Ask the Archivist: Old Military Uniforms
Les Jensen, curator of the West Point Museum, offers pointers on preserving our ancestors’ blues, greens and grays.
Q. Which uniforms are descendants likely to find?
A. Civil War material is rare, but occasionally pieces turn up. Uniforms worn in combat are almost nonexistent; they just didn’t survive. But “Ike jackets” from World War II and olive drab coats from World War I were worn home. WWII ones usually still have all the patches and decorations. Folks may find Grandpa’s WWI uniform in olive drab wool with blackened metal buttons.
Q. Did soldiers wear their uniforms as issued?
A. In the 18th and 19th centuries, soldiers wore the full uniform as issued, even in combat. Starting around the Indian Wars, soldiers sometimes altered their uniforms for practicality. Cavalry troops sometimes reinforced their trousers with tent canvas. Shirts were worn as outer garments during the Spanish-American War — nobody was wearing a coat in CubA.
Q. What about dress and officers’ uniforms?
A. For a long time, the Army had one uniform in dark blue for all duty. As fatigue clothing was issued, the basic uniform became the dress uniform, and by the 20th century, there was a clear distinction. By the early 1940s, there were specialist organizations with their own uniforms and equipage: airborne divisions, tank or armor forces, and mountain troops. Officers had a distinctive uniform in World War II known as “pinks and greens,” dark brown-green coats with pink-tinged gray trousers. By the end of World War II, the 1943 field uniform superseded those, and all men wore that one uniform. The Army green uniform came in the late 1950s but was recently replaced by a dark blue uniform.
Q. What do the decorations mean?
A. You’ll need guidebooks to interpret them. Branch insignia, indicating infantry, artillery or another branch, have remained fairly constant over time (for example, crossed rifles mean infantry). Unit or division insignia have been issued since World War I and are worn on the left sleeve. Rank for enlisted men was indicated by a chevron; officers’ ranks by bars, leaves or eagles. You might find the WWII “ruptured duck,” an eagle on a diamond background sewn to the coat on the right breast of a discharged soldier.
Q. What guidebooks do you recommend?
A. For the Civil War period, one of the best is American Military Equipage, 1851-1872 by Frederick P. Todd and others (Scribner). Schiffer Books has a growing number of volumes on 20th-century uniforms, including guides to insigniA. Shelby Stanton did a number of books on Vietnam, such as US Army Uniforms of the Vietnam War (Stackpole Books). Jonathan Gawne’s Finding Your Father’s War (Casemate) also has material on uniforms.
Archival Action: Caring for Military Memorabilia
The State Historical Society of Iowa offers archival preservation assistance covering a number of topics, including military memorabilia. You can read more details in the article Preserving Flags, Uniforms and Medals here.
- Clean uniforms with a hand-held vacuum set to the lowest setting. Put a nylon screen over the vacuum nozzle (old pantyhose works nicely) to prevent damage.
- Wrap uniforms in acid-free paper. Pad areas needing additional support with crumpled tissue. Store the piece with as few folds as possible in an archival box.
- Store boxed uniforms in an interior closet free from extreme temperatures and moisture, and far away from pipes that may burst. That means no attics or basements.
- Keep uniforms away from direct light. If you want to display the uniform, keep it out for six months at a time at most, followed by six months in storage.
- Clean military medals with a soft, dry camel hair brush; remove any rubber bands.
- Lay medals on polyester batting covered with unbleached cotton or linen that you’ve washed and rinsed to remove harmful chemicals.
- Avoid exposing medals to high-intensity lights or heat.
- Keepsake uniform preservation kit, from $32.15 at Hollinger Metal Edge, (800) 862-2228,
- Acid-free unbuffered tissue, from $20.29 at Gaylord (800) 448-6160
- Flag storage box, $13.30 at University Products (800) 628-1912
- US Navy in World War II series by Jeff Warner, $79.95 each at Schiffer Publishing
Sterling Silver Server, Late 19th Century
Piece of Cake
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