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]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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;
- 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.]
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)‘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). 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.
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.