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Hygiene: Officer vs. Enlisted

Life at sea was hard, and sailors worked up a sweat, and became covered with filth. A persistent problem with cleanliness during this period was the fine layer of coal dust that seemed to spread throughout the ship. Despite doing all of the physical labor, enlisted sailors were denied the use of modern hygiene facilities provided for officers. Sailor Frederick Wilson wrote in 1900 that:

Here on this ship they won't allow us enough water to wash in. We have to get water to wash in any old place we can, from the feed pump while at sea, and from reserve tanks and boilers whilst in port. Of course, that is stealing and subjects you to punishment if caught, but we have got to get water, and will get it by hook or crook.

Click images for enlargements, click captions for source information.

Simple acts such as washing and shaving in the New Steel Navy were accomplished in separate parts of the ships by officers and enlisted sailors. At left is a private washroom on board the cruiser USS Olympia, available only to officers. It features a sink with hot and cold faucets, electric lighting, and a wooden cabinet. On board the same ship, at right, an enlisted sailor shaves on deck, using a bucket (likely full of seawater) and a hand mirror.

Full washings were essential to cleanliness on board these coal-powered, sometimes sweltering ships. On board many ships, hot and cold running water meant hot showers for officers. At left, a shower on board the cruiser USS Olympia, available only to officers. This shower facility has a built in medicine cabinet with a mirror. Enlisted sailors had no such luxury. At right, sailors on board an unknown ship in 1913 wash on deck, using buckets of water, likely full of seawater. To get an idea of the wide variety of uses for buckets on board ship, click here.

Divisions between the men on board ship carried through to all levels of hygiene. Private bathrooms were available to officers, but not to enlisted sailors. At left, an officer's head on board the USS Olympia features a flushing toilet, sink with hot and cold water, and a claw-foot bathtub. At right, the enlisted head on board the Olympia has crowded bench seating, devoid even of dividers for the men.

The last major component of hygiene on board ship was laundry. Enlisted sailors handled their own laundry, scrubbing clothing and hammocks on deck, then hanging them from lines to dry. The colorized postcard at right shows sailors with uniforms spread on deck, being hand scrubbed with brushes. Officers once again relied on the services of their stewards for laundry. At left, Japanese stewards on board the cruiser USS Brooklyn pose for a photo in the 1890's.

For additional images of washing and laundry on board ships of the New Steel Navy, click here.

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