USS Monitor pea coat: the cell phone of 1862

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Dear Readers:

We have meant to update you about the pilot coat in the Monitor’s collection for a couple months now… So… here it is: THE USS MONITOR WOOL COAT IS ON DISPLAY!!!

Please come and see it, it looks gorgeous in the captain’s quarters of the Ironclad Revolution exhibit! Only half of it is on display at a time though, don’t be surprised if it does not quite look like… a coat. The fact is that the nice, fine wool constituting the fabric is still very fragile today; and its worst enemies are humidity and temperature variations as well as light. As a result, in order to protect it from degrading further (or too fast), we are only showing one half of the coat at a time. The other half will be displayed next year, while the half currently on exhibit will get some rest from the display light for one year, and so on. Around it, a most beautiful microclimate case has been custom made by our very own Exhibit Design team. This allows for humidity control as well as restricted light exposure. All this would not have been possible without the most generous contribution from The Bronze Door Society (BDS). We are so lucky and thankful to have their support!!!

In addition to providing the funds for the display case, the BDS allowed us to contract the mounting of the main coat fragments on museum grade backing materials and exhibit supports. This part of the conservation process was performed by two textile conservators, Colleen Callahan and Newbie Richardson, from the Costume and Textile Specialists in Richmond; and they did an outstanding job!!

A couple weeks ago, we were thrilled to welcome back Colleen for a short visit. Colleen had not seen the coat on display yet and was delighted to have the opportunity do so! She also took the time to make a couple measurements of the garment in order to assess the size of its owner (see picture below). What we learned from these measurements is the following: allowing for the fact that the wearer would have his uniform under the coat, his chest would probably be about 42 to 44 inches.  Therefore the coat was meant to fit someone with that chest measurement range.  This type of coat was meant to be about mid-thigh in length and based on the 28 inches it measured under the arm, the height estimate is 5’ 8”. In other words, we are looking for a crew member with a wrestler profile!

Colleen Callahan from The Costume and Textile Specialists taking measurements of the Monitor coat.

We have been trying to narrow down a possible owner for this garment but it is not an easy task. Also, a few elements mislead our reasoning at first. The wool grade for instance, which appears really thin to us in 2017 (merino type wool), was actually not particularly fancy in 1862. In fact much finer wool was used for upper classes (N. Richardson, verbal interview, 03/17/17). This piece of information, correlated to the fact that the coat had rubber buttons (as opposed to brass buttons), strongly suggests that this garment was worn by a petty officer or an enlisted man. However, the fineness of the wool made us believe at first that it could be an officer’s coat! Likewise, the pattern misled our reasoning at first: it is a hybrid between a frock coat in the back and a sack coat in the front. This mix of two patterns made us believe that it was tailor made. However, according to the textile specialists, this coat was most likely a prototype of what later became the classic navy pea coat. Fashion in the making… but it was not meant for the upper classes, and it was not tailor made! Newbie compared it to the equivalent of a cell phone today. It is top notch technology, but most people carry it and it is not exclusive to the elite.

Another lead that we came across, is that the coat could have been one of several on board that were to be used by whomever needed a temporary foul weather garment (A. Mordica, Tidewater Maritime Living History Association, verbal interview, 03/11/17). In other words, it could have been “everyone’s coat”, cut a little large to fit most men onboard…

That being said, Hannah started narrowing down a possible owner among the crew according to their height and rank. Considering a height of 5’8” +/- 2inches and excluding officers, 19 crew members could have owned this coat. Now, if we rule out the crew members that were in the engine room during the sinking of the ship (why wear a wool coat while working in the warmest, wettest room?), we are down to 11 crew members… suspense! We can almost narrow down our search to 2 crew members but we need more information. We will keep searching among our many other endeavors, and we will keep you posted.

Now come and see this incredible piece, the most relatable of Monitor’s history, it’s a humbling experience.

4 thoughts on “USS Monitor pea coat: the cell phone of 1862”

  1. Elsa, you should be very proud of your work. I know we all are so impressed. I remember when you started with a pile of tangled, muddy, rusty material, and look at what we have now because of your hours of tedious, careful work – Thank you. Is there a photo of it on display? I did not see one. I’ll bet they don’t, but it would be very nice if they have a photo of what you started with also in the display so people can appreciate the conservation work that was done. I can’t wait to see it in person.

    1. Fran,
      I am sooo thrilled that this piece can finally be enjoyed by the public! It truly is of of the most poignant objects of the collection. I am very proud but know that it was an incredible team effort. Everyone here was directly or indirectly involved with putting the coat on display. I am also so glad that the many cleaning and drying tests we did paid off. The wool really still feels like wool.
      A “before treatment” picture is not part of the exhibit yet, but I agree it should be and hopefully will be soon.
      Looking forward to seeing you next time you have a chance to visit.
      As always, thank you for your support!!

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