What’s approximately 13 pounds, black and white (and every color) all over and full of Naval Academy treasures? Why the “Lucky Bag” of course, the U.S. Naval Academy’s long standing yearbook! According to the publisher’s Facebook page, it’s the “largest yearbook in the world.” Started in 1894, it now counts 129 huge volumes. To think that it was started by a small band of five merry midshipmen sailing the seas on a summer cruise is incredible. They were reciting poetry and decided that they should "publish a little volume into which bursts of genius might be gathered,” according to the current Lucky Baggers.
Bursts of Genius, Gathered
Here’s the text, which starts the first volume: “One day during last summer's cruise, while becalmed in the very middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a group of first-class middies were whiling away the tedious hours by reciting impromptu poetry on the forecastle of the good ship "Constellation;" some unusually brilliant effort elicited the remark that talent like that should not be doomed to bloom unseen. A resolution to publish a little volume into which such bursts of genius might be gathered, was the result of the conversation which followed, and a committee was chosen to bring the volume into being….” So began this beloved Naval Academy tradition. Similar to other Academy annuals at other large colleges, these writers and illustrators turned their musings into a similar format and “Lucky Bag” was born.
All these years later, there are thousands of pages chronicling USNA student life at the Naval Academy as the world changed with it. Fascinating stories capture the dress of the time, the current events, phrases and of course the faces that decorated the Yard for a brief bit (and some for many more years after). A small group of merry midshipmen make the “Lucky Bag” possible today as part of one of the popular USNA clubs, using their photography, writing, editing and organizing skills and enlisting the help of Jostens to create this treasure every year. The group meets weekly all year long to bring this tremendous labor of love to life.
The “Lucky Bag” Before There Was an Academy
Many people don’t realize that the “Lucky Bag” yearbook is in many ways even older than 129 years. It was inspired by the “lucky bag” aboard British naval ships, a sack that collected the lost items of sailors. Those who later retrieved their items from this bag were often penalized for getting the items there in the first place. The Bluejacket’s Manual, a U.S. enlisted sailor’s “bible” first published in 1902, defined the bag in 1940: "The lucky bag is a place where the police petty officers stow for safe-keeping effects that are found adrift about the ship. All clothes, etc., found about the decks are placed in the lucky bag…. At frequent intervals the lucky bag is opened and the effects distributed to the owners. Where persons have been guilty of carelessness in leaving their effects adrift, they are placed on the report." According to the log of the USS Yosemite, on June 24, 1898 several sailors were given 72 hours extra duty for having an article in the lucky bag.
In 1820, Matthew Fontaine Maury, USN picked up on this terminology from the British Navy and used it to package some of his controversial U.S. Navy reform ideas as “Scraps from the Lucky Bag” under pen names in newspapers and circulating flyers. He culled ideas from “messmates” as one would pull together items in a lucky bag. Many of these persuasive writings pushing reform led to the formation of the U.S. Naval Academy itself, so the name became a fitting tribute to the school, and its definition as a collector of bits and bobs from the USNA story perfectly suited.
The Lucky Bag Continues Its Legacy
Each year, the First Class publishes the new “Lucky Bag” in the spring. Every midshipman and newly commissioned officer gets their own copy as a token of their time at the Naval Academy. Luckily (pun intended) a partnership with the Naval Postgraduate School, the Naval War College and the Internet Archive was able to digitize the issues from 1894 through 1970. You can find them in the Special Collections & Archives on the Nimitz Library site, where they have been digitized and are available for free. Editions after 1970 can be seen at the library itself or requested through email@example.com.
Peeking Inside the Bag
It’s worth a good look. There are countless stories and quotes about the antics of the midshipmen over the years, in addition to ads for everything ranging from cast steel and diving apparatus in 1906 to big picture 21” TVs and the Remington Quiet-Riter in 1956, as well as all of the sporting and other exploits for that year. Colorful quotes like this one honoring midshipman Everett William Foote in 1956 abound: “When all monuments have been erected in the Yard, ‘Hoot’s’ doubtlessly will have engraven on its chrome-plated pedestal the words of which he was so fond, ‘What I’ve gone through for a free education!” There are many, many more treasures.
We recommend taking some time to pour through the “Lucky Bags” online, in the library or if you’re interested, you can find them for sale online, often for steep prices. Many U.S. Naval Academy grads keep their treasured copies forever, so they can be hard to acquire.
Have fun paging through them—and let us know what good nuggets you can discover. We’re lucky to have the USNA “Lucky Bag” Yearbook club. They have won awards almost every year of the past decade, and have earned the prestigious Benny Award. Like 140 other clubs and activities at the Naval Academy, it’s made possible by the NABSD who give every bit from your Yard touring, dining, shopping and visiting right back to the midshipmen. Even your shopping on Navyonline is giving back. That’s a lucky thing too.