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SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer

December 05, 2014

Material Culture at Sea

Tyler Putman, B Watch, Maritime Voyager

Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean

Four veterans of the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer under her full complement of sails, December 5, 2014.

Noon Position (Lat and Long)
15°34.1’N x 51°47.2’W

Description of location
NEC Transition Zone

Ship Heading (degrees)

Ship Speed (knots)

Taffrail Log (nm)

Weather / Wind / Sail Plan (from 1300 Watch Change)
Partially cloudy; wind from S; a brief moment where we had all nine sails set.

Marine Debris Observed last 24hrs (estimate of totals)

Sargassum Observed last 24hrs (estimate of totals)
Regular clumps and a substantial Neuston Tow haul.

Who knew studying material culture could lead to such adventures? I’m a PhD student in the History of American Civilization Program in the Department of History at the University of Delaware, and I’m aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer as a Maritime Voyager. As a material culture historian, I study the things made and used by humans and the culture behind commonplace and unusual objects. Americans wore different sorts of clothing at different points in our history. They lived in different sorts of houses. They ate off different sorts of dishes. Their material worlds distinguished them from other Americans of different races, classes, ethnicities, and genders. Just like us, they bought and used things that spoke volumes about their values, lifestyles, and culture. Looking at material culture is one way to understand these components of the American past.

Historians, material culture specialists and otherwise, usually spend their days in more or less comfortable archives, combing through historical documents for traces of the past. If we’re lucky, maybe we get to speak at a conference somewhere exotic or our research takes us to foreign archives. So what am I doing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, far from any archive, aboard the Cramer?

Much as the Cramer is a floating laboratory for our scientists, it can be also a space for experimentation and observation for a historian. Much has changed since sailing ships dominated global commerce and transport, but there are also continuities between historical experiences and life at sea today. Let me give you a few examples.

One facet of my own research is how Americans used clothing in the past to express things about themselves and their communities. In the eighteenth-century, for instance, sailors wore “slops,” ready-made garments bought for cheap in port cities. You might expect this clothing to be plain and drab, but instead it often included vivid checks and stripes. Certain garments and patterns became associated with sailors in the public eye. I’ve been thinking a lot about clothing aboard the Cramer and watching how both veteran and novice crewmembers dress. When our three faculty members arrived in the airport in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, they were dressed casually. They got into a taxi to head to the ship, the driver turned around, looked them over, and before they could say anything, asked if they were heading to the marina. Many people in port cities still know how to recognize sailors.

Walking style also gave away sailors in early American port cities. We learn to hold our bodies in certain ways to suit our culture and our environment, making posture and gestures a sort of material culture. Once aboard the Cramer, it was easy for me to recognize why sailors have long been known for their distinct, bow-legged, rolling walk. As soon as you put to sea on a sailing ship, you literally feel why sailors walked the way they did. It’s impossible to stay on your feet on the deck unless you lower your center of gravity slightly, bend your legs as the ship rolls, and bob around as needed.

The Cramer, like historical ships, has to be temporarily self-sustaining. That means we carry tools, supplies, and knowledge to repair any number of problems that might arise with our rigging, our plumbing, our electricity, our paint, our wood, our steel, and ourselves. Sailors today and in the past must by necessity be jacks of many trades, capable of caring for their ship and entertaining themselves in spare moments, and so we carry rope, saws, paint, food, medical equipment, books, musical instruments, costumes, towels, and much more. Moreover, I’ve been impressed by the expansive knowledge of the physical world demonstrated by the Cramer’s professional crew. Today and in the past, sailors must be able to interpret the waves, the clouds, and the stars with equal fluency.

As the variety of our supplies indicates, much has changed in the history of life aboard sailing ships. My own experience aboard the Cramer is quite distinct from that of novice sailors in 1775 or 1875. But I believe that there is still much to be learned about history by experiencing something like what people in the past experienced. I can think of few better laboratories for that sort of historical study than a sailing ship such as the Cramer. As I write this, we are cruising west into the sunset under our full complement of sails. And that’s quite a fine place for a historian.

- Tyler

Shoutouts to my family and especially to Nicole! I miss you and think of you all the time.

Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean
Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean

[Maritime Studies Professor Addendum: In addition to expressing just how much I agree with Tyler’s comments regarding the value of spending time at sea for social scientists (or more simply put: “Yeah, what Tyler said.”), I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of two archivists ashore who helped our students gain an appreciation for traditional archival work. Susan Danforth, Curator of Maps and Prints at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island; and Diane Rielinger, Director of Library Services and Rare Books at the Marine Biological Laboratory Library in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who introduced our students to the scientific, cultural, and in many instances the economic, value of historic documents. 

The top photo is a rare 17th century illustration depicting Montserrat Island in the Caribbean from the John Carter Brown Library. At bottom, C-256 students explore the many historical documents housed in the John Carter Brown Library during one of the on-shore field trips prior to the transatlantic voyage.

These documents and other archival items included such rare items as Peter Apian’s Almanach Perpetuum, Benjamin Franklin’s Course of the Gulf Stream, an early print of A diagram of the slave ship Brooks, logbooks of the HMS Challenger Voyage, logbooks of the voyage of Alexander von Humboldt and a selection of Leuckart’s taxonomic illustrations.  Our students had an opportunity to work with these documents/images in a traditional academic setting, and they are using the knowledge they gained in his way to inform their experiences both on the ship and during our port stops. Thank you, Susan and Diane, for helping us prepare the students for the experiential learning portion of this SEA Semester!]

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#1. Posted by Nicole on December 08, 2014

Hi, Tyler (and all)! *vigorous wave* I miss you too. Nice post on material culture!



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