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Berthing: Officer vs. Enlisted

Life at sea is a cramped existence, mostly devoid of privacy or personal space. In some cases, life on board warships of the New Steel Navy was worse than it had been in the time of wooden ships. New engine technology put off tremendous heat, and ventilation equipment had not yet been perfected. Additionally, ship designers struggled to fit all of this new equipment on board warships which needed to achieve high speeds, carry tremendous firepower, and still retain seagoing agility. In this battle for space, sailors were often on the losing end. On this page, the stark contrast between officer and enlisted sleeping areas will be presented.

Click images for enlargements, click captions for source information.

The two photos above give a general sense of the living area inhabited by sailors of the New Steel Navy. At left is “Officers' Country” on board the cruiser USS Olympia, photographed in 1898. This private space — off limits to enlisted sailors — features comfortable lounge chairs, and cushioned seating surrounding a turret support. Lining the wood paneled bulkheads are private cabins for each officer. The entryway to one of these cabins can be seen open at right. At the far end, light can be seen streaming in from an elaborate wooden skylight. The photo on the right, in contrast to the comfortable setting in Officers' Country, is the berth deck of the cruiser USS Boston, photographed in 1888. It is a cluttered, multi-purpose space. Racks for storage line the bulkheads. At the far end, a table is set for a meal. Sailors in this space would sling hammocks from numbered billet hooks, which can be seen on the overhead beam. Note how narrowly spaced these hooks are.

Within berthing spaces, officers and enlisted sailors had entirely different types of bedding. The photo at left shows the high end of the spectrum — the Admiral's cabin on board the USS Olympia. This spacious room features a fixed bed with a mattress. The smaller officer cabins on board the ship also had beds with mattresses. In contrast, enlisted sailors primarily slept in hammocks slung from hooks. An example of this can be seen in the photo on the right, on board the cruiser USS Brooklyn. Crowded conditions on the berth deck, combined with inadequate ventilation, often rendered the air hot, humid, and foul-smelling.

While the officers and enlisted sailors of the New Steel Navy slept in entirely different worlds, they endured one shared misery — heat. The new warships of the era, constructed of steel, and often with inadequate ventilation, could get oppressively hot, and the air uncomfortably fouled. This problem was exacerbated on ships stationed in the tropics, as the American overseas empire expanded. At times, the entire ship's company would flee their berthing spaces, and sleep out on deck. This photo of sailors on deck of the cruiser USS Brooklyn, taken in the late 1890's, gives a sense of these temporary arrangements. They have slung hammocks from any spot they can. In addition to the sailors lounging in the center of the photo, note that one sailor swings from a higher perch, at left.

For additional images of berthing spaces and sleeping conditions on board ships of the New Steel Navy, click here.

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