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Seamen's Union Knotwork Plaque

Plaque commemorating the passage
of the 1915 Seaman's Act.

(Museum object #1942.530)

This commemorative plaque, which consists of photographs and text set within an intricately knotted ropework frame, was made to commemorate the passage of the milestone 1915 Seamen's Act. The International Seamen's Union of America (ISUA), which commissioned the plaque, called the 1915 Act "the emancipation proclamation for seamen of the world."

In addition to the legislation, this artifact celebrates the traditional skills of the sailor. The frame features at least a dozen decorative knots, including diamond-and-crown knots; an interlaced hitch weave; turk's heads; and spiral, round, and Portuguese square sennets. It is an excellent example of an occupational craft that dates from the era of rigged sailing ships, when detailed knowledge of ropes and knots were essential maritime skills.

The 1915 Seamen's Act is sometimes also called the La Follette Act, after Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. of Wisconsin, who introduced legislation to reform maritime labor laws in 1910 and again in 1913, and was instrumental in the act's final passage. The act had immediate relevance to Wisconsin citizens: the State's Lake Michigan and Superior ports conducted a large maritime trade, and the Lake Seamen's Union (LSU), which represented sailors on the Great Lakes, supported it. Regardless of its local applications, however, this legislation is consistent with La Follette's life-long defense of the rights of average citizens against the forces of economic privilege.

The plaque's text reads in part, "This Act liberates the seamen, the last bondmen within the jurisdiction of the United States." This rhetoric is only slightly exaggerated. For centuries, tradition had accorded captains at sea absolute authority over their crews, and this practice changed remarkably slowly. As late as 1897, in the Arago case, the United States Supreme Court affirmed, based in part on medieval precedents, that imprisonment for desertion from merchant ships was lawful, despite the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning "involuntary servitude." (Opponents argued that desertion was the violation of a civil contract, not punishable by imprisonment.) Some states even maintained fugitive sailor laws, requiring local authorities to capture deserters and return them to their masters.

Seamen had numerous other complaints as well, including corporal punishment; grueling hours; unsafe shipboard conditions; poor food and medical care; overcrowded accommodations (ISUA president Andrew Furuseth called the legal minimum 72 cubic foot forecastle berth "too large for a coffin, too small for a grave"); and the hated "allotment" system. Under this system, a seaman's wages were allotted to his creditors before departing on a voyage. Allotments - which resembled the company stores used to exploit workers on land - were widely abused by unscrupulous captains, boardinghouse masters (often called "crimps"), clothing merchants, and labor brokers to overcharge sailors and keep them in perpetual debt.

Since the 1890s, the ISUA, its predecessors and its regional affiliates - especially the Sailor's Union of the Pacific (SUP) - had fought continually for legislative reforms. While small legal improvements in seamen's conditions were made during the next two decades, it took the La Follette Act to end most of the abuses. Among other provisions, the 1915 act established minimum standards for safety and seamen's qualifications; increased forecastle bunk space from 72 to 120 cubic feet per man; established maximum work hours (nine hours per day in port; two watches per day on deck and three in the engine room while at sea); abolished imprisonment for desertion in foreign ports; and ended the practice of allotment. In addition, by making ship owners, as well as captains liable for surrendering brutal officers ("bucko mates") to authorities, and by eliminating the "fellow servant" rule, (which had previously shielded owners from liability by defining bucko mates as "fellow servants" of those sailors who served under their authority), the act also effectively eliminated corporal punishment.

Two days after President Woodrow Wilson signed the act, La Follette sent the following greeting to the SUP, "I rejoice that in the Providence of God I am permitted at last to hail you as free men under the Constitution of our country." Although shipping companies immediately began chipping away at its provisions, the 1915 Seamen's Act marked a sea-change in the conditions of maritime labor.

This artifact also marks the passing of a traditional way of life and the artistic results of that life. The 1915 Act was passed just as steam power was replacing sails and steel cable was replacing rope. Henceforth, skill with knots would play a decreasingly important role in the lives of commercial sailors.

[Sources: Graumont, Raoul and John Hensel. Encyclopedia of Knots and Fancy Rope Work, 4th ed. (Cambridge, MD: Cornell Maritime Press, 1958); Unger, Nancy C. Fighting Bob La Follette: the Righteous Reformer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).]


Posted on August 31, 2006

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