We’ve all seen them behind plexiglass in countless museums. Strips of fabric sewn together, complete with pockets and flaps to hold sewing notions like spools of thread, needles, and spare buttons. Housewives, as they were called, were as varied and unique as the soldiers who carried them. Often made by wives, sisters, or mothers for the men who went off to war, these colorful housewives were intended to equip them with everything they needed to mend their own clothes. The compact and flexible nature of the design allowed the men to roll them up and stuff them in their pockets or knapsacks for easy storing. Some soldiers would excel at the task of mending that was outside of their “sphere” and others would struggle to thread a needle throughout the war.
When it comes to understanding a little of the soldier’s experience, I often turn to John Billing’s book, Hard Tack and Coffee. In it, he explains how the men put their housewives to good use – or not:
“In the department of mending garments each man did his own work, or left it undone, just as he thought best; but no one hired it done. Every man had a “housewife” or its equivalent, containing the necessary needles, yarn, thimble, etc., furnished him by some mother, sister, sweetheart, or Soldier’s Aid Society, and from this came his materials to mend or darn with.
Now, the average soldier was not so susceptible to the charms and allurements of sock-darning as he should have been; for this reason he always put off the direful day until both heels looked boldly and with hardened visage out the back-door, while his ten toes ranged themselves en echelon in front of their quarters. By such delay or neglect good ventilation and the opportunity of drawing on the socks from either end were secured…
Then, there were other men who, having arranged a checker-board of stitches over the holes, as they had seen their mothers do, had not the time or patience to fill in the squares, and the inevitable consequence was that both heels and toes would look through the bars only a few hours before breaking jail again.
But there were a few of the boys who were kept furnished with home-made socks, knit, perhaps, by their good old grandmas, who seemed to inherit the patience of the grandams themselves; for, whenever there was mending or darning to be done, they would sit by the hour, and do the work as neatly and conscientiously as any one could desire. I am not wide of the facts when I say that the heels of the socks darned by these men remained firm when the rest of the fabric was well spent.”
For your browsing pleasure, here are a selection of housewife kits I’ve come across in various museums.
This housewife that belonged to Major James T. Gee, commanding officer of the 1st Alabama Heavy Artillery Battalion at Fort Morgan. On display at the visitor center at Fort Morgan, Alabama. Note the “Bonny Blue Flag” design on one of the panels.
This housewife on display at the Atlanta History Museum is made of a tougher material with a decorative layered panel.
This housewife belonged to Captain Columbus Sykes, Company A, 43rd Mississippi Infantry. The theme of including designs of flags or using patriotic colors seems common amongst many housewife kits. This one is on display at the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Also from the Texas Civil War Museum is a housewife of creative construction. This housewife, owned by I.H. Bennett, Company A, 2nd North Carolina, contains extra flaps to hold buttons and a deep pouch to carry a variety of accoutrements like a small mirror and comb.
My new personal favorite housewife can’t be found behind museum glass. While working at the University of West Florida’s Historic Trust and on the hunt for a sewing kit for an upcoming exhibit, I found a housewife that contained a small treasure. Its colorful patterned fabric was breathtaking alone, but imagine my surprise to find nestled in the folds of the tissue paper, locks of hair still bound by thread and strips of linen. Looking into the records, there was no additional information to glean in our database in relation to the previous owner of the housewife or whose hair had been stashed away inside. Perhaps it belonged to a loved one back home and put there to remind him of what he left behind. Or maybe it was the final parting memento of a fallen soldier whose hair had been trimmed post-partum (a common tradition) and kept inside the housewife he carried with him into that last battle. Either way, I carefully put it back where I found it, unable to use it for the exhibit (it was too late for the period we were going for).
Next time you find yourself browsing through a Civil War exhibit, be on the lookout for these housewife kits. Their variety of patterns, uses, and construction can say a lot about the soldiers to whom they belonged. To the men on the front lines, it was a piece of home they could carry with them and held great sentimental value.
 John Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, Connecticut, Konecky & Konecky, 2004 p. 85-86