Answer Man

This is the story behind the US Navy’s pea coats

Q: Who designed the U.S. Navy pea coat? It had to be many decades ago, but it is still such a great design that it shows up in catalogs, Amazon and online stores. And how did it get its name?

Troy Garrett, of Fairview Heights

A: I hope passing along this story doesn’t get me in Dutch, but many historians point to the Netherlands as the birthplace of the pea coat.

Although they’re probably best known for tulips and windmills today, the Dutch were a seafaring power centuries ago. So to help their sailors brave the bounding main in winter gales, they developed a heavy, dark wool coat that they called the “piijjekker” (or “pijjakker.”) In Dutch, “pij” (apparently pronounced “pea”) is the word for a coarse, twilled cloth with a nap on one side while “jekker” or “jakker” means “jacket.”

But as you know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it didn’t take long for the British to see the benefits of this heavy, functional coat for their own seamen. As a result, it was popularized by the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, according to Jennifer Daley, a military uniform historian.

She says the first mention of the garment was found in the 1731 Royal Navy uniform manual. In fact, some suggest its name comes from British uniform store owner Edgard Camplin, who suggested it as a coat for petty officers to distinguish them from ordinary sailors. So, rather than an officer’s great coat, he came up with the “petty coat” or p. coat (pea coat) for short. (The U.S. Navy, however, maintains the name came because it was made from what was called “pilot cloth” or p-cloth for short, hence pea coat.)

us navy pea coat
A military surplus coat, produced for the U.S. Navy Wikimedia Commons

These latter theories, however, do not seem terribly popular because they lack sources, dates and other details. Still, they do emphasize again that the coat is centuries old, so you can likely understand why the name of any original designer seems to be lost in the sands of time.

“The pea jackets of 1731 were required due to the expansion of the British Royal Navy into the Northern Atlantic and other extreme regions of the world where cold weather gear was required,” Daley once told the U.S. Naval Institute News.

But even before that, pea coats/jackets apparently were getting noticed. A Wikipedia article documents the mention of such a garment on page 3 of the May 9-16, 1720, issue of the Boston Gazette. Presumably, the British brought the pea coat across the pond and Americans carried on the British style even after the Revolutionary War.

According to the Gentleman’s Gazette, the first pea coats had short side vents or no vents while current U.S. Navy coats feature a center vent. The vertical slit pockets were designed for easy access, and they usually boast a pocket for change because Navy pants had no pockets. There are also pockets on either side for storing a wallet and other valuables.

So today’s style features a double-breasted, hip-length coat made of dark blue (blue-black) fabric with a convertible collar and a single row of four 35-line black plastic anchor buttons down the right front and three on the left. To wear it correctly, you should leave the collar unbuttoned (except in the coldest conditions), the jumper collar should be inside the coat and sleeves should reach about three-quarters of the way from wrist to knuckles when arms hang naturally at the side. To personalize it properly, you should center your last name and last four digits of your Social Security number 3 inches from and parallel to the bottom edge.

In 2015, the Department of Defense awarded Boston-based Sterlingwear another four-year contract with options of up to $48 million to produce pea coats and overcoats for the service. Although a pea coat was traditionally fashioned from 100 percent Kersey wool, today’s Navy pea coat is made of a midnight blue mix of 80 percent Melton wool and 20 percent artificial fibers.

Apparently, though, you soon may be wearing a conversation piece. In August 2016, the Navy announced that it would start phasing out the pea coat this year as it transitions to a black, synthetic, cold-weather parka as official outerwear by Oct. 1, 2020. According to a Navy statement to the Naval Institute News, the decision was based on the desire “to reduce current Navy sea bag uniform component requirements and reduce cost to the Navy’s annual uniform budget.”

“The Cold Weather Parka was determined a suitable substitute because of its more modern appearance, lightweight fabric and inclement weather protective qualities/capabilities. The parka was also selected for its versatility in being able to be worn with service and dress uniforms and civilian clothing.”

But as you might guess, this is not sitting well with some members of Congress, because it may impact hundreds of jobs in the Northeast as well as wool producers and other businesses around the country. They argue that the wool coat costs less than the parka, is flame- and water-resistant and, as a natural fiber, is biodegradable, recyclable and sustainable.

So far, though, the Navy has not changed its mind, so the p in p-coat soon may come to mean passé.

Today’s trivia

For what city is Rolla, Missouri, named?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: Mentalfloss.com has a hilarious website page detailing some of the most ridiculous sports contract clauses in history. For example, the Sunderland, England, soccer squad insisted that Stefan Schwarz not travel into space. In 1996, the Toronto Blue Jays allowed Roger Clemens’ sons to practice in the Skydome and have lockers next to their famous fireballing father. But this might be the funniest of all: Around the turn of the 20th century when players had to share a mattress when they went on the road, Philadelphia Athletics catcher Ossee Schreckengost insisted that pitcher (and roommate) Rube Waddell agree that he would not eat animal crackers in bed. “I didn’t mind the flat crackers so much,” Schreckengost reportedly explained, “but for a whole week last year I woke up with elephants’ tusks and cowhorns stickin’ ’tween my ribs.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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