Monday, September 7, 2015


Houghton Mifflin, 2011
This month my reading group is delving into Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s account of sailing from Boston around Cape Horn to California as a young man in the 1830s. It has a lot of nautical language, and fortunately a glossary is provided in the back of my book, but one funny thing early on is that Dana is at pains to tell us all what "Land ho!" means, while he just drops in the unfamiliar word "oakum" without further explanation.

It was clear at least in context that oakum was a substance used in ship repair. Dana's first mention of it is in explaining all the things sailors got up to because they were never allowed to be idle, and so when there was nothing else left to do they were "picking oakum-ad infinitum".

So what is oakum? I gathered from some other mention in the book that it has something to do with the fact that it involved taking apart old ropes in order to reuse the fibers in other ways. It turns out that oakum is basically what you have when you completely untwine the rope. The fiber is then sometimes treated with tar, as seems to be the case in Dana's book, and then used to caulk the seams in those old wooden ships, among other things.

I was hoping the word had some relation to the slangy word 'hokum', but such is not the case. "Oakum", according to the Online Etymology Dictonary, comes from the Old English word "acumba" which meant "tow, oakum, flax fibers separated by combing" and more literally "what is combed out". the "a" at the beginning means "away, out, off" and the rest comes from "cemban", to comb.

It wasn't just sailors on shipboard who were consigned to picking oakum. According to Wikipedia, it was a common occupation in both workhouses and in prisons of the Victorian era. At a place called Coldbath Fields Prison (a Dickensian name indeed) the prisoners had to pick two pounds a day of this stuff unless they under hard labor--in which case they had to pick three to six pounds a day. It may not sound like hard labor, but in fact the tiny fibers would cut into your fingers very soon.

In the course of looking into all this, I ran across a really interesting blog by a guy named Stuart Godman called AheadofHistory, and in this particular post he describes teaching his students about the Victorian poor by showing them about oakum picking and even getting them to do some. He has a little YouTube clip on the post from a series called "The Worst Jobs in History" and oakum picking features about halfway in:

Speaking of Dickensian, I should have been familiar with the word "oakum" from long ago. I guess I just wasn't paying attention at the time:

" Well, you have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade," said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

" So you 'll begin to pick oakum to-morrow at six o'clock," added the surly one in the white waistcoat. 

For the combination of both these blessings in the one simple process of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction of the beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward: where, on a rough, hard bed, he cried himself to sleep.
                                                          --Oliver Twist, Chapter II

And if you look at this page you can see that "oakum" crops up quite a bit in earlier British and American literature. "Oakum" must have been better known back then, as Dickens uses it in a descriptive way in this sentence from The Old Curiosity Shop:

Sound it might have been, but long it was not, for he had not been asleep a quarter of an hour when the boy opened the door and thrust in his head, which was like a bundle of badly-picked oakum.

It's quite vivid, isn't it, so long as you know what oakum actually looks like

Once again from AheadofHistory


  1. I am all in favor of reusing and repurposing, but the workhouse video is amazing. My finger cracked just watching it! Thank you for a terrific history lesson.

  2. I was hoping you'd see that, Nancy. I think this Head of History is very much a kindred spirit of yours.

    I too found the unexpected history lesson of oakum fascinating.