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A commonality of the photographs in “The Baltimore Collection” is that one must spend a great amount of time looking before truly seeing. Within the embossed frame of the mounted silver gelatin developing-out print (accession number 2001.0017.0019) created at B. W. Stein Studio in Washington, D.C. a woman and two children are pictured. As one of only a handful of images in the collection picturing children, I was drawn to the image immediately. I looked at the baby, looked at the woman, looked at the older boy. I looked at the woman’s shoes, the woman’s skirt, the woman’s shirt, the woman’s hair. I looked at the boy— at his pants, at his shirt, at his shoes. I looked at the chair, looked at the baby, looked at the drapes in the background. I looked at the boy—looked at his shorts, looked at his white stockings, looked at the collar of his shirt. I looked at the boy, and I saw a child dressed in a sailor suit. Identification of this young boy’s outfit allows for a date of creation to be inferred, as well as the realities of the lives of the sitters which relates to the time period in which they lived. Further, in researching the sailor suit of the child for the purpose of dating the image, I came to understand that the sailor suit as children’s wear was a trend both in the United States and the United Kingdom during the 19th century. This cultural practice demonstrates a manifestation of military worship in the United States and exemplifies one method of enculturating children into American society.

The trend of dressing children in sailor suit can be traced to a popularized image of another young boy: Prince Albert Edward, son of Queen Victoria. Franz Xavier Winterhalter’s 1846 painted portrait of the prince shows the four-year-old wearing a suit which mimicked the uniform of men serving in Great Britain’s Royal Navy.[1]

The little boy whose photograph is housed in “The Baltimore Collection” wears a suit which is similar to Albert Edward’s in concept, but varies quite a bit in the specifics of fit. The development of the style of sailor suit as an outfit allowed for the date of creation of the photograph to be approximated. Unlike the loose trousers worn by the prince, the child in the photograph wears knickerbockers and white stockings. While cuffed below the knee, knickerbockers retain quite a wide fit throughout the leg. Beginning in the 1880’s however, sailor suits “acquired closer-fitting legs.”[2] This transition in style is evidenced by the fit of the short pants worn by the child in the photograph. The estimated date of creation for the photograph (1890-1900) was determined by referencing an almost identical child’s sailor suit which is housed at the McCord Museum.[3] Additionally, the photographic process used to created the image (silver gelatin developing-out print) did not become a common commercial photography process until 1890.

In a photograph of three unidentified people, the young boy’s sailor suit is a distinct and interesting element which, when analyzed, allows information about the photograph as an object to be explored. Further, the viewer can begin to frame the lives of the sitters by beginning to understand the cultural landscape in which they existed. The concept of dressing a young child in clothing which directly represents a military uniform is a cultural phenomenon which is particular to a historical period. In the time of Prince Albert Edward, Great Britain remained the top naval power in the world. The connection between the future of the nation (and its global empire) and the strength of the navy is understood in viewing four-year-old Albert Edward, heir to the throne in a naval uniform made just for him. For the young boy in the photograph, his outfit can be connected to the development of the U.S. Navy in the late 19th century as well as the well-developed and still present practice of military worship in the United States. In the 1880’s, the U.S. Navy began its first period of technological advancement since the conclusion of the Civil War. In 1882, Congress authorized the construction of the “first ships of the New Navy”: the USS Atlanta, the USS Boston, the USS Chicago, and the USS Dolphin.[4] In the following years, the Navy expanded physically and evolved technologically. Conflicts such as the Spanish-American War involved popularized naval battles, and as the U.S. colonized locations in the Pacific, the Navy was a force of protection for the United States and an institution which provided for the maintenance of its growing empire. The longevity of the sailor suit trend can be understood as a reflection of the growing power and significance of the United States Navy for the American people. Beyond specifically the Navy, the significance of the military to the cultural foundation of the United States in general is both historical and contemporary. Creating clothing which is representative of a military uniform is both a reflection of this ideology and a way of curating it.

Returning to photograph 2001.0017.0019, the act of dressing one child in a sailor suit for a photograph in a Washington D.C. studio, suggests possible connections between the sitters and the Navy as a cultural institution. It is tempting to imagine possibilities in the life histories of the individuals in the photograph within “The Baltimore Collection.”  A woman and two children are depicted in the image—perhaps this photograph was a memento, a picture of a wife and children to be given to a husband serving in the Navy. As the nation’s capital, the connection between Washington D.C. and the Navy is apparent. The Naval Academy is in nearby Annapolis, and the Washington Navy Yard in Washington D.C proper is the oldest shore establishment of the United States Navy. It is possible that the choice to dress the young boy in a sailor suit shows a personal connection between a family and the United States Navy. However, in my mind the reason that this practice is strange, is the same reason that the prior explanation is only conjecture: Not only princes and children of those enlisted in the Navy wore sailor suits, children of all ages, of both genders, different races and socioeconomic statuses wore these outfits. This practice was normalized, and continues to be present today. Dressing young children in sailor suits stems directly from mimicry of the uniform of members of the British Navy. This practice demonstrates the deep cultural connections, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, between the military and the general populace.

[1] Image, 1846 portrait of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales created by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, available online through Royal Collection Trust

[2] “Sailor Suit” in The Dictionary of Fashion History authored by Valerie Cumming, C. W.Cunnington and P. E.Cunnington, available online through the Berg Fashion Library

[3] Image, McCord Museum Online Collection, Item number M966.159.26.1-6

[4] The New Navy 1883-1922 by Paul H. Silverstone, page vii

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