What Were the First Life Jackets Made Out Of?

May 19, 2022 4 min read

A life jacket's interior is either inherently buoyant or inflatable, and there are several types. Inherently buoyant life jackets are typically made of plastic foam, although they used to be made of cork, balsa wood, and kapok, a type of tropical tree. These vests do not require a user to activate the flotation feature.


The creation of life jackets saw a combination of canvas and air. Several materials were tested, including horse hair, wood balsa, rushes, and cork. Captain Ward settled on cork as the material. The first life jackets were not adjustable, and the only sizes were large and small. However, they did perform the purpose of flotation. A life jacket was a lifesaving device that could save someone's life, and saved many people.

During World War II, the military used life jackets made of yellow fabric over rubberized chambers. The wearer had to pull a cord to activate the CO2 cartridges inside. This style of life jacket quickly became popular, and the original was used by the U.S. military for decades. It was later adopted by merchant marines. Canvas life vests are still used today. These vests were designed to protect sailors from drowning. Durability of life jackets was always important factor.


Before the nineteenth century, people began to develop various methods of floating in water, including cork and balsa wood. In fact, there is a marble carving of Assyrian soldiers swimming with animal skins inflated with air. Later, in the nineteenth century, Captain Ward invented a cork vest that was attached to the sailor by a strap through his legs. The use of cork as a buoyancy device in a life jacket was still not common in naval circles until the late nineteenth century.

In the early twentieth century, Captain Ward, a lifeboat crew member at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, developed a special life jacket made of rows of corks. These vests were designed to be used while conducting rescues at sea. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, these vests were commonly used. Later, pockets were added to lifeboat vests to keep the wearer dry. Later, kapok was used as a filler material.


A life jacket is an essential piece of safety equipment, and it may seem like an obvious choice. But sealskin is a material that's far more than just a safety item. It has a long history in maritime life, and its use in life jackets has deep cultural and environmental roots. In addition to being waterproof, sealskin is also very warm and comfortable. But why was sealskin chosen as the material of the first life jackets?

The first life jackets used sealskin, a natural material that has buoyancy properties. The Assyrian army had used these animal skins during a campaign against the British in the 1840s. The Inuit were also aware of the dangers of cold water immersion and made spring pelts out of sealskin. In ancient times, sealskin was used by the Assyrian army to cross a moat. Until the 1950s, sealskin was the only material used in life jackets.

Wooden Vests

Wooden vests were first used as life jackets in the early 1900s. Today, life jackets are made of plastic and nylon, and most of the materials used to make them are bought in bulk from outside sources. One outside source purchases nylon fabric, which is about 60 inches wide and 20 feet long. Another source buys closed-cell foam, which comes in thick pieces. Non-corrosive plastic snaps and zippers are another outside source. Reflective tape is also bought from an outside source.

In the late 1800s, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution patented the first life preservers, which were cork-stuffed wooden vests. These first life jackets were not approved by the Coast Guard, and were largely used by Norwegian seamen. But the rules were put into place in the US after the 1855 disaster. In WWII, the eponymous Mae Wests were pressed into service. They were small enough to fit in a backpack and were given to soldiers.


First lifejackets were made from cork. Cork became the standard material for lifejackets when the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring them for passengers on steamboats in 1852. This article traces the development of lifejackets. Capok was also tried in some cases, but lost its buoyancy when squeezed. Today, lifejackets are generally made from foam. And modern times give us opportunity to choose between a life jacket and a personal flotation device.

Lifejackets have evolved a lot in the past few centuries. Today, they are made from foam, kapok plant fibre, and polyurethane-coated nylon. The basic technology and purpose of a lifejacket hasn't changed much, though. In a life threatening situation, a life jacket flips the user over within five seconds and holds them above water. One of the oldest life jackets made of cork was advertised in the early nineteenth century. These first life jackets had pockets on the front and a strap that went through the legs.

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