Process Blog Home

Clothing and Material Culture during the Civil War

weickselSarah Jones Weicksel is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and a 2015–2016 CIC-Smithsonian Institution Fellow at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History. She received a B.A. in History from Yale University and an M.A. from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware. Her research has also been supported by the American Antiquarian Society, the Clements Library, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Newberry Library, the John Hope Franklin and Freehling Dissertation Research Funds, and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.

Can you briefly describe your dissertation?

In my dissertation, “The Fabric of War: Clothing, Culture, and Violence in the American Civil War Era,” I explore the ways in which the conflicts and meanings surrounding clothing production and consumption shaped, and were amplified, contested, and politicized, during the 1860s and 1870s, particularly in regard to shifting ideas about gender, race, and citizenship. I also claim a central place for material culture in the making of modern society at a volatile moment of militarization, emancipation, and federal expansion.

What drew your attention to this topic?

The questions that motivate my work as a historian have been informed by the study of material culture for more than a decade—since I was introduced to its study as an undergraduate at Yale. Since then, my work with material culture has evolved from a desire to understand the physical context in which people lived to an effort to more fully understand the ways in which material culture constructs and mediates experiences, identities, meanings, and conflicts in the lives of ordinary people. I am particularly interested in questions situated at the intersection of gender, material culture, race, and the frequently contested—sometimes violent—politics of everyday life in the nineteenth century.

My current project began as a result of the observation that, despite historians’ renewed efforts to understand the cultural and gendered dimensions of the Civil War era, material culture itself is not seriously mobilized as a source or understood as an actant in the world. Reading these studies, I saw glimpses of the material environment’s importance, but there was no sustained study of its significance. And so, I wondered, might using material culture as a source base reveal something more, or different, than purely textual analysis about the nature and conduct of war, or about wartime society itself? Recent histories of wartime destruction and ruin prompted further questions: What about those objects that were lost, destroyed, or stolen? What role did they play in constructing meaning and memory, both for those who had lost their possessions and those who had taken them?

My dissertation, then, actually began as a study of wartime looting, and I fully expected to focus on a range of possessions that I knew were stolen—furniture, silver, jewelry, even harpsichords. But as I began working through primary source materials, I repeatedly encountered conflicts surrounding clothing production and consumption: a former slave submitted a claim for his stolen hat to the Southern Claims Commission; Union soldiers tore an elite southern woman’s dress into strips and tied them to a horse’s tail; women were deported from the South for producing cloth for the Confederacy; an African American soldier escaped death only by putting on a pair of civilian clothes that convinced Confederates that he was a local slave, while his comrades were captured and executed. Ultimately, it was the sources that caused me to shift the project away from a focus on looting to instead attempt to understand why clothing was such a consistently contested object, and how it may have shaped war, emancipation, and experiences of federal expansion in the 1860s and 1870s.


“Contrabands at Headquarters of General Lafayette,” in Brady’s Album Gallery, no. 372 (1862). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. LC-DIG-ds-05120. This albumen silver print depicts several Union soldiers and four African American refugees, including two laundresses with their washboards and laundry tubs, outside a house in the vicinity of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1862.The image offers evidence of the types and quality of clothing worn by refugees and soldiers, and is suggestive of African American women’s hard labor working as laundresses for Union soldiers and the laundry methods they used. Part of Matthew Brady’s Album Gallery, this was one in a series of photographs intended for public consumption.

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

Given the way in which my own project developed, I would offer the following advice: Allow your sources to guide the questions you ask, even when they lead you down an unexpected path. And think broadly about what those sources might be. Although not every historical question is best answered using material or visual sources, you might be surprised by the ways in which working with non-textual sources changes the kinds of historical questions you pose, or at least alters your perspective.

Can you tell us about your research process?

My methodology weaves together texts, objects, and images held in more than twenty-five archives and museums.  Locating those sources involved assessing where I was most likely to find people talking about clothing—and the clothing itself.  Clothing, it turns out, is infrequently catalogued as a subject in manuscript collections—usually only when it is a significant theme. However, given the frequency with which I encountered it simply by chance when I began my project, I knew that the clothing was there. So I plunged into journals, letters, organizational records, and government documents, gaining a better sense, with each archival trip, of which types of collections were likely to be most fruitful.  I also talk with people. Museum curators, archivists, librarians—people who know their collections well and who are willing to think about them with me.  In terms of finding clothing itself, I began by looking at major museums and historical societies to get a sense of the range of clothing-related objects that have survived and then began to build side trips to small historical societies and museums into my research trips.

How did working with such a diverse archive shape your work?

Some may ask why I spend a great deal of time in manuscript collections since material culture is so central to my methodology. The clothing itself has much to tell us, but it is only by placing it into conversation with texts and images that I am able to grapple with both its material and discursive aspects; its physicality in terms of style, construction, and tactile qualities; and the range of social, cultural, and political meanings embedded within and created by its production and use. Interweaving objects, texts, and images adds clarity and depth to the ways in which people talked about clothing, how that clothing acted upon the body, and how it was represented in images or manipulated to make particular points that were often very political, gendered, and racially charged.

This weaving together of sources has been critical to my development of a framework for understanding the transformational power with which nineteenth century Americans imbued clothing. In my recent article in Clio: Femmes, Genre, Histoire (Fall 2014), for instance, I examine garments alongside prints and photographs of African American men to highlight the role of the military uniform in effecting the physical and inner transformation of slaves into men through posture and bodily discipline, a process that suggested to the white northern public that the black body could be disciplined without the lash.

In this particular aspect of my work, material, visual and textual sources provide different kinds of information: manuscript sources tell me that reformers expected new clothing to discipline former slave men and help them to regain their manhood; medical texts and etiquette manuals offer explanations about the links between posture, discipline, and moral uprightness; images demonstrate how artists and photographers conveyed—and the public would have encountered—the transformative potential of clothing; and tailor’s guides and the clothing itself provides evidence of structured coats that would have helped to shape a person’s posture and movement.

Objects are both interpretively and conceptually important for my research. For example, if I were to rely solely on texts in my work on body armor and cloth-covered bulletproof vests, the story I am able to tell would look quite different. Texts reveal that bulletproof vests were, indeed, produced during the Civil War, that their weight made them unpopular, and that wearing one was considered cowardly. But examining surviving vests (and pieces of vests) reveals a much more complex story. The context of how the vests were made, shaped, and worn, and how they compared to ordinary fabric vests, allows for a more nuanced analysis of the tactics advertisers used to persuade reluctant consumers. The objects themselves also reveal that these steel vests were not only uncomfortable, but also incredibly dangerous—and not simply because wearing one restricted mobility. As jagged holes in surviving breastplates reveal, being shot wearing a fabric-covered steel vest at close range would have resulted in a bullet, cloth fragments, and pieces of shrapnel being pushed into a wound on impact—a scenario that, if it did not result in immediate death, would have increased a man’s risk of deadly infection.

Objects, images, and texts, then, provide different pieces to the same historical puzzle in my work.  There is no doubt that this is a time-intensive method of research. But it is ultimately worthwhile, because it is by weaving together this broad range of sources that I am able to better understand the depth of how people’s lives and relationships; the nature and conduct of war; and the boundaries of slavery and freedom, were shaped by the material world of the past.