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Evolution of the Oak Leaf

April 22, 2020 | By CAPT. JAMES C. TILY (RET.)

Reprinted from February 1970 Navy Supply Corps Newsletter

VIRIN: 200422-N-ZZ219-9783

Few Supply Corps officers today can recall the last change in their Corps’ insignia. That was more than 44 years ago when the oak leaf’s color was changed from silver to gold, and the colored cloth between the gold stripes was scuttled.

Before that however, the various “devices” that separated the supply officer from his line contemporary had a bit rougher going. At first, civil or staff officers were distinguished from the line by different numbers of buttons on lapels, cuffs and pockets, or by the color or cut of their coat.

The first uniform instruction to specify “devices” to indicate the profession or specialty of civil officers was approved on May 1, 1830. Medical officers were directed to wear the club of Aesculapius, the staff and serpent, embroidered in gold on either side of their full dress collars. Pursers (from the Latin “bursar,” meaning treasurer), wore a gold embroidered cornucopia.

The forerunner of today’s Supply Corps device - the cornucopia, or horn of plenty, worn on the dress coat, became the mark of the supply expert. The use of live oak leaves and acorns as a decoration of the Navy uniform– a symbol that has, in one form or another, carried over into today’s missile age–was also introduced in the year 1830.

The purser’s device was changed in 1841. A strip of live oak leaves and acorns replaced the cornucopia on the collar of the full dress coat.

In 1847, there was another change. Medical officers and pursers had been assigned relative rank by the Secretary of the Navy. Pursers with more than 12 years service were to rank with commanders. Those with less than 12 years, ranked with lieutenants. The granting of relative rank to two classes of civil officers was reflected in a “Regulation Change and Modification of Uniforms” that year. Both surgeons and pursers were directed to wear epaulets and shoulder straps, a privilege previously reserved for sea officers, captains, commanders and lieutenants. The latter officers, however, wore a “swab” on the right shoulder only. As a corps device, pursers wore the old English letters “P.D.” within the crescent of their epaulets and in the center of the shoulder straps.

The uniform regulations of March 1852 added the “P.D.” to the purser’s cap, encircling it by a wreath of oak leaves. In September 1852, however, the “P.D.” device was removed from the epaulets, shoulder straps and cap. It was replaced on the straps and cap by an oak sprig of three leaves and two acorns. That shoulder strap device was quite similar to today’s Supply Corps insignia.

Uniform regulations of 1864 show the previous design of the device, but now it is of silver instead of gold. While this was not changed by the 1869 uniform regulations an additional method of identifying staff officers was introduced. All officers, line and staff, since 1862 had worn gold lace on their sleeves to indicate rank or relative rank in the case of staff officers. From 1863, line officers had worn a five-pointed gold star above the upper strip of lace. Each staff corps was assigned a distinctive colored cloth to be worn between the gold lace sleeve stripes. In the case of a staff officer entitled to one strip of lace, the colored cloth showed a quarter of an inch on either side of the stripe. The color assigned to the Pay Corps was white. It is to be noted that Congress in 1860 had directed that pursers were to be called paymasters. Also, under an 1869 order, all commissioned officers, except chaplains, professors of mathematics and naval constructors, were directed to wear the same cap device, a silver spread eagle standing on a gold embroidered fouled anchor. Thus, the Pay Corps device disappeared forever from the cap.

The description of the Supply Corps device as it appeared in the uniform regulations of 1922 is still in effect today, “A sprig of three oak leaves and three acorns, to be embroidered in gold, with an acorn on each side of the stem and one acorn between the two upper leaves, leaves and acorns to be distinctly and separately outlined, except where brought together at the stem of the sprig.”

Reason for the oak leaf as a symbol for the Supply Corps is lost somewhere in naval history. One explanation suggests that oak was once the main source of building our early fleet. Another points out that the oak tree has been a constant symbol of strength and sturdiness. With the addition of the third acorn and minor modifications, this same device, first authorized in September 1852, has been virtually unchanged ever since. The Pay Corps device, however, continued to be described as an oak sprig. Regulations approved in 1886 picture the sprig with three acorns, two at the stem and one between the upper leaves, the present arrangement. On July 1, 1921, the use of colored cloth by the staff corps was abolished. It was directed that the appropriate corps device be worn above the upper strip of gold lace on the sleeve and on the shoulder marks. The Pay Corps device was then changed from silver to gold.