|Sailors dancing with each other aboard USS OLYMPIA|
As with many of the images depicting intimacy and friendship between men, the image on the left originally came to me with no information. I don't like photos without captions--especially images of dancing sailors.
A simple Google image search brought me to the Library of Congress. This image was captured aboard the USS Olympia in 1899 by the photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston.
The Olympia was launched on November 5, 1892 and weighed in at 5,676 tons. The vessel's claim to fame was that it served as the flagship of Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay during the 1898 Spanish-American war. The ship returned to port in Boston on October 10, 1899. It was reported that the officers and crew of the USS Olympia were feted and the ship was repainted complete with a gilded bow. The ship was decommissioned in November and placed in reserve.
Perhaps these images of the dancing sailors were taken as part of that party? Johnston's photos came the year the vessel was decommissioned. It wasn't specified if the picture was taken as part of the decommissioning ceremony or not.
|Sailors aboard the OLYMPIA waltzing at tiffin time|
So what are we to think about these images of men dancing? Many online bloggers have interpreted this images as depicting same-sex attraction and love. While it would be a lovely thought to think of men loving other men openly in another era, this is most definitely not the case in these two images. Looking at these images we forget that men used to have more intimacy and physical closeness available to them on a day-to-day basis than men do today.
These men were probably celebrating--a victorious end of a war and very likely also the celebration that marked the decommissioning of their vessel. The men were dancing together because there were no women on board, and celebrations required dancing, so they made do with their fellow sailors. Prior to the sexually regressive 50s, and the rise of rampant homonegativity, heterosexual men had significantly more latitude in their choices of expressing intimacy and friendship. Hand holding, touching, and loving embraces were not cordoned off behind a wall of homonegativity and deemed appropriate only for men who identified as gay.
How sad--and limited--male friendships have become.
|Frances B. Johnston and Admiral Dewey on the deck of the U.S.S. Olympia|
For more images of vintage men and their relationships (some gay, some straight) visit: Two Men and Their Dog; Adam and Steve in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between Men; A Man and His Dog; The Beasts of West Point; Vintage Men: Innocence Lost | The Photography of William Gedney; It's Only a Paper Moon;Vintage Gay America: Crawford Barton; These Men Are Not Gay | This Is Not A Farmer | Disfarmer; Desire and Difference: Hidden in Plain Sight, Come Make Eyes With Me Under the Anheuser Bush, Hugh Mangum: Itinerant Photographer, Two men, Two Poses; Photos are Not Always What They Seem,Vintage Sailors: An Awkward Realization, Three Men on a Horse, Welkom Bar: Vintage Same Sex Marriage, Pretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese Men, Memorial Day Surprise: Vintage Sailor Love, Memorial Day: Vintage Dancing Sailors, The Curious Case of Two Men Embracing, They'll Never Know How Close We Were, Vintage Love: Roger Miller Pegram,Manly Affections: Robert Gant, Homo Bride and Groom Restored to Dignity, The Men in the Trees, The Girl in the Outhouse, Tommy and Buzz: All My Love,Men in Photo Booths, and Invisible: Philadelphia Gay Wedding c. 1957. You can also follow me on Tumblr.
I've included a selection of images of vintage military men and their relationships to honor Memorial Day. I've yet to research the background of any of these images.
Update 23 February 2014
Just imagine in a hundred years, when the contextual understanding of our culture has disappeared, what people might think of this clip. What seems clearly understood today will not be so clearly known tomorrow. Remember this when viewing these vintage men.