Friday, December 2, 2011

Experimental Helmet Looks More Like Star Wars than WWI

WWI Model 8 steel helmet with visor
in the collection of Peter Suciu.
When I saw a picture of this helmet, I immediately thought of Star Wars rather than World War I but when I read the article I discovered this helmet was one of dozens of steel helmets that were tested for the U. S. military in World War I.

"The Ford Motor Company began production of the Model 8 in November 1918, completing about 1,300 helmets. It featured a three-pad liner system similar to the one found in the Model 2. The benefits of this helmet were that with the visor down it does protect the face almost entirely, while the slits would provide reasonable field of view. Arriving just as the Armistice was signed, the Model 8 never saw combat service in France." - American military helmets of WWI, Military Trader, November 30, 2011
Major Bashford Dean, the father of the 
American steel helmet.  Photo by Chris 

 One of the key designers behind these experimental helmets was actually a zoologist, Dr. Bashford Dean who also had an interest in arms and armor. His expertise in medieval arms and armor led to his appointment as curator of the arms and armor collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I have had the privilege of photographing the arms and armor collection at the Met and it is one of the most spectacular collections of armor I have ever seen although the collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Tower of London are impressive as well. One day I hope to return to England and photograph the arms and armor collection at Leeds (I'm especially interested in the Mughal elephant armor!) and the Imperial War Museum in London too.

I highly recommend the article referenced and linked above.  It is not only comprehensive but includes more illustrations of other experimental helmets developed during the early 20th century.  Mr. Suciu also has two other websites: and
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Monday, October 3, 2011

Heritage Center's Civil War Collections to open in Philadelphia October 15

The Union League building on S. Broad St. in C...Image via Wikipedia
The Sir John Templeton Heritage Center, an 8,500-square-foot facility off of Broad Street in Philadelphia, will open its prestigious collections of Civil War books and period manuscripts to the public on October 15.

"The Heritage Center will be presenting a series of five rotating exhibits which will focus on the Philadelphia home front in the Civil War. The first, on display now, is Philadelphia 1861: The Coming Storm. Its focus is the city on the brink of war and during the months immediately following the attack on Fort Sumter. The exhibit’s main storylines are: the election of 1860; the divisions among Philadelphians, supporters of the Union, and Southern sympathizers; Lincoln’s visit to Philadelphia on February 22, 1861; and the city’s response to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. The exhibit will continue through December 2011." - The Heritage Center
The Heritage Center is also home to the Union League of Philadelphia’s three charitable foundations: Youth Work, Scholarship, and Abraham Lincoln.  These organizations, supported by League members, serve the community by educating the public about our nation’s history, recognizing student role models in the region’s high schools, and providing scholarships to deserving students.

The Heritage Center will be open to the public, free of charge, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 3:00- 6:00PM and the second Saturday of each month from 1:00-4:00PM.
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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Last WWII Battleship USS Iowa to become museum in Los Angeles

When the USS Missouri stopped in Astoria, Oregon before leaving for its permanent home in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, I was able to walk around her decks and peer amazed at her behemoth guns.  Now I see that the last WWII battleship, the USS Iowa, will make its way to Los Angeles where it, too, will become a museum and memorial.

USS Iowa (BB-61) fires a full broadside of her nine 16"/50 and six 5"/38 guns
 during a target exercise near 
Vieques IslandPuerto Rico (21°N 65°W
Note concussion effects on the water surface, and 16-inch gun barrels in varying
 degrees of recoil.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The USS Iowa — the last surviving World War II battleship without a home — will head to the Port of Los Angeles to stand as a permanent museum and memorial to battleships, the Navy said Sept. 6.

 The 45,000-ton ship, which towers 15 stories above the water line, engaged in battles in the Pacific theater during World War II and entered Tokyo Bay with the occupation forces in 1945 where it served as Admiral William F. Halsey’s flagship for the surrender ceremony. The battleship later served off Korea’s eastern shores during that conflict.
 In 1989, the USS Iowa suffered one of the nation’s deadliest military accidents after 47 sailors were killed in an explosion during a training exercise. Before being decommissioned in 1990, it served as an escort for oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
The Iowa was towed to San Francisco from Rhode Island in 2001, after Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California helped secure $3 million to bring it to San Francisco in hopes of making it a tourist attraction at Fisherman’s Wharf. - More:
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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Shelby Foote's research collections to be digitized by Rhodes College

North Carolina Monument at Gettysburg National...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
The North Carolina Monument at
Gettysburg National Battlefield
I recently received information that Rhodes College has acquired the 2,350-volume book collection, 
personal papers and diaries, handwritten book drafts and maps, and memorabilia of famed novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Dade Foote Jr. (1916-2005).

Shelby Foote was born in GreenvilleMiss., in 1916 and was raised by his mother after his father died. An only child, Foote took an interest in reading. When he was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he contributed fiction pieces to the school’s literary journal. After serving in the Army in World War II, he held various jobs, including a stint as a reporter. Foote's first novel, Tournament, was published in 1949, and works that followed include Follow Me Down,  Love in a Dry Season, ShilohJordan County: A Landscape in Narrative and  September, September, which is set during the 1957 integration of Little Rock's Central High School. In 1951, what began as a Random House proposal for a short account of the Civil War turned into the more than a million and a half words of The Civil War: A Narrative that took Foote 20 years to write and carries readers from Fort Sumter to Appomatox.
In the late 1980s, writer Robert Penn Warren recommended Foote to filmmaker Ken Burns who was planning his television documentary on the war. Burns and crew interviewed Foote, and after the 11-hour series aired on PBS in 1990, Foote gained national celebrity.

As one YouTube viewer noted, it's just a pleasure to listen to this wonderful historian.

Some of the materials included in this priceless legacy include:
Shelby Foote’s Personal Library
The book collection, which includes approximately 2,350 volumes, is made up mostly of works of classic literature—everything from Greek tragedies to contemporary Southern writers—as well as works of literary interpretation, American history (particularly the history of the South and Civil War) and European history. Of particular note are the rare, signed and/or inscribed first-edition novels by Shelby Foote, William Faulkner, Walker Percy and Eudora Welty.

Shelby Foote’s Personal Papers
The papers include handwritten and typed drafts and notes for Foote’s novels, essays, short stories, screenplays, speeches, lectures and his most famous work, The Civil War: A Narrative. Correspondents include friends, associates and family members. Letters from presidents, U.S. senators, governors and other leading figures (Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Allen Tate, Willie Morris, David McCullough and Ken Burns, among others) are also included. There are decades of personal diaries, memo books and calendars, along with a large collection of hand-drawn maps, photographs, magazines and other memorabilia.

Shelby Foote’s Personal Artifacts
Among the personal artifacts is a large collection of classical music (scores, LP records, cassettes and compact discs), as well as various military artifacts, sculptures, figurines, drawings, prints and posters. Also included are numerous awards and plaques that Shelby Foote received throughout his lifetime.
The Shelby Foote Collection will be housed in the 136,000-square-foot Paul Barret, Jr. Library on the Rhodes College campus.  I understand a number of items will be digitized and made available online as well!

The Civil War: A Narrative--Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1   The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian   The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3 Red River to Appomattox   The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Frock coats: Style or practicality of 19th century U.S. Army?

A history resource article by originally written in 2011 but totally rewritten in 2013.

19th century Union frock coat once worn by
George Armstrong Custer
.  Photographed at
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Visitors' Center, Crow Agency, Montana
Back in Feb 19, 2011, I posted a notice of an auction that offered a selection of military outerwear including a circa-1860 U.S. New York Regiment militia frock coat, enlisted man's gray with seven large New York state buttons down the front; a New York State 71st Regiment swallow-tailed full-dress dark blue jacket with a row of nine eagle buttons down the front; and a U.S. Louisville Legion-style wool frock coat, dark blue, with five Ohio buttons.  Auction notices have such a short shelf life that I probably shouldn't have created a blog post for that.  But, before deleting my original post, I thought about the variety of frock coats that had been sold and wondered about military decisions around uniform style during this period. So I decided to rewrite this post to provide some historical background on the military frock coat worn by officers in the 19th century and why this unform change was ultimately adopted.

"The first military frock coats were issued late in the Napoleonic Wars to French line infantry and Prussian Landwehr troops. Unwilling to soil the expensive tail coats on campaign, the French adopted a loose fitting single-breasted coat with contrasting collar and cuffs. The Germans, having been devastated by years of war, were unable to afford elaborate uniforms like the British line infantry and chose a peaked cap and double-breasted blue coat, again with contrasting collar and cuffs, as these were cheaper to produce for the large numbers of recruits, smart enough for full dress, and more practical for campaigns." Wikipedia

So, the Wikipedia article points first to an unwillingness by the fastidious French to soil their tail coats as the reason for the adoption of the frock coat during the Napoleonic Wars.  Then it says the Germans followed suit because the frock coat was cheaper to produce in large numbers.

And I actually thought it was just a matter of staying in fashion with the civilian population!  So, thinking like the old budget officer I used to be, I had to find out whether such military decisions were actually a matter of style or practicality!  

First I had to back up a bit and look at the evolution of uniforms during this "revolutionary" period. Backing up to the colonial period, we find European armies wearing a justacorps-style coat.  The justacorps coat was a long knee-length coat introduced by the French in the late 17th century and worn throughout the 18th century.
Justacorps military coats worn during the 18th century.
Photograph courtesy of   via Wikimedia Commons

 The justacorps featured a generous skirt. So economy of fabric could have been an issue if uniforms had evolved directly from the justacorps coat to the frock coat but that was not the case. During the Napoleonic Wars, a tight-fitting tailed coat was introduced, hence the reference to the French not wanting to soil their tailed coats.  The Americans followed suit during the War of 1812, introducing what was termed a coatee or shell jacket.  But here's where there appears to be a bit of confusion over the definition of a frock coat, despite the Wikpedia article's excellent references. 

"By the 1840s frock coats were regulation for the American, Prussian, Russian and French armies, although the British did not adopt them until after the Indian MutinyUS army officers were first issued navy blue frocks during the Mexican War with gold epaulets and peaked caps of the German pattern. Enlisted USMC personnel received a double breasted version with red piping worn with a leather stock and shako to reflect their status as an elite unit, although infantry soldiers continued to be issued the 1833 pattern shell jacket until the M1858 uniform, complete with French style kepi, entered service shortly before the US Civil War." - Wikipedia
Image of 19th century coatee courtesy of the
According to the U.S. Army's own "Survey of Uniforms, Weapons, and Accoutrements", the uniform of the United States Army featured the short-tailed tight-fitting coatee until it was replaced by the frock coat in 1851.  These regulations were further reinforced in 1858 and 1860, establishing the frock coat as the regulation attire for Union soldiers.
"The regulations of 1858 and 1860 establish the uniform that defined the Union soldier in the American Civil War. The Army Hat in black felt with appropriate branch insignia; the frock coat with branch piping for foot troops, uniform jackets with branch colored lace for mounted troops, and sky-blue trousers." -  David Cole, Survey of U. S. Army Uniforms, Weapons, and Accoutrements.
So, getting back to the statement that frock coats were more economical, the amount of fabric does not appear to be the crux of the decision.  The coatee would have used less overall fabric than a frock coat.  But perhaps the expense of tailoring such a close-fitting uniform coupled with the body restriction and logistics of supplying large numbers in a variety of sizes offset fabric savings, especially since the cost of fabric dropped dramatically after the invention of the power loom by Edmund Cartwright in 1785 and its widespread adoption by the 1830s.  
But the frock coat was not without its detractors.  Shortly after the Civil War, Assistant Surgeon Alfred Woodhull conducted a study of army clothing with an eye to what improvements could be made to enhance the health and well being of each soldier.  Woodhull recommended a "Swiss blouse", a coat with four pleats running full length down the front of the coat to accomodate up to three wool shirts and a waistcoat in cold weather without hampering the freedom of movement.
But, alas, although this concept of layering was quite revolutionary, the coat was almost universally despised, especially by soldiers in the west. 
"The new uniform had not even been fully fielded before the Army began to make changes. Issue of the pleated blouse was stopped and the pattern 1874 sack coat was issued in its place. The new coat single breasted with five brass buttons in front and one on each cuff; it was made of dark blue wool with branch colored piping on each cuff and on the edge of the fall collar. 
The new coat was well received, but a new difficulty arose. On June 16, 1874 Congress, upon hearing that the Army was selling large quantities of surplus material, passed legislation that prohibited the expenditure of  appropriated money to purchase “hats, uniform caps, forage caps, uniform coats, uniform jackets, sack coats, and unlined coats…until those on hand known as the old pattern… were exhausted.” -  David Cole, Survey of U. S. Army Uniforms, Weapons, and Accoutrements.
So, it looks like uniform regulation was not a definitive decision based on style or practicality but a pendulum that swung periodically somewhere between the two with Congress stepping in from time to time when Washington watchdogs wanted to use government funding for something else.
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