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On the Button: The Crackerjacks' History Isn't Just a Sea Story

Concern has echoed throughout the male ranks of the fleet. It's not concern for their pay they voice, nor complaints of the demanding work load they endure. These guardians of the seas feel threatened by a rumored change in Navy policy - a change that would strike them "below the belt." It's a change of enormous consequence to these members of a Navy associated with hundreds of years of tradition, symbolism and legend. This is a fearful removal of the one thing that supports these seamen and petty officers in their daily mission as members of the world's finest Navy.

These men in blue vocalize distress over the button shortage. Not just any button, mind you - the Navy button. That small, black, anchor-imprinted jewel which, along with 12 of its cousins, comprise the only means used to anchor the lower half of the world's most widely-recognized uniform, the "crackerjacks." This shortage can only mean on thing, according to rumor control - there is a move afoot to install zippers.

Gad! Why all this brouhaha over a button? To a "landlubber" this may appear trivial, but these "salts" depend on this opaque fastener to display a uniform that today contains countless symbols of tradition and American naval history. If the zipper lobby in Washington is successful, it will strip thousands of seamen and petty officers of one of the most priceless articles of Navy lore. This must stop!

Think of what this could do to the American button industry, not to mention those associated with the button - button-holers, button artists, button tailors, etc. - and not to mention Aunt Ruth's button box that's already overflowing with these outdated closure devices. Yes, Navy buttons have held the fleet together for nearly two centuries, while promoting jobs and the economy. And after the button, what goes next? Just look back at what happened before the button to see what an instrumental affect it's had on U.S. maritime security.

In 1817, after 42 years of confusion over enlisted men's attire, the War Department finally dared to enforce a uniform regulation for its rag-clad naval force, demanding that enlisted men wear "blue jackets and trousers, red vest with yellow buttons and a black hat." The War Department neglected to mention shoes, and a largely barefoot and blister-filled enlisted force patrolled the world's oceans until the grandfather of crackerjacks was name the official uniform in 1864.

This uniform is considered the world's most recognized as a symbol of America's strength, good will and dedication to freedom, according to Marine Corps Col. Robert H. Rankin in his book Uniforms of the Sea Services. This popularity has raised questions over the years as to the origins of the crackerjack's design. Many interpretations of each facet of this uniform have been rendered by salts over the years. The buttons are probably the most talked about and revered aspect of naval garb for the past five or six wars.

Buttons swiftly replaced the previous trouser's string tie, apparently after years of barefoot sailors hanging themselves - or their friends - in frustration after trying to keep their pants up. Then, in 1864, crackerjack trousers were designed with a "broadfall," or flap, held in place by seven of these easily replaced fasteners. After a slight length increase of the broadfall in 1894 - possibly linked to the average sailor's weight - six buttons were added for symmetrical design and to prevent an unwanted unveiling of the wearer.

Members of the Navy since 1894 have capitalized on numerous explanations for the coincidental number of buttons on the broadfall, the only publishable one being that they represent the original 13 colonies of America defended so efficiently by the Continental Navy. This romantic notion is widely accepted by seagoers, and rebuttal may be swiftly greeted by either heated debate or a knuckle sandwich. The best yarn spinners strengthen their case by pointing out that uniform designers hid the 14th button (known as the stealth button) behind the broadfall so the button-colony connections would still be supported - not to mention their trousers.

Ah, but frustration still ran throughout the now-buttoned-up fleet, as buttons couldn't do the whole job, apparently. So, in memory of those valiant barefoot mariners who had hung themselves two paragraphs ago, a string tie was added in the back. This would effectively cinch the wearer's waist inside a woolen vise, while enhancing physical flexibility and coordination as sailors attempted tightening this shoe-like rearward device without tying their hands behind their backs. Now, really, how can you spin a yarn about a zipper?

Button lore is only one aspect of Navy uniform mystique. The mystery of the bell-bottom trousers is explained by Rankin as merely a design used by Navy tailors in the 1800s to set Navy attire apart from civilian styles prior to introduction of actual uniform regulations. These tailors unknowingly provided a great service with this design, which mariners claim was invented to keep the trousers' legs dry after they were rolled up above the knees during shipboard duties.

A great safety element emerged when it was discovered a water-soaked sailor who happened to find himself no longer aboard could easily remove the 20 to 30 pounds of saturated wool without removing his now-standard shoes, which he would desperately need to protect his feet if he avoided becoming shark bait and made landfall.

The three strands of pristine piping around the cuffs and collar of the uniform's top, or jumper, were added in 1866 as the first clear designation of an enlisted man's rank. Until then, piping was used to break up the color of the uniform, along with stars and other assorted accoutrements. When an 1841 regulation instituted an eagle atop an anchor to designate petty officers, the piping custom continued until the Navy decided to let it add to rank designations. Three strands represented petty officers and senior seamen, and two for second class seamen and firemen. A single strand was used to identify a seaman or fireman third class or coal-heaver (not a very popular rating). The three strands were retained by the Navy when the display of rank went to the upper left arm.

Today the most imaginative of sailors can describe this piping as representative of the three major victories of either John Paul Jones or Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, depending on which sea dog you happen to ask.

Now, I'm sure you've heard that the black neckerchief is a symbol of mourning for Admiral Lord Nelson, Britain's greatest admiral who died at Trafalgar after defeating the French and Spanish fleets in 1805. Good story, but neckerchiefs were around long before Nelson as a bandanna to guard against the scorching sun at sea. The silk neckerchief, with Navy-issue square knot, crept into the uniform as early as 1817.

Even today, many sailors use a coin placed in the center of the square cloth to keep its shape rounded as they meticulously roll it prior to tying. The use of this coin has generated a mystical tale stemming from the ancient Roman practice of placing a coin beneath the masts during shipbuilding. This coin would buy Roman sailors passage from the mythological "ferryman" across the river Styx, between the world of the living and the dead, in case they perished at sea. Referencing this fable, a few salts remark that they're prepared to pay the price, patting the backs of their necks where their toll is snugly hidden.

The one aspect of the crackerjacks that has not been dashed as a yarn is the collar flap. The collar of the jumper was extended to a nine-inch flap in the late 1800s, replacing the previous wide collar to which a flap was fastened by, guess what? - buttons.

This signifies a tradition held over from the days of tall ships, before the Navy employed haircut regulations. Linehandlers would pull their hair back in ponytail fashion and then apply a tarry substance to prevent any strands from flying loose and becoming entangled or ripped out during the complicated and dangerous linehandling maneuvers that kept their ship at full sail. The flap would attach to the collar, thus keeping the mass of tar and hair away from the sailor's uniform. It also protected his girlfriend's furniture by careful placement of the flap over the back of the couch or chair between hair and upholstery. When the flap became a permanent fixture on the collar, the neckerchief came in handy to keep the uniform, and the furniture, tar-free.

Finally, the dixie cup. No, King George or Harry did not wake up one day and issue an edict, "let all Navy enlisted men don a cap that can double as a royal frisbee." Though the gliding properties of a properly rolled dixie cup startle even NASA scientists, this is not how the white hat evolved. In fact, the whole process was not at all entertaining - it makes too much sense.

Remember the "black hat" from 1817 regulation? Well, stovepipe hats were pretty popular early on but tended to fall off a lot, not to mention the cracking and crunching they took when sailors tried to stow them. A smaller version with a full bill followed, but material for its production was expensive, and the bills tended to droop in warm climates. A thick blue visorless hat with an optional white cover, complete with a hat ribbon sporting unit identification was tried and later dropped for a straw hat, which didn't glide at all.

With all this cover confusion, the easiest way to make a hat was to use the most-available resource - sailcloth, or canvas. Canvas flat hats replaced the black, blue and straw headgear and eventually were mass-produced and reinforced into today's form. Naval lore-ists focus on the white hat's bailing properties, but that dixie cup theory doesn't hold water unless it's during a dire emergency.

These few examples provide a glimpse of the many aspects of the traditions of the Navy, adding to the romance of the sea and a sailor's pride in his uniform and service. BM1(SW/AW/SS) Sal T. Dog (hey, that's with two g's, bub), a former coal-heaver aboard a prototype submarine that never quite made it into the fleet, has spun his share of these tales during his Navy career.

Dogg is well aware of the symbolic impact the crackerjacks have had all over the world. He remembers how the uniform still had magnetism even during and after the Vietnam War, a period of low regard for the military.

"That uniform has always been a great drawing card," Dogg yelped between sips of muddy coffee spiked with diesel fuel. He became more aware of the impact as the recruiter from 1979 to 1981, when the crackerjacks returned following a six-year absence.

While in that position he noticed how the slogan, "It's not just a job, It's an adventure," created the romantic image that drew thousands to recruiting offices in his area. He also felt that the mystique created by the uniform was, and still is, a powerful recruiting tool.

Dogg regards the crackerjacks as the best uniform the Navy has had because of its convenience. The Navy, under Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) ADM Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., changed its enlisted uniform design to a suit-and-tie look in the early '70s. This change was Zumwalt's idea to unite a fleet riddled with retention problems under the slogan "One Navy, one uniform."

After having to bear the expense of the change, Dogg and his shipmates found it extremely difficult to stow the uniforms aboard ship, must less tote the heavier seabag. Many sailors tried in vain to add the revamped uniforms to their already-stuffed shipboard lockers. The most inconvenient was the ill-fated combination cap. Not only did it perform poorly as a frisbee, its height just exceeded the depth of shipboard bunk lockers, causing a curious compression effect throughout the seagoing fleet. The crackerjacks were perfect for stowing in the cramped storage space provided each seafarer.

After years of lamenting from the now-dented enlisted ranks, CNO ADM Thomas B. Hayward recommended the return of the crackerjacks in 1979. This was part of his commitment to increase the attractiveness of a Navy career and promote "pride in professionalism." Thus followed the return to the crackerjacks, and a resurrection of much-missed Navy lore.

Sure, there are other facets of the Navy's uniforms that echo from storytellers - the history of officer uniforms, and of course, the evolution of the women's uniforms since the 1917 introduction of the Yeomanettes - but these were more or less modeled to reflect status, in the officers' case, or parallel women's civilian dress. None of these compare to the yarns spun throughout naval history about the crackerjacks - the one distinctly nautical uniform - and the buttons that keep them all together.

With the button brouhaha explained, and the secret tales of the Navy's best-recognized symbol exposed, maybe you'll feel moved and join the cause to avert this rumored transition to zippers. Warning: This priceless knowledge of Navy lore may cause you uncomfortable confrontation. Just smile when the yarn is spun, and the tradition will happily carry on.

A consoling thought for those nautical navigators who are frustrated with the time consumed by their 13 anchors … try replacing a zipper at sea.

Editor's note: All Hands has it on good authority that there is in fact no zipper lobby, nor any effort being made to replace the crackerjack's traditional 13-button broadfall.

Source: Bartlett, Joe. "On the Button: The Crackerjacks' History Isn't Just a Sea Story." All Hands. 903 (June 1992): 12-15.


Needed: A 5-Button Tradition

Tradition will take an awful beating if they Navy adopts a new uniform. But, then, there is always the possibility that new legends will spring up.

Tradition says that the present black neckerchief is a hand-me-down from the British Navy, which adopted it as a symbol of mourning for Admiral Nelson. In the new uniform, it would be replaced by a black necktie, which someone in the year 2046 probably will describe as a symbol of mourning for yeomen and storekeepers with 32 points.

Legend - of extremely doubtful authenticity - says the three white stripes on the present dress jumper represent Admiral Nelson's three great battles - Trafalgar, Copenhagen, and The Nile. Someone may well decide 100 years from now that the Navy eliminated the stripes because it figured Admiral Nelson couldn't possibly have won those battles because he didn't have any carrier air support.

Those 13 buttons are supposed to represent the 13 original colonies. (A sailor from Utah once complained that he wasn't represented.) What will be said of the significance of the five buttons which are placed just as strategically, and more conveniently, on the new uniform? The five states Texas is big enough to cut into - Five Graves to Cairo? Or Mr. Five by Five?

And what's to happen to that song about Bell Bottom Trousers? Can you image singing it to lyrics bowdlerized to fit the facts? For example:

"Trousers with hip pockets,
"Battle jacket blue,
"He'll scan the radar
"Like his daddy used to do."

Source: "Needed: A 5-Button Tradition." All Hands. 347 (February 1946): 9.

Published: Wed Jan 11 15:42:07 EST 2017