Working with Census data and other 19th century sources, I occasionally come across the occupation of "boat crimper." I can't figure out what these boat crimpers do.

Based on the definition of "crimp," it could be a fairly innocuous term for someone who works with wires and cables on a boat. But the Wikipedia article for "crimper" takes you to the article on Shanghaiing:

Shanghaiing refers to the practice of kidnapping people to serve as sailors by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation, or violence. Those engaged in this form of kidnapping were known as crimps.

But I'm skeptical that the "boat crimpers" I find in public records are "crimps" as in this definition. Here's a Joseph Magee who lists himself as a "boat crimper" in the Rochester City Directory. Who would list themselves as a kidnapper?

So, do any of you naval historians out there know what kind of occupation "boat crimper" was? Assuming crimpers are not crimps, were crimpers skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled labor?

  • 4
    Impressively tough question. It even survived an attack from the tactical nuke of English: the OED. I'm going to keep digging, but my guess right now would be that it came into the language as a nautical term from Dutch, so Dutch sources for what krimpen meant shipboard might be productive.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 18, 2015 at 21:50
  • What the big mystery? Looked up the company he worked for. The company made shoes.
    – Louisiana
    Aug 11, 2015 at 21:37
  • @Louisiana: If you can provide us with the details of your investigation, then that would be a good answer.
    – two sheds
    Aug 11, 2015 at 23:49

5 Answers 5


A "boat crimper" is synonymous with a "boot crimper" - a person who specializes in manufacturing and repairing boots. The process of crimping is used to make leather conform to shapes that can't be created with folding, and involves stretching wet leather over a form with clamps or pliers. You can get an idea of what is involved here.

A good example of the term being used in this context is in the following excerpt from the 12/25/1890 edition of the Daily Alta California (emphasis added):

Charles William Lemperle, a boat crimper living in the rear of 726 Washington street, fatally shot M. J. Mitchell, also a boat crimper, supposed to have lived at 1755 Howard street. Lemperle celebrated his sixtieth birthday yesterday by getting very drunk. He is a large man, and wears dark grey chin-whiskers and mustache. He is a German, and for years worked for Porter, Slessinger & Co. He has a wife and a son and daughter. Mitchell is a large Irishman, and wears brown chin-whiskers. He has a shoe shop somewhere on Twenty-second street. About a week ago he got some work from Lemperle, which he attended to at his shop and returned when finished. Lemperle told him that he had spoiled three pairs of boots, and refused to pay Mitchell for that work, but paid him for what was well done.

The etymology of the term is a little bit harder to track down, but it is referenced in Cassell's Dictionary of Slang as:

boat n1 ... 6. [1950s+] (US) a large shoe or boot.

Although it calls out a more modern usage, I'd guess that it may have had its origins in the earlier usage that you ran across. My personal suspicion (and speculation at best) is that is may have came from the similarity between the two words in German and English, particularly in the spelling and pronunciation. The German word "boot" translates to "boat" in English and is pronounced the same way. It's easy to imagine a German cobbler describing himself as a "boat crimper" and the term sticking and finding wider usage.

  • Another valid sense of the word, but not the correct one I believe. Boat Crimpers unloaded coal ships, sometimes reselling or factoring the contents as well. Mar 19, 2015 at 4:32
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    @PieterGeerkens - I can't say I've ever seen it in that context. I've heard of coal handlers, colliers, coal whips, coal whippers, etc. "Crimping" is sometimes used as slang for theft, but I'd doubt that somebody "crimping" coal from ships would list that as their profession.
    – Comintern
    Mar 19, 2015 at 4:44
  • @Comintern: Factor: 5 a person who acts or transacts business for another; an agent. 6 an agent entrusted with the possession of goods to be sold in the agent's name; a merchant earning a commission by selling goods belonging to others. Mar 19, 2015 at 4:46
  • @PieterGeerkens - I don't think "crimp" in the context of a noun makes sense with an "-er" suffix. The "crimp" definitions you refer to are nouns - adding the "-er" indicates that "crimp" is a verb, that is "one who crimps".
    – Comintern
    Mar 19, 2015 at 4:59

When in doubt - check the Oxford English Dictionary: (Compact Edition, Vol. I, p. 1174)


3 An agent or contractor for unloading coal ships: a contractor. Obs

1700 B. E. Dict. Cant. Crew, Crimp: one that undertakes to unload a ship of coals

1754 STRYPE Stowe's Survey: II v 319's: Any Coal Owner may employ crimps or Factors, not being lightermen or buyers of Coals for sale.

1769 Defoe's Tour Gt. Brit. II 131 The Brokers of these Coals are called Crimps: the Vessels they load their Ships with at Newcastle, Keels.

Note these links are pay only after a couple of sample hits:
Coal Crimp OED online Link
Crimpage money OED online link

Note that this sense has a separate etymology from that associated with crimping wire

  • This is good, but from OED it seems like crimp-as-agent was mostly a British term. In the American context, I'm seeing more crimpers-as-manufacturers.
    – two sheds
    Mar 19, 2015 at 18:31
  • @twosheds: You appear to miss the distinction between an Oxford dictionary and a Webster's dictionary; the former is strictly British usage (with carry-overs) while the latter is strictly American usage with carry-overs. The OED (at least my 1920's edition) makes no attempt to catalog American usages except as they are antecedents to British usage. Mar 19, 2015 at 21:28
  • I was using the online OED, which definitely catalogues American usage. Hence my comment. The "crimp" entry referenced British usages exclusively, while the "crimper" entry referenced mostly referenced American sources. It seemed to me from reading the entries that crimp was used to mean agent in Britain, while crimper was used to refer to semi-skilled labor in America.
    – two sheds
    Mar 19, 2015 at 21:44
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    I upvoted your answer, btw, because I think its possible that your answer is correct. But based on my reading of OED, plus some minor details concerning other boat crimpers I've found, I'm inclined toward comintern's answer.
    – two sheds
    Mar 19, 2015 at 21:47

A boat crimper was a member of a group of sailors whose job was to forcibly impress men into the Navy. They were often referred to as the press gang. The use of such gangs to force Americans into the British Navy was one cause of the War of 1812. For reference, look up the entry for "James Kelly (crimper)" in Wikipedia.


I think I may have found it.

According to this British Magazine Article from 1820, crimping appears to have been something one would do with a fish, after having caught it.

It doesn't go into detail, but I found another book that does: Hints for the Table, by John Timbs in 1859. It appears to be a method for preserving a fish by cutting it open and boiling it soon after being caught. I'm not sure if the exact method described therein is required, but it does make sense that there would be fish preservation methods that either went out of fashion, or became obsolete during the 20th century.

This appears to be something that is indeed done with cod (the mainstay of the North Atlantic Fishing fleet in the 19th Century), even today sometimes. However, even as far back as the 18th century, there are references for people thinking it a cruel practice, as it apparently relies on keeping the fish alive for a longer period of time.

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    I'm not convinced that the cookery term is related to the profession of Mr Magee in the question. It seems doubtful to me that crimping a fish (for cooking) was such a specialised activity that someone would make it their living. If they did, wouldn't they be a fish crimper rather than a boat crimper?
    – Steve Bird
    Mar 18, 2015 at 22:47
  • This has nothing to do with the example the OP posted. As I already said in my answer, Charlotte Street in Rochester was where several boat manufacturers were located, so the profession has something to do with outfitting small boats. Mar 18, 2015 at 23:30
  • This is a valid meaning, but you need a bigger dictionary for this particular sense of the word! Mar 19, 2015 at 4:30
  • You even checked out the OED, but missed sense 3. Mar 19, 2015 at 4:33
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    @PieterGeerkens - The online one has as the 3rd definition: Makes waves in someone's hair I suppose that could be it, but I didn't figure your typical ship was very likely to employ full-time hairdressers.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 19, 2015 at 18:20

Charlotte street was the center of the small boat-building industry in Rochester at the time.

There is no standard term "boat crimper". It is possible he crimped eyes into the various cables and lines used on a boat.

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