Behind the Line – Ship’s Slops

“Now Jack,” said Captain Garrett. “Have a look through the ship’s slops. I want ye to find Emma some clothing suitable for working aboard the New Adventure. I think ye two are almost of a size? And get her something to eat. No doubt, she is hungry.”

The Day the Pirates Went Mad, Chapter 4: Caught, pg 27.
#TDTPiratesWentMad - Ship's Slops - Who Shall Be Captain - Howard Pyle
“Who Shall Be Captain?” by Howard Pyle, Public Domain via

Emma has come aboard the New Adventure wearing her everyday clothing from the orphanage – a much-mended, plain, grey broadcloth dress. Naturally, as Captain Garrett points out, she will need something more suitable for working as a sailor – but slops? Aren’t those for feeding pigs?

A Few Different Slops

In English, having multiple definitions for the same word is frequently par for the course and as times change, occasionally so do the meanings of the words we use. So when writing dialogue for a different period, it behooves us to look into whether a word or phrase would have been (in)appropriate for the time. Does “slops” fit our context?

The Free Dictionary mentions “slops” as:

  • To spill over; overflow
  • Soft mud or slush
  • Unappetizing watery food or soup
  • Waste food used to feed pigs or other animals; swill

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary adds:

  • A product of little or no value
  • Sentimental effusiveness in speech or writing

Both cite naval and clothing usages of “slops”, including these via The Free Dictionary:

  • Cheap, ready-made clothing
  • Clothing, bedding, etc. supplied to sailors from the ship’s stores
  • Short, baggy trousers worn by men, esp. sailors, in the 16th and 17th centuries

Seafaring Slops

These last definitions are the ones we’re most interested in. And in researching clothing during the late 17th and early 18th century, it turns out that slops evolved from referring to a specific style of wide, knee-length trousers to eventually mean any clothing worn by sailors.

“The term ‘SLOPS’ comes from an Old English word sloppe or slyppe, which in Chaucer’s time, referred to a loose garment such as a smock, baggy trousers, or other type of breeches. The word sloppr, was also used by Vikings, and had a similar meaning. It later developed into a sort of unofficial uniform when the original clothing, in which men joined their ships, wore out. If only for economic reasons, the clothes tended to be all of the same pattern and colour.”

Pirate & Privateer Clothing, Shady Isle Pirate Society

Gentlemen of Fortune lays out this change of usage in Getting Started With a Basic Kit:

  • In the 16th century “slops” was the word for the fashion of wide, puffy trousers with a knee band
  • By the early 17th century the knee bands were removed and this was the birth of the seaman’s trousers
  • In the 17th century, the English navy introduced the slop system and slops came to mean all clothing sold by the Purser from the “slop chest”
  • By the late 17th through the 18th centuries, “slops” referred to a seaman’s “fit outs” or sailors clothing in general, not just a pair of trousers

For further reading about the history of clothing & how much pirates valued clothes,
check out Pirates and Their Clothes by Cindy Vallar
along with the links in her recommended resources.

In summary, for our scene set in 1702, it seems reasonable for Captain Garrett to refer casually to the store aboard the New Adventure of all manner of clothing and related articles as “the ship’s slops”.

And that’s what’s behind the line in the quote above. 🙂