Knitting for the Seafarer: A 110-Year Tradition

Feb 23, 2011

by Johnathan Thayer, Associate Archivist

These days, the Christmas at Sea knitting program at the Seamen's Church Institute (SCI) delivers more than 19,000 handknit items for seafarers each Christmas season. (Keep updated with Christmas at Sea by following the blog.). SCI traces the origins of the knitting program back to the Spanish-American War. In his 1898 Annual Report, Chaplain of the North River Station Walter A. A. Gardner wrote the following:

"As a consequence of the recent war between this country and Spain, a great field for the distribution of God's Word, the sending of comfort bags, the coming in close touch with our own Navy, has given us the opportunity we have long desired, and we have taken advantage of it to the best of our abilities."

Gardner's mother, Mrs. E. A. Gardner, is credited with first suggesting the idea that SCI send "comfort bags," which contained medical supplies, prayer books, and sewing materials to seafarers on warships. The local press picked up on SCI's efforts, and a troop of volunteers offered their services at the Institute. Soon letters were streaming in from grateful seafarers who had received packages from SCI while at war. In 1900, two years after Mrs. Gardner's suggestion, the Seamen's Benefit Society was formed. Headed by Augusta Morris de Peyster and composed entirely of women, the Society dedicated itself to assisting seafarers in any way it could-from organizing musical and dramatic entertainment to sending flowers to seafarers in the hospital.

In 1914, as war spread quickly abroad, the Seamen's Benefit Society sprang into action. The Society responded to the challenge with enthusiasm. As Miss Chatharine S. Leverich writes in her Annual Report, "During this year, in which the European war has wrought so many disastrous changes, the work of the Seamen's Benefit Society has continued without serious interruption." The Society, which had organized volunteer programs that knit items for the Institute's Sloppe Chest (a supply of clothing, boots, tobacco, and other personal goods for sale to the crew of a ship during a voyage) for visiting seafarers, directed their efforts to the seafarer at war. A World War I era knitting pattern for an official "New Red Cross Sweater" illustrates the sweeping call to action civilians responded to during the war years. A bulletin on the back of the pattern issues a request for items "for the boys at the front" such as hair brushes, leather bill folds, and writing instruments (see picture).

The dark years of World War II saw SCI's knitting program expand to a greater extent than ever before. Thousands of volunteers donated their time, money, and material to assist SCI's Women's Council in knitting clothing and distributing comfort bags. In 1943 alone, 15,987 woolen garments were donated and distributed to seafarers. By 1945, the longstanding tradition of distributing Christmas boxes to seafarers reached an all-time high at 8,108 boxes.

In 1951, the first year of the Korean War, the Knitter's Guild was created at SCI. Over sixty years, the Guild has transformed into the modern day Christmas at Sea program in which knitting groups from around the country work with SCI to continue the work of knitting for the seafarer.

A 1971 letter from a seafarer on the USNS Rigel puts into very real terms just how much such acts of voluntary kindness and goodwill can mean to a seafarer away from home for the holidays:

"Thank you very much for your kindness in sending me the Christmas Box. I am cargo yeoman on this ship and sometimes have to work 10 to 16 hours straight below decks in the cold storage lockers. It is 0 degrees down there so you can be sure I'll get plenty of usage for your hat and scarf. Hope to Stop at your A+ establishment the next time I'm in New York."