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Claim: "Dogs and sailors: Keep off the grass" admonishments were commonly displayed in U.S. naval towns.
Origins: While the additional revenues flowing into civilian communities from nearby military installations are always greeted
with open arms, those members of the forces who arrive in town bearing those dollars often are not. Locals view sailors, soldiers, and air force personnel on leave as marauding hordes, out to get drunk, start fights, wreck property, and despoil the womenfolk. An uneasy truce frequently exists in such towns, with the area's permanent residents paying lip service to the military's being a welcome addition to the locale even as they regard its personnel with barely disguised suspicion and mistrust, and the military folks sensing (if not openly experiencing) this lack of hospitality.
Those in the services do often feel about as welcome in town as the proverbial skunk at a picnic. This sense of being barely tolerated is sometimes expressed as a prevalent ''Sailors and dogs keep off the grass'' attitude on the part of the townspeople, a reference to a sign numerous old salts claim to have encountered in U.S. ports where they have been
However, anecdote aside, no one has produced convincing evidence of such notices having been a common sight anywhere in the U.S. While prank versions do exist (such as the doormat displayed in the graphic above), real photos of real signs or sightings of same by reliable sources (e.g., contemporaneous news accounts, historians) are sparse. For instance, Norfolk's venerable and prolific historian George Holbert Tucker said he never once saw a ''Dogs and Sailors'' sign, and little escaped his notice in his 80-odd years of familiarity with that city's local lore.
Those in the military have a folkloric history of being regarded as sources of contamination by the civilian population. In 1943, for instance, one of the tales dealt with by a rumor clinic run by a Reno, Nevada, newspaper fretted about the spread of venereal disease to local children who frequented a
municipal swimming pool also used by soldiers. In the civilian mind at least, soldiers were presumed to be riddled with sexually-transmitted diseases.
"No dogs or sailors" signs have purportedly been sighted in a variety of U.S. cities across a span of 50-odd years, from the 1930s to the 1970s. The most commonly-encountered version of the rumor places the offensive notices in Norfolk, Virginia, during the 1940s:
In late 1946, Carl Meriwether didn't care where the Navy sent him, as long as it was somewhere else.
"One night aboard ship, we were in Norfolk, Va., and everybody wanted to get out of Norfolk," Meriwether said. "It was the rat hole of the United States. Back in the war days there were signs that read, 'Dogs and sailors keep off the grass.'"
This next sighting, while it once again places the signs in Norfolk, shifts the time forward by two decades, to the 1960s:
In the 1960s, there were signs in Norfolk that said "Dogs and sailors keep off the grass" and "Dogs and sailors keep out of bars." The Navy said to take down the signs and Norfolk said no.
In this telling, Jacksonville, Florida, and the Vietnam War (1965-1973) are given as the where and when:
When I came back to Jacksonville from serving [on a ship in Italy during the Vietnam War], there was a sign on the grass at one of the stores: "All dogs and sailors keep off the grass."
This one sets the sighting in Portsmouth, Maine around 1970:
Twenty-five years ago the Navy relocated my family to Portsmouth. I will never forget the first time we rode through town and saw small signs in some of the yards which read, "Sailors and Dogs, Keep Off the Grass."
Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the 1930s:
"My dad was here when the downtown areas were 'the' place to be, during the 1930s," said Steve Wixom, a retired aviation ordnanceman who lives in Wisconsin but regularly visits Hampton Roads. "The people were generally nice. But he never forgot the businesses and homes that had signs in the windows that said 'dogs and sailors keep off the grass.' There will always be a love/hate relationship between the fleet and where it lives."
There are even sightings from the west coast, such as this one from San Diego, California, that places the signs there in the 1940s:
Even in World War II, property owners around San Diego and Camp Pendleton posted signs warning "dogs and sailors" to stay off the grass.
In a final twist on the legend of troops being made to feel unwelcome, this sighting dated to the 1940s expands the scope of the admonishment to not mess up the locals' nice neat lawns to soldiers:
"The early stages of the war, the soldier was a piece of garbage anyway," Lederman said. "Until the war started, you couldn't go down the streets. Soldiers, sailors and dogs, keep off the grass."
The "Sailors and dogs: Keep off the grass" chestnut enjoys the acceptance it does because it communicates via one succinct and cold-hearted phrase how many in the military perceive themselves to be treated by the locals. As an expression of something deeply felt yet difficult to put into words, the text of these signs gets across that sense of barely being tolerated. In this regard, it is far less important that the signs might not have ever existed in the U.S. because the feeling being communicated by them certainly does.
Yet if the signs themselves are potentially American fiction, where did belief in them come from?
That may well have sprung from the tales of a seaman who traversed the seas about a century before sailors began swearing to one another they'd run into these signs in the U.S. In Before the Wind, the memoirs set down by Captain Charles Tyng in the years before his death in 1879, is found this passage describing his first voyage in 1815 and a sign encountered at Cowes on the Isle of Wight (a small island lying just south of England).
I went into the boat ashore at once, and walked up a little ways from the boat to a small woods, to see how things looked on land, and feeling that I was in a civilized country, I thought I should enjoy the sight after being at sea so long — when to my surprise and disgust I noticed a sign stuck up with "Dogs and sailors are forbidden to trespass here," and that is about all the impression I have of Cowes at that time.
Captain Tyng's 25-year career as a seaman brought him to the Norfolk area on many occasions, so he had innumerable opportunities to repeat this yarn to various sailors he encountered there and in various seafarers' haunts across a span of many years. He also likely shared it with his shipmates, who in turn would present it to others of their acquaintance as an example of the hard lot of a seaman's life. Because its core message (that sailing men are viewed as contaminations of orderly society and so meant to be made feel unwelcome and quickly sent on their ways) strikes a universal chord among others similarly given the cold shoulder, the story would be quickly seized upon as a telling example of the sort of callous handling military personnel have themselves been subjected to.
Barbara "naval gazing" Mikkelson
Last updated: 29 April 2010
Addis, Dave. "Memoir May Solve Norfolk's Long-Running Urban Legend."
The [Norfolk] Virginian-Pilot. 21 July 1999 (p. B1).
Billington, Jeff. "Alive to Tell: Hard Times Bond Soldiers For Reunion."
Tulsa World. 1 September 1999.
Cook, Dick. "Dade Veterans Gather at Legion."
Chattanooga Times Free Press. 30 May 2005 (p. B1).
DeLong, Ed. "When Norfolk Was a Bustling (and Rowdy) Sailor Town."
The [Norfolk] Virginian-Pilot. 28 October 2001 (p. J3).