Thursday, February 4, 2016

Filthy Sailors Make for Poor Shipmates: The US Navy and Personal Hygiene

By Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Sailors washing clothes on laundry day in the early 1900s. 
For those who have spent any time in the service, you most likely have had personal experience with or have heard about the "dirty shipmate," or one who seemed to think bathing was optional. To those without this experience, it may only seem like a minor inconvenience. However, in tight quarters aboard ship, nobody wants to deal with another person's lack of hygiene. The threat of spreading infectious disease related to poor hygiene is very real, not to mention the pungent aromatics. Sailors during the American Civil War had much the same experiences that still trouble our sailors today. How the crew of the USS Flambeau dealt with an "offending shipmate" may have been slightly different than in today's Navy.

*Note* For ease of reading, punctuation and grammar have been changed, but original spelling has been preserved.

From the diary of Walter Jones, USS Flambeau, off the coast of Florida or Georgia, September 15, 1863:
         One of our recruits don’t seem to realize that he must keep himself clean. In fact he is so lousey that the men sleeping next to him have made a complaint to Jimmy Leggs, who made an examination and found that not only his head was inhabeted[sic] but also his clothing. The matter was referred to the 1st Leut. who gave the order to have him scrubbed and his clothing thrown overboard. Accordingly the victim was taken to the lee scuppers where the ship’s barber cut his hair close to his head. He was ordered to remove all his clothing, which was thrown over the side. Next two [illegible] cooks armed with scrub brushes, soap, and sand under the direction of Jimmy Leggs proceeded as they said to give him a Russian Bath. And such a scrubbing as he received he will probabbally never forget. After Jimmy had pronounced him clean the head pump was [illegible] on him to rinse him off and his appearance was certainly improved. New clothing was given him for which he will be charged. After he had dressed he was given a lecture by Jimmy, telling him of the benefits of cleanliness, and also cautioning him to keep himself clean in the future, as the next time he would be Holy Stoned. It will be a long time if ever that he will have the respect of the ship’s Co. He will ever be known all out as the man that was scrubbed. Double fines, court martial, triceing up has not the terors[sic] to the average sailor that a scrubbing has.

Jones manuscript courtesy the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia.
*Special thanks to HRNM Educator Elijah Palmer for transcription assistance.


Jack T said...

The two words marked [illegible] are "Mess" and "turned."

Joseph M. said...

Thank you Jack T. for the transcription assistance. We just couldn't nail down those two words. You can take a turn at the entire diary if you like via the Mariners Museum through this web address: