Thinking about Civil War Textiles

Recently, I listened to the audio book version of Only The Clothes On Her Back: Clothing & The Hidden History of Power in the 19th Century United States by Laura F. Edwards. The book details a type of property that women could create, own, and use for economic gain during later part of the 18th Century and into the early decades of the 19th Century: textiles. Skeins of thread to household textiles to common clothing to fancy dress feature in legal cases of the era and show a type of property that women could own and manage outside of the laws of coverture. (Laws of coverture dealt with the legal status of a married woman, making her husband responsible for her possessions and actions.)

The book is filled with interesting details and examples of women’s economic autonomy and the extent of cottage industry to give a measure of economic security and sometimes freedom to her—outside of the immediate control of male relatives. In the two decades just prior to the Civil War, some of this opportunity changed, shrinking drastically as textiles became factory-produced, cheaper to obtain, and less valuable overall.

However, the book created a chance to think about clothing and textiles in a few accounts in new ways connected to Civil War history.

First—and this example admittedly comes from a fictional story—is the account of Meg March Brooke buying silk in Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women. The full force of Alcott’s example didn’t make sense to me until I was listening to this new study. In case you’re not remembering the story, newly-married Meg spends $50 for 25 yards of silk because she has been comparing her fashion and situation to a rich “friend.” Household finances in the Brooke household resulted in a once-a-month reckoning, and Meg was usually pleased to show her husband how frugal she had been. Until the silk purchase. In the aftermath, Meg complained about being poor, then apologized and was forgiven. She later sold the silk to her friend and bought the coat that her husband had been forced to go without due to her initial impulsive extravagance. This fictional story came to mind because the study explained how women were allowed to “run up bills” for textiles and make major financial purchases of those articles on credit without shopkeepers’ restraint or pause to consult husbands. Women could have accounts and even credit at some shops in their own names, though—like in Meg’s story—the actual payment might come from the husband’s pocketbook.

The fictional story of Meg March Brooke buying silk reflects the financial transactions that women could make on their own in regards to textiles.

Next, as the book examined what the description of “ragged” or “naked” meant in connection to clothing in the 19th Century, examples from Civil War primary sources came to mind. Soldiers on both sides sometimes complained that they were or would soon be “naked” if they did not get issued new uniforms soon. In some cases, the soldiers wrote more context and explained pants and shirts literally falling apart as they wear them and parts of anatomy beginning to be bare; however, in general, a mention of “naked” or “ragged” is more likely to describe the disrepair of an outer layer of garments. Not actually walked around without clothes (again, context matters; there are exceptions). The concept of wearing rags or falling apart clothes reflected on the moral condition of the person in those circumstances, meaning there is loaded criticism when a Northern woman mentions the “ragged” Rebels marching through town, or vice-versa. Ill-kept and dirty clothing was believed to indicate bad character. While this type of context is helpful for understanding remarks about appearance (good and bad), it may also give background on the importance some soldiers placed on appearance, taking time to wash their clothes or write about their clean, tidy appearance.

Appearance and description of appearance matters in Civil War primary sources.

Finally, the book invited some reconsideration of the accounts of soldiers plundering or playing with women’s clothing. Although it happened at other locations, this type of looting features in quite a few accounts of Union soldiers’ plundering in Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 11-12, 1862. Not only were the soldiers taking possessions of value that belonged directly to women, they were also symbolically invading a woman’s space and sometimes privacy. Poking through a drawer, wardrobe, or chest of clothing and underclothes of an absent female was as close as that soldier could get to her. Deciding to “dress up” and wear women’s clothes as a joke added another layer of invasion in cultural context, putting that soldier inside her space and her garments. With most civilian women absent or hiding, their clothing became the way that soldiers carried out actions against them. The plundering or wearing of women’s clothes did not physically hurt the woman, but with cultural context, it was a target destruction of female property and invasion of her privacy and space.

Wartime sketch showing Union soldiers looting Fredericksburg (Library of Congress)

While the book was not what I had anticipated when purchasing it, it was an interesting resource to gain a better understanding of the value, meaning, and economy around textiles and clothing before and during the Civil War era. Some of the study provided an opportunity to reconsider some of the stories or primary sources involving clothes and better understand what words or actions meant in the context of that time.

5 Responses to Thinking about Civil War Textiles

  1. I am not a big fan of modern “social” historians. It’s just me, Sarah, but I loathed the reduction of complex human and societal relationships to simplistic “power” paradigms. As far as the individual artisans of the narrative, I imagine the need to express individual artistry can often transcend or at least inform beyond mere power relationships. That being said, I could sense your qualified appreciation of this odd and focused niche book. Thank you.

  2. Excellent article and interesting take on this facet of the 19th century. Another very worthy book on textiles, which includes their profound impact on the U. S. during that particular period, is “Empire of Cotton”, Sven Beckert. Dr. Beckert isn’t a capitalist, which most of us are, but he is very accurate in his depiction of the importance of the immense global cotton trade, and its transition from a cottage industry into a full blown capital intensive industry over time, to the entire U. S. economy. I highly recommend it.

  3. To the extent that Union soldiers at Fredericksburg, or, for that matter, Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg, plundering female garments was an “invasion of her privacy and space” commits the worst error any historian can make: applying contemporary, politically correct, and popular social paradigms to any era. What’s next? An LGBTQ, Woke, BLM study of individual regiments by a newly minted Assistant Professor?

  4. Too little has been written about women’s roles in the war. My grandmother told the story of her grandfather, an Alabama Confederate officer, writing home from Virginia that he needed a new winter uniform, which they set about making for him–and which involved perhaps even carding the wool, weaving the cloth, etc., since they lived far from any urban area They duly sent it off to him, only to receive a reply that his tent had taken a direct artillery hit the day he received it, and could they please make him another one, which started the whole arduous process again. These, like the loss of their own clothes, are the stories so many women remembered from the war, not the horrors of battle.

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