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Routines and Duties

Join the Navy!

The navy offered men the promise of stable pay, food, clothing, and housing. In the age of industrialization, but before the rise of labor unions and their work to protect laborers, this offer of stability was tempting to many men. Unfortunately, in the 19th century, many new recruits had a rude awakening, finding themselves deeply in debt for uniform purchases, and often eating poorly. Naval reforms in the early 20th century improved these problematic conditions. The 1908 Navy recruiting poster shown here promises good pay, promotions, free uniforms, lodging, and medical attention.

Standing Watch

Life in the New Steel Navy was structured around watches. Sailors were divided into different sections, for example, Starboard Watch and Port Watch. These watch sections alternated 4 hour shifts on duty at their station. “Dog Watches” of 2 hours each helped to keep watch sections on alternating schedules each day. While on watch, a sailor was responsible for performing his duties in his particular part of the ship. In this photo, sailors stand watch on the cruiser USS Olympia. A lookout scans the horizon with a telescope. The man standing at left is Quartermaster R.C. Mehrtens, who steered the Olympia during the triumphant Battle of Manila Bay.


Steel Navy warships were full of complex machinery, and crowded with sailors. The filth from these men and machines, as well as the corrosive action of the ocean, necessitated frequent cleaning to keep a warship looking presentable. Here, sailors polish railings on the deck of the cruiser USS Olympia in 1898. Sailors were also responsible for paintwork, cleaning the hull, and washing down the entire ship after refueling with filthy coal. The fight against dirt was a constant battle for sailors of the New Steel Navy.


One of the most arduous activities in the upkeep of a ship was “holystoning” the deck. Pieces of sandstone were used to scour the wooden deck of warships. The name holystoning was derived from the fact that it was once done by hand, with sailors on their knees. In this photo, sailors on the battleship USS Oklahoma holystone the deck of their ship. Rather than scrubbing on their knees, the scrubbing stones are attached to handles, like a mop.


In addition to maintaining the ship, sailors were required to carefully maintain their personal appearance and possessions. Frequent inspections ensured that they did so properly. Sundays were generally reserved for full inspection, with much of Saturday used to prepare. Alternate Wednesdays were used for hammock and bag inspections. Additionally, sailors heading ashore for liberty would be inspected to ensure that they were properly attired for leave. This photo shows a pre-liberty inspection on board the battleship USS Rhode Island.


Sailors of the Steel Navy had a constant need for someone to sew. Men with a sewing machine and skill could make money creating fancy variations of standard uniforms, proudly worn by sailors on liberty. These custom made uniforms adhered to Navy regulations, but featured higher quality material and embroidering. Sewing was also an essential skill in the maintenance of the ship. Repair work on hammocks, canvas awnings, and even the sails of early steel ships required a nimble hand.


Warships are complex machines, and endure great punishment at sea. As a natural course of events, things break, and must be repaired at sea. As the ships of the New Steel Navy grew ever more complex, skilled workmen were required to craft replacement parts, and perform repairs at sea. Here, sailors of the repair ship USS Prometheus pose in a machine shop on board their ship.


Regular drills enhanced training and camaraderie on board ship. These drills anticipated all possibilities of life at sea, from repelling boarders, to rescuing a man overboard. This colorized postcard shows sailors in the midst of a gunnery drill. Gunnery was of great importance during this period. Despite overwhelming victory in the Spanish-American War, it was determined that less than 3% of rounds hit their targets during the battles of Manila and Santiago. Gunnery was a controversial topic, and one man, Admiral William Sims, had a profound impact on revolutionizing American gunnery. He aggressively pushed for changes in gunnery, even bypassing the chain of command to directly contact President Roosevelt. In 2010, Sims was honored for his achievements by a United States Post Office commemorative stamp.

Old Traditions

Despite the dramatic technological transformations of the New Steel Navy, many holdover technologies remained in use. Fencing practice continued, as seen in this 1886 photo on board the protected cruiser USS Atlanta. Eventually, swords were discontinued as a shipboard weapon, replaced by guns, and became a purely ceremonial instrument.

Guidelines for Life at Sea

The intricacies of life at sea could be confusing for new sailors. They received some instruction as recruits, and learned many of their duties on the fly. Guidebooks such as this 1908 Recruit´s Handy Book provided valuable instruction. The entire 106 page manual can be read as a PDF by clicking on the image at right.

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