Lines on sailors’ collars commemorate Nelson?

Home Forums Nautical Research: 1830 – Present Day Lines on sailors’ collars commemorate Nelson?

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      Please note that we will exploring this topic and naval uniform in general in the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Enjoy! Dr Sam Willis, Editor.

      There is a tradition that the three lines on sailors’ collars in dress square rig commemorate Nelson or represent his battles. Can any member
      shed light on this? I assume there had to be a standard rig when this tradition started.


        The three lines are by tradition said to commemorate the Battles of Copenhagen, the Nile and Trafalgar. However, the use of the ‘sailor’s collar’ with three lines in so many other navies – Imperial German Navy, Imperial Austrian Navy, US Navy, French Navy [etc] – might cause one to question this. See for instance:

        The following is a citation from [the official Royal Navy website]:
        ‘The Sailor’s collar deserves a special mention. Tarred pig tails disappeared rapidly after 1815 and the last is recorded as having been seen at sea in 1827. On the other hand, the first broad collars were worn after 1830. Contrary to popular belief, therefore, the two were never worn together. The first collars were not cut square but were round and closely resembled items that were fashionable ashore. The three rows of white tape were probably added for ornament at first; surviving records mention some discussion about whether there should be two rows or three. The more familiar square collar developed as it was easier for the men to cut and sew themselves than the round variety.’

        This was discussed in Mariner’s Mirror 34 (1948) page 308, and it seems that the striped pattern was officially sanctioned initially with two stripes, although it clearly referred to a practice that had been going on prior to that.
        The article suggests that the connection with Nelson’s battles was first made in Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys, London 1909. The popularity of the ‘sailor suit’ for small boys is said to date from an 1846 portrait of Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) kitted out in a scaled-down version of the rig worn by the crew of the Royal Yacht.


          As ex-USN enlisted I can confirm that I was told when I was in the service that the three stripes on the Dress Blue Uniform (informally known as Crackerjacks) was supposed to represent the three battles fought by Nelson as mentioned in the original post. I cannot verify its veracity.
          I was also told that the buttons on the trouser flap was meant to represent the original thirteen colonies. I don’t ever remember being told what the two white stars on the flap represented.
          I knew one bubblehead at Hospital Corpsman school who wore embroidered Chinese dragons patches on the inside of his cuffs on the same uniform. He told me it was unauthorised and discouraged but a tradition among submariners. I believe it was done because of the fact he was a shellback.

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