Thursday, May 3, 2012

More on "Shoddy"

After posting about Brooks Brothers' Civil War uniforms a few days ago, I started thinking about "shoddy" material. The New York Times article I cited said the term originated with the Civil War. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "shoddy" predates the conflict by some thirty years, although its use as a pejorative term began during the war. Beginning in the 1830s, the term referred to a fabric made from recycled fibers, but Englishman Benjamin Law developed a process to create such cloth twenty years before, in the 1810s. Shoddy production involved  picking, tearing, or grinding use textiles, spinning the salvaged fibers into new yarn (sometimes with the addition of new fibers), and weaving these yarns into cloth. The resulting material was better and included longer fibers than "mungo," a similarly salvaged cloth, according to Florence Montgomery (Textiles in America, 1650-1870). Of course, shoddy was not always "shoddy," and Montgomery referenced surviving high-quality swatches from an 1860 pattern book.

In 1862, the U.S. Deputy Quartermaster General, Lieutenant Colonel George H. Crosman, related the problems with the government's supply system and described a visit to the Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia in which shoddy cloth played a prominent part. The following is excerpted from this extended quotation from the U.S. Congress Serial Set, Volume 1143, page 880.

"I called to the drayman and told him to bring me one of those blankets. He did so, and I handed it to Messrs. Covode and Odell, who pronounced it immediately to be a shoddy blanket, as I did myself. Mr. Covode pulled out of it a piece of an old nightcap, which had escaped being chopped up fine. It was an inch and a half long. We called Kerne up, the very inspector that had passed them as good, and I questioned him in the presence of these two gentlemen. I asked him if he had passed these blankets as fulfilling the army requirement. He said he had. What is the matter with them, he asked. This is the matter with them, said Mr. Covode, as he put his finger right through the blanket."

Original Civil War U.S. Army blanket. Bangor Museum and Center for History.

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