What was a Tar Social?

P/C Frank H. Foster, III – September, 2005

If you read Kyle Armstrong’s history of the first 50 years of BLYC (available on the BLYC web site), you will see numerous mentions of a “Tar Social”. I have wondered for two decades what a tar social was. Everyone I asked had no idea. I have never attended, or even heard of, an event called a Tar Social, except as they are mentioned in BLYC history. What went on there? What did I miss?

I know what a “Social” is. Personally, I think of cake, ice cream and tea as well as good manners and best behavior. Don’t churches and high society hold “socials”? But what were the characteristics that made it “Tar”. I doubted the attendees covered anyone with the black, viscous liquid distilled from organic matter that we all know as tar. I once asked Comm. Chris Lambrecht what a Tar Social was. He was able to describe a social event but not even he knew what the “Tar” aspect of it meant. As we approach the celebration of the Centennial of the founding of BLYC, I thought we might want to do again whatever it was they did at a Tar Social.

I searched the internet for the term “Tar Social”. The only use of that term in this context that turned up was on the BLYC web site! So I looked at a few dictionaries. I think I have pieced together the answer.

A “palling” is a canvas cover used for covering a hatch or other object on a ship. Tar was used to seal ship hulls and waterproof sails. When tar was applied to a palling, presumably to make it waterproof, it became a “tar palling”. That two-word term got compounded in time to “tarpaulin”. Because tarpaulins were associated with ships, the word “tarpaulin” became an informal or slang name for “sailor”. That usage got shortened to “tar”. So, a tar is a sailor. It’s in the dictionary. If you have been around tar, you know how it rubs off to blacken your clothing and your skin. With all that tar on the sails and covers, I suspect sailors had a lot of black tar rubbed off on them. The appearance of a sailor must have made calling him a tar very appropriate.

Now it fits together. A “Tar Social” was a Sailor Social. It seems only natural that a yacht club would hold a Tar Social. More importantly, once I figured out that a Tar Social was a Sailor Social, it wasn’t very difficult to figure out what went on there. I’ve been a sailor and attended many a Sailor Social. I sure hope to attend many more. Sailors know how to hold a Social. No doubt we already have Tar Socials planned for the Centennial celebration. We just haven’t called them that yet.