The Ditty Bag is “a small bag in which a sailor keeps small tools and equipment, also personal articles” according
to John Rogers in Origins of Sea Terms: A modern glossary of seagoing terminology. But what is a ditty bag and
how did it evolve? The ditty box is a variation in shape and material, but not in purpose of the ditty bag.
The ditty bag and the sea bag, a relative of the ditty bag,were the first projects for an apprentice either in the sail-
maker's trade or as a working seaman. The reason for this is that these items incorporated primary skills when
making and repairing sails. According to McLeod (1947), “Apart from the use of the gear, making a bag is good
practice for other jobs where cutting out is involved”, referring to the sea bag itself, “among the 'old-timers' there
is a tradition that a 'proper sailor's bag' must contain five flat seams, the bottom also being put in with a flat
seam.” Besides learning the techniques of seaming, making twine grommets and sewing eyelets, the bags were
an essential part of the sailor's sea-going wardrobe.
There are innumerable variations of the ditty bag; some are very intricate but most are simple and functional.
They did have, and still do have one common purpose and that is to hold the sailor’s personal possessions and
some tools of the trade. It was said that the old sailor referred to his ditty bag as a “housewife”, because in it he
had all the essentials for repairing his clothing, personal belongings and generally everything on deck. For an
unknown reason the bag was also known as a “jewing bag” and was hung from a hammock ring or perhaps a
hook or peg next to his bunk in the forecastle. These bags generally were companions to the sailor’s sea bags
or sea chests. Though these items were widely used, little is known about their origin and how they evolved.
The ditty bag, along with it’s close cousin the ditty box, goes a long way back in history as do many traditional
maritime methods and implements. The origin of the name is lost in the fog of time. It is stated by Admiral Smyth
(1867) however, in his Sailor’s Word Book, the ditty bag got it’s name from the word “dittis” or Manchester stuff,
from which it was once made. This too is somewhat obscure, since little is known of “Manchester stuff”. The
manufacturers of textiles in Manchester deny ever making such cloth. It was said that the bag was cut and sewn
by sailmakers and was twelve inches in length and five inches in diameter. This varied greatly however, as I
observed when investigating early and later day bags in museum collections. In 1923 an answer to a query in
the Mariners Mirror on the origin of the bag and the derivation of the word ditty bag and ditty box, emphasized
the ambiguity of the origins of these names. They pursued the word dight, in the Oxford Dictionary, a word with
many meanings, but one is, “to repair, put to rights, put in order”. It is said that this word’s latest use in general
speech was in 1580, but that it occurs in dialect as late as 1877. It can be assumed that from these sorts of
origins the word found its way afloat. An alternative theory suggests that the word came from Scotland or
northern England, and that it could have been derived from the term, “dudds”, “duddies”, or “duiddies” denoting
cloths, especially working cloths. (2)
The general contents of both the ditty bag and box varied little from that of the sewing basket of a frugal
housewife on shore (with the exception of some sea going paraphernalia); hence the name “housewife” which
was given to it. It is said that in the Royal Navy they contained beeswax, varied needles, buttons of different
types common on clothing of the period, pins, white tape, Dutch tape, thimble, whited brown thread, black thread,
worsted blue and scraps of light duck. These items were generally carried in a small wooden box, round or
square, or rolled in cloth, tied, and carried in the ditty bag along with the owner’s other personal items. An
interesting quote from Bechervaise (1839) referring to 1820, “Thursday, making and mending clothes occupies
the whole day, when Jack has a fair opportunity … of examining his ditty bag and having a view of all the little
presents he had from his friends or sweethearts ‘ere he left home”.
There were other historical references to the contents of the ditty bag – a marlinspike, a fid, a palm and needles,
a bullock’s horn full of grease and sundry other articles to make the work easier; Holmes (1903).
Moffat (1910) noted, “I wonder how many sailors of the present day carry a ditty bag which, in my time, was hung
up at the head clew of every sailor’s hammock, and which contained marlinspike, pricker, palm, seam rubber,
sailhook, a case with needles, usually hitched all round with twine, the tip of a horn full of grease, and a fancy
THE STRUCTURE OF A DITTY BAG
As I have mentioned, ditty bags varied in size, quality and intricacy. The one common aspect to all bags was
their size and cloth weight. From measurements and photographs of many ditty bags made in maritime museums
and other collections I was able to determine the average dimensions and
characteristics of old ditty bags. The average diameter was six inches, with a typical
length of fourteen inches. This average, as is the case with so many artifacts of the
seafaring trade is variable. Ashley (1944) gave an average bag diameter of seven
inches and a length of fourteen inches. The lanyard lengths are possibly the most
variable, not only in length but in style. That is, they vary from the most rudimentary
to the most exquisite in fancy work and quality of workmanship. The average length
of the lanyard is about eighteen inches, with each leg
length approximately half to two thirds of the circumference of the bag. The fancy work
of the lanyard handle is approximately six to eight inches in length. The lanyard was
fastened to between four and twelve hand sewn eyelets, generally sewn around hand-
laid marline grommets. The cloth used in the construction of a ditty bag was generally
No. 12 duck canvas or lighter. (Fig 1)
There are departures from the common cylindrical flat bottomed bad, the most notable being in the Peabody
Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The bag is made of four panels, measuring five inches in diameter and twelve
inches in length. The four longitudinal panel seams are sewn together with a cloth piping
of contrasting color, in this case black. The bottom, through a continuation of the side
panels, is cut approximately half an inch greater than half the diameter. These pieces
are cut into slightly curved gores which, when sewn together with piping, form a bowl-
shaped bottom. It has ten lanyard legs, fastened to quarter inch outside diameter eyelets
that were sewn into a one and a half inch tabling. This is an outstanding piece of
workmanship. (Fig. 2) Another example similar to this bag can be seen in Ashley (1944),
in the preface photographs on page 574. Another bag of similar design is described in
Smith (1960). Using a single piece of cloth, a hexagonal bottom is formed by cutting six
gores which are then sewn together without contrasting piping. This bag measures
seven and a half inches in diameter and twelve inches long, and utilises only six eyelets.
THE DITTY BOX
The Ditty box, according to the Oxford Companion to Ships And The Sea, “Is a small wooden box in which a sailor
kept his valuables, such as letters from home, photographs, etc.”
The origins and function of the ditty box were doubtless much the same as the ditty bag; a receptacle for carrying
and stowing a sailor’s possessions and small working and sewing items. It was more frequently found on Navy
Since hygiene was of great concern to some at sea, Dr. Gihon of the U.S. Navy, advised in 1872 that ditty boxes
should be allowed in preference to bags(1). The bags, if unwashed, would not maintain the cleanliness which
was important aboard ship. The doctor also considered the ditty box preferable to the ditty bag because it could
not only contain paper and pen, but also serve as a writing desk. Those that were issued to the seamen of the U.
S. Navy prior to the First World War were white wooden boxes, six by six by twelve inches, and contained a
receptacle for an ink bottle and a built-in trough just under the lid for pens and pencils. The boxes were kept
spotlessly white by being scrubbed every Saturday and placed in a rack specially built for their stowage.
Not all ditty boxes were made this way, however. They varied in size, shape and style. Some resembled
miniature sea chests, some were short and round, and some were round and slightly deeper, always adapting
and conforming to the maker’s needs. The most common of all was the small round ditty box, with a fitted lid.
The most exquisite and complete ditty box of this type that I have seen is at the Peabody Museum in Salem,
Massachusetts. The box is round, and constructed like a small Shaker Box. Instead of wood, however, it is made
of baleen, approximately five inches in diameter and three inches deep and contained all its original sewing items
and materials. Its contents included needles of varied sizes, thread and twine, buttons and scraps of various
types of cloth used for patching.
There is no question that the ditty box was made and used by sailors on the early whaling ships which hunted in
the far north, since many examples remain in whaling and maritime museums. An interesting facet of this is in the
adoption of the ditty box by the Eskimos, possible through trade or just imitating a good thing. This derivation
results in the early Eskimo sewing kits which were also called “wives” or housewives” and examples may be seen
in several state and private museums in Alaska. Some of these sewing kits in the native ditty boxes are quite
elaborate, resembling the early rolled needle cases and pouches used by sailmakers.
THE STRUCTURE OF A DITTY BOX
Like the ditty bag, ditty boxes also vary very considerably.
Although there was a standard Navy issue of the type described a
above, elsewhere the box was made to fit the needs and whims of
the sailors who made them. Most of the boxes I have observed
are round and average about five inches in diameter and three
inches deep. The materials used in their construction vary greatly,
as does the style of the lid. An example is shown in Fig. 3.
MAKING A TRADITIONAL DITTY BAG
For those readers interested in making a traditional sailor’s ditty bag, the following pattern can be used.
In order to make a bag that measures six inches in diameter and fourteen inches high, a piece of light canvas
sixteen by twenty-eight inches is required. From this canvas
two pieces are cut as shown in plan drawing, Fig. 4. One is sixteen
by twenty-one inches, and from the remainder a circle seven inches
in diameter is made. To make the construction of the bag easier,
it is best to mark and fold all seam “sew to lines” and grommet holes
shown in Fig. 4.
Since this is not a “how to” article, I will not go into the method of
construction, sewing techniques, grommet and lanyard making, etc.
This is well documented in books listed in the accompanying reference
This article merely scratches the surface of the history, form and variations of the sailor’s ditty bag and box, and
should not be considered in any sense definitive. If any readers have any further information regarding these
items I would be very pleased if they could contact me.
My thanks to the staff at the Peabody Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport Museum, The Library of
the San Francisco Maritime Museum for their assistance, and especially to the many old sailors and sailmakers who have helped
me in the past.
Ashley, Clifford W., 1944 The Ashley Book OF Knots, Doubleday & Co., Inc., NY pp.576-577
Bechervaise, 1839, Thirty-six Years of Seafaring life, London.
Holmes, Capt. 1903 Life and Adventures on the Ocean, a personal narrative, R.E. King and Co., Ltd., London
Mcleod, William A. 1947, Canvas Work, Brown, Son & Ferguson, Ltd., Glascow
Moffat, H.Y., 1910. From Ship’s Boy to Skipper, Paisley: Alexander Gardner
Smyth, William H., 1867, The Sailor’s Word Book, Blackie & Son, London
Modern references to the sailor’s ditty bag:
Rogers, John G., 1985, Origins of Sea Terms, Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc.
Rosenow, frank, 1976, The Ditty Bag Book, Sail Books, Boston
Smith, Hervy Garret, 1960, The Marlinspike Sailor, 1968, The Arts of the Sailor.
(1) Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 59, pp 452.
(2) Mariner’s Mirror, Vol 9, pp 218
Louie Bartos is a sailmaker from Ketchikan, Alaska, and may claim the distinction of being the most northern member of the
Friends of HOBSON WHARF.
Originally printed in "Bearings", the Newsletter of the Auckland Maritime Museum (Auckland, NZ) 1992, Vol.4, No.4 , pp 56-58.
|The Sailor's Traditional
Ditty Bag and Ditty Box
An overview of their history and form
by Louie Bartos
|Click on any
picture to bring
up a larger
|LET ME TRY TO KEEP YOU IN STITCHES...
My page of the musings of
Master Sailmaker LOUIS BARTOS
of MARINER SAILS in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Louie Bartos is a Master Sailmaker in Alaska who hand-makes authentic traditional sails as well as producing modern sails for
pleasure and racing vessels. There are very few left like him and when he speaks, I listen, because you'll rarely find someone more
qualified to speak on the subjects of sailmaking and it's history/applications.
Herewith a page of his musings and observations as he has shared with me and which (with his permission) I now share with you.
Louie may be reached thru his website above.
NEW: Just spoke to Louie and he's in process on a booklet of instruction detailing making a ditty bag and a seabag in the
traditional manner.... this is VERY exciting and I'll continue to post here as to it's progress and availability!
First, an article he wrote some years back on the origins and uses of the Ditty Bag and Ditty Box;
Next, a very short Paragraph and illustration on the "flat" canvas seam;
Let me start by saying that the following comments are NOT derogatory, they are meant to HELP and possibly improve the
work of our fellow "knotters" that keep attempting to make "ditty bags", even though they are FAR from traditional.
Seaming: The seaming that I have observed applied to "armature" ditty bags is NOT correct, and here is the reason: Workers
are taking too much 'bite' with the needle under the bottom cloth; also the angle of the needle is not correct, it should be at
around 45 degrees to the selvage line of the cloth. Below are two examples of the correct form or method of making a flat
(more to come 2007-01-08)