Museum Mari-Time Capsule:

The "Sea Chest Program"

By John Townley

The variously-titled “Sailor’s Sea Chest Program” has become a staple among both in-house demonstrations/exhibits and portable outreach programs for maritime museums and historical associations across America. A quick Google search turns up at least a dozen at any moment, which currently includes: Texas Seaport Museum, St. Augustine Lighthouse Museum, Sea Education Association, Maine Maritime Museum, The Mariners’ Museum, Mystic Seaport Museum, San Diego Maritime Museum, U.S. Navy Museum, Columbia River Maritime Museum, New York State Historical Association, Mathews Maritime Museum, and the Cape Cod Maritime Museum. It is one of the easiest and cheapest museum features you can put together and it pays dividends both inside and outside, pleasing visitors on-site and extending the reach of the museum off-site at local schools and other community institutions.

Although today the idea seems obvious and deserves its considerable, continuing popularity, it wasn’t always so. At its birth, in the mid-1980s at The Mariners’ Museum, it was actually a hard sell in a climate where now-popular “hands-on” philosophy was only just taking root and where museums were not particularly thought of as interactive on-site, much less active outside their own walls.

Forward-thinking museum professionals, with an eye on the wildly-spreading popularity of historical reenactments and successful interactive historical re-creation endeavors like Old Sturbridge Village, Williamsburg, and Jamestown began to consider expanding their museum styles and policies to further entice and engage the public taste for action and enterainment, along with their dose of education, as a remedy for decreasing visitation. One such pioneer was Mariners’ Museume ducation director Joe Gutierrez, who after a successful concert program by my maritime music group The Press Gang decided that it might tweak daily visitors’ interest to encounter a costumed sailor, concertina in hand, with tales to tell and songs to sing. He didn’t clear it with the more conservative brass, who likely would not have approved, he just called one day and I showed up -- and before official objections could get through channels, the public embraced it. I became a fixture, sometimes at the door, sitting on one of the cannons, or holding forth next to one of the exhibits with a handful of sailor’s personal items in a ditty bag to share, handle, and discuss with adults and children alike.

Following up on this success, soon came the company of an expert knot-maker and macramé artist (Bill Henry, from my group), Godspeed's captain George Salley, and ship model maker Kevin Foster (also assistant curator at the time). We just did our things and let visitors come in and participate. Success followed success, until whole exhibits like a standing, inhabited forecastle and the annual Christmas at Sea festival (complete with plum pudding, hard tack, and scouse for all) were built around this growing staff of interactive history folk.

This swelled visitation, created exciting local media coverage, and brought ever-increasing troops of school children and families to participate in weekend programs that included everything from making ships in bottles to rummaging through a sailor’s sea chest (mine, stocked with my own personally-collected artifacts, which meant the museum didn’t have to risk its own, another hurdle avoided). In a full sea chest, there are so many interesting and mysterious items which even most adults can’t identify that there’s always a lot of fun objects to fondle, lore tolearn about, and activities to participate in. In a single box, the essence of a bygone era’s culture, technology, personal habits, and world view could be demonstrated in details that taught science, history, math, music, social studies, language, and a host of other studies in a way that made them fun and challenging, not classroom drudgery. So with all this pain-free education going on, why not put it into the educational institutions themselves, the local schools?

Thus it wasn’t long until it occurred to Joe and his talented, ever-patient assistant education director Octavia Cubbins, that this box full of history didn’t have to stay in one place. It was made to travel, and I was already taking it along with my group to other museums as a part of our maritime performance art. When it was offered to the Hampton Roads school system as a visiting classroom event, it was snapped up, and I found myself at two or three schools a day engaging kids and teachers in hands-on exploration of the chest’s contents, enjoying sailor’s tall tales, and throwing themselves into physical rope-pulling contests to demonstrate the effectiveness of singing shanties. It was fun, sometimes uproarious, and the museum’s numbers continued to skyrocket.

In the meantime, the sea chest idea was going viral, as the Press Gang’s visiting presentations of it at the U.S. Navy Museum, Mystic Seaport, and other sister museums around the country proved imitation to be the sincerest form of flattery. All you had to do was fill a period-looking chest with reasonably durable maritime objects and you had a program you could take on the road, using a quickly-trained staffer or even a volunteer with a flair for showmanship to explain and tie it all together.

By the beginning of the 1990s, which included a lot of touring on both sides of the Atlantic with and without the sea chest, I was beginning to burn out, so I designed a full traveling sea chest exhibit with all the bells and whistles, including quite a few family artifacts, featuring photos by my father aboard the four-masted schooner Doris Hamilin in the 1920s, to be managed by Blair-Murrah Exhibitions (see their display) as my proxy in late 1992.  I was too busy elsewhere, working on behalf of the Confederate Naval Historical Society and organizing festivals at tall ship gatherings, to continue rearing this successful and prolific child.

But if failure is an orphan and success has many parents, the sea chest program has certainly turned out to be the latter and doesn’t miss me, I think. Well into its twenties, it has rightly become a maritime museum staple, with ever more to say to and engage with coming generations. Yet it still retains the echoes of its original parents who put their all into bringing it into the world: among them various members of the Press Gang, Joe Gutierriez, Octavia Cubbins, and Kevin Foster, all still continuing their innovative contributions elsewhere in the maritime history world.

Elements For Designing Your Own Sea Chest Program

So what goes into a proper sea chest? Well, for inspiration, here are the specs and captions of what was in that final traveling exhibit, though you can get by with a whole lot less and you’ll still have a fine, robust educational tool at your command, whatever the specific theme or location of your maritime historical efforts.

1.         A Working Man’s Tools

Most of what a sailor needed to accomplish his daily tasks would fit into a single shoulder-slung rigging bag (1a).  For mending sail, he needed triangular sail needles and twine (1b) and a sail palm (1c) to push the needles through after preserving twine and needle with bee’s wax (1d).  For rope work, he would need a metal marlin spike (1e) or wooden fid (1f) for working splices (1g), and tarred twine to “whip” up the rope ends after cutting them with the ubiquitous “Green River” sheath knife (1h) or a “sheep’s foot” bladed folding sailor’s knife (c. 1870) (1i).  For loading cotton onto the deck, a cotton hook (c. 1860, N. Carolina) (1j) was essential, but the one tool he would prefer not to see in action was the home-made “bo’sun’s starter” (1k), a device for laying abaft of a tardy seaman to hurry him along!  

2.         Simple Fashions, Simple Fare

Clothing was simple: typically comfortable homespun drop-front trousers and smock (2a, b), with a tarred hat (2c) to keep out rain and sun, perhaps a belt (2d) to hang his rigging knife and spike.  Shoes were optional except in cold weather when some kind of boots and oilskins became a necessity.  For special occasions, such as going ashore, the trademark sailor’s neck scarf (2e) and straw hat (British Navy 1860 style) (2f) filled out the costume seen in many an engraving of the infamous “sailor towns” of the Nineteenth century.  For such trips one final essential touch — a lead-filled leather slapjack (2g) for getting out of rum-born scrapes.Food was simpler than the clothing.  Hard tack biscuits (2h) and dry-salted beef nicknamed “salt horse” (2i) was what most often filled Jack’s tin plate (2j) and cup (2k), though sometimes it was simply dumped into a communal wooden kid (2l), from which all ate with their hands.  For those aspiring to greater social heights, a horn-handled fork (2m) might be favored to hold down salt horse cut with a Green River knife.  Salt horse was often so hard that it could be carved into figures like wood and had to be soaked in fresh water at length before soft enough to eat.  Nevertheless, it had a fearsome shelf life — some salt horse made during the American Civil War was eaten during World War I — which made it a valuable staple on a long voyage far from home.  It was made more tolerable by the daily issue of spirits (two one-half gill measures full a day) (2n), which was usually rum in the British service, whiskey in American.

3.         The Seaman’s Chest — A Box Called Home

A sailor’s sea chest was the repository of his life, filled with personal gear, mementoes of far-flung lands, presents for loved ones at home, and the pleasures and necessities of life as wind and weather demanded them.  One such pleasure was tobacco, usually bought in a twist (3a) and then perhaps broken up into a tobacco tin (3b) which in this case even has a magnifying-glass lighter built into the top.  On a cloudy day by the end of the century, you could light up with a naphtha-fueled brass device (3bb) made for the purpose.  Pipes were originally molded, fired clay (3c) or corn cob (3d), though from the middle if the Nineteenth century, briar became popular, as with this 1896-patent Irish Peterson’s system briar (3e), a favorite style with sailors.  For collectors and true smoking devotees, the ultimate pipe was the carved meerschaum (literally “sea foam”), this one a French masterpiece from John Townley, Sr, which, not surprisingly, looks rather like its owner.  Another regular pleasure was held within the same sailor’s silver rum flask (3f), a treasured present from his Mid-western family before he went to sea.More necessity than pleasure was local currency when going ashore, which varied in the extreme before the days of the credit card.  In the Congo, they used cowrie shells (3g), while in next-door Benin the bronze “manillas” or tokens used in the slave trade were common, this one (3h) taken from the slave-ship Duoro, sunk in 1843 off the Scilly Isles in Britain.  If you were in the American South during the brief period 1861-65 you would need the local printing (3i) to get along, but just a few years later the silver dollar (3j) turned out to be a lot more lasting...If you shaved (many sailors didn’t), a good Royal Navy razor (3k) was a necessity, and so was a whale-oil Betty-lamp (3l) so you could see what you were shaving.  If you were sick, a few drops of the “British Oil” (3m) could cure it, whatever it was, with a little rum for a chaser.  If you wanted to know what time to take the next dose, you could check your pocket watch, if you could afford one, or simply use the common brass compass/sundial (3n) if the sun was shining.  Something to do on those long, off-watch hours was also a necessity, one which gave birth to a host of sailor arts and crafts.  In whaling days, scrimshaw carving on whale or walrus ivory (3o) provided a memoir of the voyage and made a good homecoming gift.  So did carving wooden figures (“Captain Foggy” presented to Mrs. Townley, Sr.) (3p) or building ships in bottles (3q).  On the other hand, a store-bought marine memento, like this little mermaid spoon (3qu) found in the family collection, might serve the purpose just as well if you lacked craft skills.  If you could read and write (many couldn’t), newspapers (3r) traded with a passing ship kept you informed, and readings and prayers from a small Bible (3s), prayer book (3t), or seaman’s tract collection (3u) kept your spirits up, along with that rum flask.  A dip pen (3v) and inkwell (3w) kept you in correspondence with the faces of home (carte de visas, 3x) and perhaps filled a journal, and considering the paper-saving type-size of all of it, those granny glasses (3y) were the most necessary of all, although you didn’t need them for the occasional card game (3z) with your messmates.The design of the sea chest it all lived in (3zz) was as unique as what went inside.  Its typical shape was trapezoidal, for reasons only speculated at today.  Perhaps it fit better up under the curved bulkhead of the forecastle tumble-home.  Perhaps it was just more stable a design.  Certainly it stowed better internally, as each layer of stowage kept the other layers down by lateral compression, even when upended, and the rope-becket handles (often ornately knotted) allowed you to hang it and/or carry it from a pole.  All we know is, they never made them like that for shoreside use.

4.         Music Of The Waters.

For the common sailor, particularly one who could not read, music aboard ship was the common thread of work and play.  Work songs called “shanties” coordinated almost all heavy work done on board, and songs and ballads of loves and adventures on land and sea filled the seaman’s off-hours.  Accompanying the music was a host of small, inexpensive instruments that were hardy enough to take the salt air and easy enough to learn to play by ear.  Foremost was the fiddle (4a), used to lead shanties and shipboard dances, along with the tambourine (4b), fife (4c), and tin whistle (4d)  As the Nineteenth century progressed, free reed instruments such as the harmonica (4e), concertina (4f), and button accordeon (4g) became increasingly popular.  On shore, minstrel shows were sailors’ favorite entertainment and so the banjo (1895 S.S. Stewart “American Princess,”a gift to Mrs. Townley, Sr.) (4h) became a favorite at sea as well.  The sailor also became an unwitting vehicle for instrumental design development in more than one instance.  In the 1840’s, sailors visiting Peru found South American Indians playing small ceramic whistles (4i) which they took home as souvenirs.  By the 1860’s, a modified version designed in Italy became the modern ocarina, or “sweet potato.”  Similarly, the ancient Canary Island “timple” (4j), carried around the world by sailors later became the Mexican “charango” and the Hawaiian ukelele. 

As the Nineteenth century progressed, sailor music became a genre of its own, often imitated by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan and other popular writers and composers and perpetuated by the publication of “sailors’ companions,” compact sailor song collections (4k, c. 1805) featuring tunes born on sea and shore.  By century’s end, commercial instrument makers like Hohner harmonicas advertised their wares using a nautical image (4l) and even incorporated the fouled anchor as their logo when they bought the Kalbe Imperial Accordeon Company (4g, c. 1895) in 1912.  But whether it was a swanky Imperial accordeon or a primitive jaw harp (4m) he played, Jack Tar had his own style:  in music, in clothing, and in the international culture he kept.         

Totals, when displayed in cases:

1.   14 artifacts, about 9 square feet.

2.   11 artifacts, about 4 square feet.

3.   29 artifacts, about 9 square feet.

4.   13 artifacts, about 16 square feet.

These are minimum space requirements, rather on the crowded side.  One and a half to twice the space is preferable.



-- now-ubiquitous, it’s the perfect, portable exhibit...

Performance and artifacts combined to make history easy and interactive

A single box holds an entire  exhibit full of artifacts, ready to see and handle, each with a tale of its own, totally portable

Spread out on a single table, take from the chest. on the left:

Ditty bag, pictures and journal, hymn book and bible, brass grog cup, sewing kit, carte de visa daguerrotypes, straight razor, lye soap, brass betty lamp, patent medicine bottle, pocket watch, tobacco tin with magnifying glass lighter (a great demonstration on a sunny day), a twist of tobacco, steel-tip pen and inkwell, small banjo, Anglo concertina.

Continuing to center table:

Cards, lead and wooden dice, reading spectacles, bosun's call, whale tusk scrimshawed cribbage board, food selection, fiddle, bones (the instrument), Confederate dollar bill, two folding knives, fine scrimshaw on fossil ivory. 

Continuing to right:

Meerschaum pipe,  harmonica, jaw harp, sewing palm, needles, sail thread, beeswax, Green River knife, fid, marlinspike, monkey's fist, "bosun's starter", blackjack, Colt naval revolver, cutlass, cat-o-nine tails, rum flask.

They ate this!!?? "Salt Horse" (salt pork or beef), hard tack biscuits, pease, rice, oatmeal for porridge were the most common sailor's fare, with tin plate and cup, and fairly upscale (for a sailor) bone-handled fork. You can buy most of it, but you have to make the salt horse yourself.

"Salt Horse" 

(sailor song about the food)

Salt horse, salt horse, we'll have you know
That to the galley you must go,
The cook without a sign of grief
Will boil ye down and call ye beef,
And we poor sailors standing near
Must eat ye though ye look so queer,

Cho: Salt horse, salt horse, what brought ye here?

Salt horse, salt horse, both near and far,
You're food for every hard-worked tar,
In strongest brine ye have been sunk,
Until you're coarse and hard as junk,
To eat such poor and wretched fare
Would whiten any sailor's hair.

Salt horse, salt horse, what brought ye here?
After carryin' sand for many a year,
From Bantry Bay to Ballywhack,
Where ye fell down and broke yer back,
And after years of such abuse,
They salt you down for sailors' use!

also about the food:

(from the song "The Topman and the Afterguard")

Here's to the purser, who gives us to eat

Spew burgoo, rank butter, and musty horse meat,

And old weevily biscuits, and he gets the gain,

May the Devil double, triple damn him!

Said the afterguard: "Amen!"

Pick any artifact, and there's a tale and usually a song to go with it. It can fill a minute for a passer-by or literally go on all day, for those who want to hang around and find out about everything.

Engagement is the key, as kids and adults join in to learn songs and stories, and the sailor's life that spawned them, in museum or school setting. 

"A Sailor's Life" exhibit from Blair-Murrah

The original sea chest sailed into the sunset alone (click on photo or  PDF)

  Copyright © John Townley 1992, 2009. All rights reserved.
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