Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day: Vintage Dancing Sailors

Sailors dancing with each other aboard USS OLYMPIA
So who can resist a picture of sailors dancing?

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
Currently there is a fundraising campaign to save the USS Olympia. It's not been in dry dock for repairs in over 65 years. It is estimated that it will sink within three years if funds are not raised for its repair.

For more images of vintage men and their relationships (some gay, some straight) visit: Two Men and Their DogAdam and Steve in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between MenA Man and His DogThe Beasts of West PointVintage Men: Innocence Lost | The Photography of William GedneyIt's Only a Paper Moon;Vintage Gay America: Crawford BartonThese Men Are Not Gay | This Is Not A Farmer | DisfarmerDesire and Difference: Hidden in Plain SightCome Make Eyes With Me Under the Anheuser BushHugh Mangum: Itinerant PhotographerTwo men, Two PosesPhotos are Not Always What They Seem,Vintage Sailors: An Awkward RealizationThree Men on a HorseWelkom Bar: Vintage Same Sex MarriagePretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese MenMemorial Day Surprise: Vintage Sailor LoveMemorial Day: Vintage Dancing SailorsThe Curious Case of Two Men EmbracingThey'll Never Know How Close We WereVintage Love: Roger Miller Pegram,Manly Affections: Robert GantHomo Bride and Groom Restored to DignityThe Men in the TreesThe Girl in the OuthouseTommy 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.


  1. Pure curiosity: have you found interracial, or races other than Caucasian, male couples both in uniforms and in civvies?

    US army was segregated from the early 19th century to the outbreak of the Korean War. Navy experimented integrating the crews during WWII. USCGC Sea Cloud and USS might find something.

    1. Great question. I have found a small number of pictures of men of color. I have one that appears to be two Asian-American soldiers.

      Photography was expensive. The oldest images are least likely to include men of color in relationships: there probably not access to cameras and photographers.

      I have been saving my little treasure trove of diverse images until I find one that I can tell a story with -- though some have appeared on Tumblr already without any commentary by me.