Watchcoats.

by Ralph & Mary Briggs

Any re-enactor who has spent any time in The Hobby eventually considers what may be appropriate cold weather gear for their character. One of the warmest that comes to mind is the coat. And just what is the appropriate overcoat for the winter soldier?

1753 watchcoat
Fig. A. 1753 Watchcoat. Help! Help! I lost my source for this image! If you know where I found it, PLEASE tell me!
Most everyone is aware of the Canadian blanket coat, or capote, of Burgoyne's army as sketched by Von Germann (Katcher, p. 68, also interpreted by McGregor, Mollo, p. 190). Howe's army was instead issued watchcoats at the rate of 20 per regiment, or 2 per company (WO 1/890). As the British army was usually quartered in the off-warring season in towns, there would be little need for soldiers not on patrol or picket to have heavy coats, hence the low number issued.

Katcher makes several references to watchcoats in the Continental army. General Montgomery had a brown watchcoat listed among his effects after his death at Quebec (p. 119). A red watchcoat belonging to the Invalid Regiment is mentioned as being liberated by a deserter (p. 49). A "red duffel watchcoat" is mentioned in a list of personal effects of a Lt. Roger Hooker of the 22nd Continental Regiment. A deserter from the same regiment is described wearing a "red duffel greatcoat" (pp. 47 & 48). A Continental Marine is described wearing a blue greatcoat (p. 187). Material to produce "a suit of Cloths and Great Coat..." for North Carolina's Continental officers includes "coating" (p. 128).

pattern
Fig. B, Great-coat pattern by M. de Garsault (Waugh, p. 95).
The Watch Coat or Great Coat (fig. A), known also as the Surtout or Cape Coat, became increasingly popular with civilians throughout the 18th century. Variations were also known at different times as the Wrap-Rascal and Redingote.

Montgomery in Textiles in America 1650-1870, defines the materials for us. "Duffel" is a "heavy, napped woolen cloth," which was very popular in blue and red, "in demand for overcoats and seamen's garments." "Coating" is a "thick, heavy woolen cloth with a long nap... Bath coating, a specialty of that town, was described as 'a thick kind of double raised baize... used for women's petticoats, and a winter article; it is also to be had in nearly all colours, and such goods are used for cloaks.' " "Baize" is a "heavy woolen cloth, well felted and usually raised, or napped, on both sides." The photograph of coating in Textiles shows it to have a very long nap, perhaps as much as a half-inch. Other materials mentioned were "drab," "cloth," and "frieze," which are variations of the above, plus "waterproof cloth" (Cunnington, p. 225). Apparently, the outer shell was usually similar to a tight-weave woolen blanket materia1 with a heavy nap.

M. de Garsault was kind enough to leave us a pattern for the great-coat (fig. B) in his treatise L'Art du Tailleur, 1769. It is a four-panel overcoat, but unlike the capote it is tailored to the male form. Note the shapes of the front and back panels, a and b, and the curved sleeve. Stylistically similar to the frock (not to be confused with the rifle frock), it is large and loose, reaches below the knees, and has full sleeves and round cuffs with buttons. The back vent is open quite high to allow horseriding, but can button closed with three buttons. The side vents may be closed, but on early versions a slit on the left is always allowed for the sword (fig. C). In our period it closes from the neck to the waist with metal buttons, though earlier styles may button to the hem. It occasionally has a belt, or half-belt, which buttons in the front. It usually has pockets with flaps set on the same line as the regimental and waistcoat. It is partially or fully lined in various colors with smooth linen, cotton or silk. (Cunnington, pp. 72, 76-78 and Waugh, pp. 86, 89 & 95).

Fig. C, 1730 Great Coat. Redrawn from Lelior, Historie di Costume, Vol XI, Figure 11B. (Payne, p. 392) Note the early styling of the very long cuffs and full skirts.
It's most distinquishing characteristic, the great-coat is caped with one to three capes, usually one of which is a very wide falling collar that can turn up and button high on the face. In the 18th-century the word "cape" describes any kind of falling collar (as opposed to the standing collar), however narrow (Cunnington, p. 38). On a single-caped coat the button-closing collar would then double as the cape, as illustrated in fig D.

Captain Coram
Fig. D, Madder red, lined orange, after a portrait of Captain Coram by Hogarth, 1740 (ASI Cunnington, p.77. Color version in Leonard, p. 34). Note the large "cape" (collar).
Beth Gilgun in Tidings, has a workable interpretation of the great coat, however period illustrations that show the largest cape extending any further down the shoulders than just covering the sleeve seam are rare. A coat made in the '70's would also likely have cuffs no wider than five inches.

The relaxed fit of the great-coat would make it much easier to tailor than the regimental coat, but the weight of the material may be taxing on some machines.

If anyone has any more specific information on the watchcoats issued to either army, or on any of the questions previously posed here, we would be very grateful to hear from you at 1537 31st, Des Moines, IA, 50311 or contact us by e-mail at rbriggs@nwta.com.

Stay warm!

triple-caped
Fig. E, A double-breasted, triple-caped example of the third-quarter. (Warwick. p.158).
1786 coachman
Fig. F, Coachman's great-coat, 1786. Note smaller cuffs and skirts.(Phillipson, ASI Cunnington, p. 224)

SOURCES

Cunnington, C.Willett and Phillis, Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century, Philadelphia, Dufour Editions, 1957.

Gilgun, Beth, Tidings from the 18th Century, Rebel Publishing Co., Texarkana, TX, 1993

Leonard, Jonathon Norton, The World of Gainsborough 1727-1788, Time-Life Books, NY, 1969- page 35, portrait, Captain Coram, 1740

Katcher, Philip, Uniforms of the Continental Army, George Shumway, York, Pennsylvania, 1981

Mollo, John, Uniforms of the American Revolution in Color, Macmillan Publishing, Inc., NY, 1975

Montgomery, Florence, Textiles in America 1650-1870, W.W. Norton & Co, NY, 1984

Payne, Blanche, History of Costume, Harper & Row, NY, 1965

Warwick, Edward, Henry C. Pitz, Alexander Wyckoff, Early American Dress, The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods, Bonanza Books, NY, 1965

Waugh, Norah, The Cut of Men's Clothes, 1600-1900, Routledge Theatre Arts Books, NY, 1964