Darn, these kids today have it easy

Back in high school, our U.S. History and English teachers got together and assigned us to write a short story in a well-researched historical American setting. Mine was in Boston of the 1770s. One of my characters was an officer in the British navy, and I really wanted to describe his appearance. But I was never able to find a source to tell me what color the uniform should be. I spent hours and hours in various libraries, poring over books, trying to find some hint, with no luck. It was probably there, but my seventeen-year-old self didn’t know how to find it. In the end, I made something up, and got marked off for having a detail with no source.

For kicks, I searched Google just now for “18th century british naval uniforms“. The very first hit tells me that “the British Royal Navy has been the basis of most of the world’s naval uniforms from the time they adopted their dark blue officers’ uniforms in 1748.”

Now they tell me.

An interesting footnote: The Mac I wrote this story on, nine years ago, is long gone, but I still have a copy, copied from hard drive to hard drive over the years. So I tried opening it just now. I wrote it using Word 5.1, and Word 2004 opened it without complaint, but while it retained all the formatting information perfectly, it replaced the actual characters with little boxes. I was able to recover the text (ironically enough, the Windows version of Word was able to open it perfectly), but this sort of thing makes me nervous about electronic document preservation.

In the interest of completeness, I’ve made a PDF and put the thing online. If anyone wants to read it and find out if I got the color right, feel free. Personally, I’ve been too embarrassed to get that far into it.

5 thoughts on “Darn, these kids today have it easy

  1. I admit to mostly skimming it at a quick clip to find the uniform color, but here’s what you said about it: “The man was dressed in his dress uniform, a resplendid [sic] navy blue….” So it seems that your guessing ability was quite good, although I’m not nearly as sure about the adjective preceeding it. (An early case of partial-edit syndrome, perhaps?)

    As for the bit on reliability of electronic document preservation — that’s far from the only reasons why I tend to use writing programs that save everything in human-readable format, but I do consider it a very distinct advantage. There is the point that, even if it’s human-readable, reading the source file is rather different from being able to see the properly formatted version, though, and one is left in a state of needing to extricate and recover the document’s contents, rather than simply being able to read them.

  2. It occurs to me, now that I re-read that, that those uniforms are almost certainly the origin of referring to the color as “navy blue”. Although the OED somewhat implies that the color had been adopted by a number of other navies (notably the US) by the time the phrase came into use in the mid-1800s.

    (It also, in the usage examples, quotes a 1994 newspaper article which describes a bedroom “rag-painted in tomato red, navy blue, and lime green”. The mind reels.)

  3. A cute little story. When I was in eleventh grade my writing was often completely incoherent, so of course I am impressed.

  4. Your Word problem is a simple font issue; the PC had the font in which the original doc was written installed, and the Mac did not. That’s what those little boxes mean.

  5. Wow! I am 17 now and I just came across your story. I wish i could write half as good as that.

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