The “Softer Side” of Seafarers

May 13, 2014

by Carmen Cowick, Archives Intern

When thinking of a stereotypical early twentieth-century seafarer, many folks might base their opinions on hackneyed imagery from pop culture—a man who loves a strong drink, sports tattoos and has a lady friend in every port. It comes as no surprise to folks who know the truth that many seafarers did not (and do not) fit this mold. The scrapbook collection of the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) reveals a trove of historical newspaper articles that defy many of the old clichés.

In 1930, SCI’s Annual Report included a breakdown the drinks served at its soda fountain at 25 South Street—a whopping total of 996,766 non-alcoholic drinks that year. An article from the New Haven Connecticut Register in 1953 details how the supervisor of the Alcoholics’ Assistance Bureau at SCI believed that seafarers were no more or less likely to drink than any other person.

Several articles quote SCI’s housemother, Janet Lord Roper, the first person in the Port of New York many seafarers came to when seeking romantic advice. The articles describe Mrs. Roper’s experiences with men seeking her approval of potential spouses. She also lent a sympathetic ear to seafarers suffering heartbreak. According to Mrs. Roper, not all seafarers behaved according to the old stereotypes; a 1931 article in The New York World Telegram quotes her as saying, “No, I wouldn’t say it’s true most sailors have a sweetheart in every port.”

Several articles in the scrapbook collection provide a deeper understanding of the tradition of seafarers’ tattoos. One syndicated article, appearing in the July 13, 1929, issue of The Burlington Free Press, claims that four out of five tattoos found on seafarers related to love in some way, whether depicting a heart, a cupid’s bow or a portrait of their sweetheart’s face. According to tattoo artist Professor Jack, whose shop was located around the corner from 25 South Street, portraits proved the most popular tattoo of the time. Seafarers brought in photographs of their wives, fiancées or girlfriends for the Professor to tattoo on their chest or forearm.

SCI’s scrapbook collection contains a wealth of information about the culture of seafarers in the first half of the twentieth century. The tomes serve as an important reminder to never judge a seafarer by a stereotype.