work in all manner of maritime work was critical (for instance, fishwives’ central roles in rural fishing communities), they were almost never actively employed on military or civilian ships at sea (with a few remarkable exceptions of cross-dressing). While this author lacks the expertise or time to comment on female nautical fashion, ideally other contributors may help to address this short-coming in the future…