Monday, August 5, 2019

Early Life Saver Equipment

by Anita Mae Draper

Compared to the life vests we wear while out on the water today, the bulky cork-filled ones of the Victorian age seem impractical, yet when they were invented in 1854 by Admiral Ward of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the canvas-covered cork provided a strong and buoyant piece of equipment for lifesavers and the people they were rescuing. 

Wallis Sands Life-Saving crew, New Hampshire wearing "storm suits" with cork life vests, undated. Public Domain

Due to the strong, high ocean surf, Australians were the first to use a rope and reel system for ocean rescues. A metal cradle sat in the sand holding a large reel to which rope had been wound. A lifebelt was tied to the end of the rope and the lifesaver pulled this out into the surf to the hapless swimmer. Some records state the lifesaver wore the lifebelt which left his arms free to hold the victim above water as they were reeled back to shore. Other versions state that the lifesaver put the lifebelt on the victim who was then reeled back to shore while the lifesaver swam alongside, or went to rescue others. Regardless, the rope and reel was an integral piece of equipment to most life saving crews. 

Prior to 1900, layers of cork was the preferred choice for flotation devices. The pieces were curved into a ring or horseshoe-shaped and covered with strong waterproofed canvas. The following image shows the inside of a cork lifebelt. Beside it is an image of an actual cork-filled canvas-covered lifebelt from the RMS Lusitania which went down after being torpedoed in 1915. 

The International Shipping & Shipbuilding Directory 1891 Yearbook, states a description for Buoyant Apparatus, Life Belts, and Life-Buoys: "Life-belts are to be cut out 2 in. under the armpits, and fitted so as to remain securely in their place when put on." That was difficult when the filler was cork.

Around 1900, manufacturers began making lifebelts and life vests filled with the light, buoyant, and resistant to water fibers of the kapok tree. Although kapok was highly flammable, it became the industry standard in 1918 because it was the overall safer and most comfortable choice for flotation devices. 

Kapok images found on Wikimedia 

As well as cork and kapok, manufacturers of life preservers and lifebelts and vests in the first two decades of the 20th century could choose from fillers such as ravenswood (1904), balsa wood (1909), and a combination of cork-filled life jacket with a kapok collar (1919).

Kapok's use as a filler for personal flotation devices lost favor once new fibers began being mass produced. For instance regenerated cellulose fiber known as rayon was being spun as early as 1901. Other manufactured materials were helping to evolve life saving equipment and clothing, but most were decades away from mass production.

A device for spinning Viscose Rayon dating from 1901. Wikipedia Public Domain

If you're interested in natural fibers, kapok is still used and sold as a natural fiber and filler, however you might want to check the flammability rating.

Do you have a preferred personal flotation device? I've always favored the orange nylon life jacket with soft filled compartments and a collar because of the flexibility of movement, however they don't seem to sell them anymore. How about you?


Anita Mae Draper lives on the Canadian prairies where she uses her experience and love of history to enhance her stories of yesteryear's romance with realism and faith. Readers can enrich their story experience with visual references by checking Anita's Pinterest boards. All links available on her website at


  1. I don't have an opportunity to use flotation devices so I don't have a preference. Thanks for the interesting post!

    1. Connie, thanks for visiting. As soon as I saw that I already had a comment my first thought was, Connie's been here. :) I do enjoy your comments.

  2. This was really interesting. We don't swim much, so I've never thought much about the history of life jackets. Those cork vests look odd, but it was quite an ingenuous invention for that time.

    1. I agree about the cork vests looking odd, Vickie. I couldn't imagine my bulletin board inside a life preserver until I saw the museum image on wikipedia/wikimedia. I'm not sure about the use of metal nails, though. Would love to see one "in action".

      Thanks for stopping in, Vickie.

  3. This post is fascinating. My ancestral family is from the west coast of Denmark. They used vests similar to those in an article I read about a 1870's ship disaster. Your whole article is very interesting though, thanks and the photos are great!

    1. Oh, that's exciting to match genealogy details with old newspapers. I love that part of family history research.

      Thanks for mentioning the photos. Sometimes it's hard to imagine what used to be until we see an image of what actually was. And Sandi, thanks for stopping by and sharing with us.