We somehow often think of sailors as barefoot. I imagine that comes from the movies we’ve seen.
But is it accurate?
As far as I can tell, bare feet were still part of the Navy in the early 1900s, but that was when things started to change.
I’m not saying that everybody went barefoot all the time. Back in the sailing days, the regular sailors went barefoot quite a bit, but even by the time of the Spanish-American War, it still had a place, mainly during washing down the deck.
The “Century Magazine” (Sept. 1898, Vol. 56, No. 5) has an article by William Russell, who served as a special artist during the blockade of Cuba in 1898. Here’s one of his descriptions:
I remember an early-morning scene on the flag-ship. The sun had not yet risen. Bare-footed and bareheaded, with trousers turned up to their knees, a dozen jackies were washing down the decks. Some poured buckets of water upon the flooring; other polished and scraped with stiff-bristle scrubbing-brushes having long handles.
At this point, we’re not talking sailing vessels, but steamships.
Another time that the men would go barefoot was during morning exercises. (Hey, see how old barefoot running is?) Here is one of his sketches from the article:
It looks like the ship back then still had wooden decks.
Here’s his description of it:
Suddenly the band plays a lively march, and the order for the run around is given. Jackie likes this. It is his exercise. It is to him what wheeling is to a landsman. It is his opportunity of moving a little faster than usual. In double-quick time each section runs in an ellipse for five minutes, the line of sailors being usually barefooted at this time of day. They dodge in and out of the sunlight and shadow, laughing and showing their gaiety of feeling.
There sure is no sign of the paranoia of today, is there?