The Crackerjack: The History of the Navy's Enlisted Dress Uniform
A few days ago I saw a couple of my coworkers were carrying a batch of newly sewn U.S. Navy “Crackerjack” jumpers from the factory floor to our storage area. I walked down the aisle containing our U.S. Navy uniforms, past the uniform devices, bell-bottoms, neckerchiefs, and finally to the slot labeled U.S. Navy Enlisted Dress Blue Uniform—the formal but less frequently used name for the Crackerjack.
As I packed in the last of the jumpers, I couldn’t help but think about how unique Navy uniforms are. Sure, the Air Force, Marines, and Army have distinct uniforms, but for the most part they fit a similar profile. But white bell-bottoms and neckerchiefs? How did they become a part of the Navy’s uniforms? What’s their history? I decided to find out.
Cracker Jack and the 13 Colonies
I learned from a friend, correctly, that Crackerjacks got their name from the snack food that features a sailor on the box. (The swabbie on the front is Jack; his dog is Bingo, and the crunchy treat has been around for over 120 years). The same buddy of mine, who happens to be a Navy veteran, also told me that the 13 buttons on the bell-bottom trousers represented the original 13 colonies.
Hmm...13 buttons for the 13 colonies? It seemed a little far-fetched to me.
So I did a little research. According to the Navy, the original Crackerjack trousers came with seven buttons on the front flap, known as a “broadfall.” Later on, the Navy increased the size of the broadfall (please, no jokes about why they needed a bigger crotch area). As a result, they added six more buttons. So the reason for 13 buttons probably had a lot more to do with achieving a symmetrical look rather than paying subtle homage to the original 13 colonies...or so goes the official Navy line. Still, sailors themselves have latched onto the story and are sticking to it, so much so that a considerable amount of alarm was raised in 1992 when rumors of a "button shortage" led to speculation--—and subsequent indignation--—that the patriotic 13-button design would be replaced with a mundane zipper.
Fashion or Function?
Most of us associate bell-bottoms with the hippie movement of the late 1960s (and, unfortunately in the eyes of some fashionista, the 1970s too). But the U.S. Navy introduced bell-bottoms much earlier. You might even say they were a fashion trendsetter. Crackerjacks made their debut in the early 19th century as part of an effort to develop uniformity within the enlisted ranks while creating a distinct appearance. Bell-bottoms are easily distinguishable. They stand out.
However, beyond their appearance, the new pants were easily rolled up, essential for deck washing. Also, bellb-ottom trousers were made of thick wool, which became very heavy if a sailor fell overboard. The bell-shaped bottom allowed for more expedient removal—after the unfortunate sailor had unfastened a lot of buttons, that is. Good thing these are now dress rather than working uniforms.
Moving Beyond Trousers
Like the trousers, much of the rest of the uniform’s evolution also had very practical origins. For example, the neckerchief served a dual function of cleaning rag and headband, helping to keep the uniform free of dirt during labor. According to the Navy, long hair was common among sailors in the 19th century, who would tie their hair in a ponytail and use a tar-like adhesive to keep it plastered down during labor. A sailor would tie the neckerchief around his head to prevent splatters of tar and sweat from getting on his uniform. Of course, this straightforward explanation doesn't make for very good conversation, so the legend arose that the black neckerchief was actually introduced as a symbol of mourning for Admiral Lord Nelson. Given the fract that Lord Nelson hailed from the nation which we fought against for our independence, this romantic notion stands in pretty stark contrast to the "13 colonies, 13 buttons" meme.
Unlike the rest of the uniform, the service hat, or “Dixie Cup,” has no such practical history. It seems to be an accident of fate, simply the most convenient selection after the Navy tried a series of different hats. Apparently, sail canvas made for excellent material, and the white Dixie Cup was born.
Wearing the Uniform
Military history fascinates me. Even in the hustle and bustle of a busy sewing room floor factory, I never forget the uniforms that are at the heart of my business. They are a constant reminder of who I’m really working for. So to all of you brave men and women who wear the uniform—I salute you.