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Off Duty: Officer vs. Enlisted

Sailors lived their existence in “watches,” alternating 4 hours on duty, and 4 hours off. When off-duty, officers and enlisted sailors kept to their two separate worlds. There were few sources of enjoyment when passing idle hours. Reading, writing letters, or chatting with friends were common activities. Even when in port, sailors were mostly confined on board ship, and made do with simple forms of entertainment.

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Officers existed in a hierarchy, and had different levels of comfort available to them for relaxing. All officers shared the private space of the wardroom, as well as their private berthing spaces. Senior officers — captains, and admirals — were afforded what amounted to large suites on board ship, for entertaining or relaxing. At left is an entertaining space in the captain's cabin on board the cruiser USS Olympia. Note the extensive bar, leather arm chairs, bookcase, plants, and throw rugs. At the far end of the photo, the door to a private head stands open. Enlisted sailors had nothing close to this type of luxury on board ship. At right, sailors on board the battleship USS Rhode Island lounge around on deck, reading and napping.

The solace of the wardroom was once again a haven for officers. At left, in a colorized postcard, officers on board the gunboat Don Juan de Austria — captured during the Spanish-American War — relax in their wardroom with a good book. They enjoy bottled beverages while reading, and are surrounded by niceties such as elaborate tablecloths and cut flowers. The enlisted sailors at right, on board the cruiser USS Brooklyn, crowd below decks for some relaxation. Note the band in the middle, which is composed of both white and African-American members. Other sailors behind the band are playing cards. This photo is an excellent example of integration in the Navy during this period — African-American sailors can be seen throughout the photograph.

Most off-duty time was spent sleeping, “spinning a yarn” (telling sea stories), reading, eating, or perhaps gambling. Occasionally, while in port, there might be a social event on board ship. Even in this social realm, enlisted sailors were often slighted. At left, officers on board the cruiser USS Olympia dance with women on board ship. These may have been wives (who sometimes lived ashore in the port a ship was stationed in) or women of local society. The enlisted sailors were kept isolated from these social affairs, unable to mingle with the women above their station. Instead, they were often left to merely dance with each other, as seen in the photo on board the Olympia at right.

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