Civil War Reproductions


Civil War Reproductions

With the tremendous growth of re-enacting has come an explosion of purveyors of replica items. One is easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of people offering items for sale on “sutler’s row”.Oddly enough, despite the increase in dealers, the overall effect has been a drop in the quality of replica items being offered for sale. The words “museum quality” have been so loosely applied and used in selling items, the it has become meaningless. More often that not, when one compares these items to originals, they would be more accurately sold as having “amusing quality”. Many people may base their purchases on the fact that you may see people at the event wearing these items, or a lower price. What I have found is that a lot of people rely on what their friends or their unit “expert” tell them.This of course has nothing to do with historical accuracy. If this “unit expert” has looked at and handled a lot of original artifacts, and knows what to look for in a replica, the person he is advising will be lead down the right path and consequently spend his money wisely. More often than not, people base their “expertise” in years of reenacting, rather than looking at original artifacts. This is the point at which the sky darkens and the clouds roll in.

There was a guy back in 1974 who got into reenacting and competition shooting in the N-SSA. His first unit outfitted themselves by taking men’s blazers, turning back the lapel and adding trim to “convert” them to artillery. Of course he wanted to fit in, so he copied this approach. When he later put together an infantry impression, he blindly bought the same stuff that every one in his unit was wearing. Over the years, this guy wasted a lot of money on replicas his friends told him to buy, before he ultimately began to research the items for himself, and judge for himself what was the best on the market. That guy was me.

Our product line is the result of almost 20 years of research and in-depth thought of what existed in the garment industry of the nineteenth century. This catalogue not only presents the items, which I am offering for sale, but also present the background information around them. Whenever possible, I not only try to describe the replica, but also the corresponding original. The goal is to help the customer make a more informed purchase. Of course, the best of all resources are the original items themselves.

The scope of this product line is not limited to the traditional approach of making high quality reproductions, which required fastidious copies of individual artifacts from museums and private collections. Although it is essential to examine the original items before making a reproduction, I believe that microscopic notes and details of only one item is far too limiting. At the very least, the individual item may reflect a production flaw or anomaly, or details, which may have been altered after issue. One truly needs a larger sample group. Moreover, common sense would dictate that an item made one at a time would look completely different from one of a batch of 10,000.

Many reenactors take their cue from the military collectors. I have found that military collectors want to over categorize the original items, whether they are cap boxes or frock coats, into Type I or II or, the “regulation pattern”. This thinking has spilled over into the living history field, which has resulted in a very dogmatic definition of what an authentic replica should look like. This approach overlooks the fact that the original items were made by human hands. Despite the wide range of variation present on originals, features such as fabric color, workmanship or garment pattern design are given as absolutes. For fabric color, one needs only to examine the “Wood hull report”, published in 1868 by the Office of the Surgeon General, to discover the federal government’s dissatisfaction with the inconsistencies of indigo dyeing. Indigo dyed fabric comes out of the dye bath in a wet, natural/white state. The fabric only takes color as it dries and oxidizes. One does not know what the result will be until the fabric dries. Sky blue kersey which came out too dark after dyeing was slated to be used for overcoats. Moreover, a juxtaposition of the two enlisted frock coats in the collection of the Chester County Historical Society shows the tremendous contrast in color of Federal issue garments. The wide range of production variations is well documented, both in physical artifact and written work. Oddly enough, there is a desire for a tighter definition of what is correct than could be achieved during the Civil War. It has long been established that there were variations between contractors, which is to say, that the trousers made by J.T. Martin look slightly different than that of Harkness or Dearing. What I have found is that there are inconsistencies within items produced by the same maker. For example, there are three original C.S. Storms cap boxes in the Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum collection. I also possess an original produced by C.S. Storms. While there are similarities, no two are identical in detail. Moreover, there are two original shirts in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution that are of similar fabric and pattern. The contractor and inspector’s markings were smeared and illegible, but their size, color and placement were almost identical. It is my belief that they came from the same manufacturer. Nonetheless, one of the shirts has a big box pleat in the back neck area and the other is plain. This would lead one to believe that different workers in the same factory made these cap boxes and shirts. The futility of categorizing authentic reproductions by small details of original artifacts consistently overlooks one major fact. All of the items had to pass Federal inspection; at which time their slight differences of color pattern and workmanship would come into play. The logical conclusion is that the inspectors were not basing acceptability on the same details that many living historians are. Authentic reenactors have to adopt the same mind set as the original inspectors, and become sensitive to the range of industrial quality available in the 1860’s before making judgments. Therein lies the major difference between a reproduction and original item. NONE of the reproductions have to pass Federal inspection. Without the professional, industrial input available during the Civil War, authenticity of reproductions is limited to a word of mouth endorsement. Given the hundreds of manufacturers that received contracts during the Civil War and add the number of variations possible for each individual contractor, it is absurd to be dogmatic. This does not in any way excuse the bad reproductions being sold, as many of which bear no resemblance to their original counterparts. What can be said, is that there are features that, for instance, every original sack coat had, that got them the contract and subsequent payment. The problem is that most bad reproductions get bogged down in the “right color blue” or requiring the use of logwood dyed linen thread.


The myth of Modern Mass Production Techniques.

In reproductions, a gulf exists between the authentic reproductions and the lower and which is often called “farby”. In the past, what I have heard as a defense for a lack of authenticity is the utilization of “modern mass production techniques”. The implication is that it may not be the same quality of an authentic counterpart, but it is still acceptable. I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in the industrial garment pattern making division. What I am trained in, is in fact modern mass production techniques. This reflects not only streamlined production time, but also a quality level. The best example of modern production techniques is your local department store, not sutler’s row. What most of these sutlers are selling is amateur sewing techniques. The first course of the first semester at the Fashion Institute was tailoring I, taught by Professor Caffarelli. The first day, he was on the bench, sitting, cross-legged “Indian style”. Previous to this, I had seen Civil War period woodcuts of tailors sitting in this manner. Professor Caffarelli said that it was the way that he was taught, and he found it to be the best way to sew. When you think about putting the lining in a frock coat skirt, you really have to be able to drape it over a table to make it fit properly.

His course, however, dealt with the fundamentals of stitching and tailoring techniques. Shortly after enrolling at F.I.T., I encountered a copy of a book published in 1830, titled The Tailor. This book was geared towards teaching apprentices sewing techniques, as well as giving them advice about entering the trade. To my surprise, in the first semester at F.I.T., we were taught all of the same techniques mentioned in the first section of the book, except for two things. They were called stotting (pronounced stoating) and rantering. In the 1830’s these techniques were used primarily to save fabric, today it would cost more to do, than the price of the fabric itself. Surprisingly, the trade has not drifted significantly from the 1830’s. Many replica “mass produced” uniforms have thick, bulky unclipped seams, with little inf any pressing. By contrast, original Civil War uniforms and modern ready to wear clothes both have small seam allowances. It is continuation of the same concept of the maximum utilization of material. Factories, whether they operate in the 1860’s or the 1990’s do not make money by wasting materials.

Many of the replicas available have more of a theatrical air than that of a reproduction of factory made men’s clothing. Theatrical clothing is exaggerated to emphasize a feature so that it can be seen from a distance. If one examines original factory-made men’s shirts you will see the same high level of workmanship still present in the modern day department store men’s shirts. Whether you go to a modern department store or a museum, you will not find shirts with one-inch wooden or mother of pearl buttons. Most reproduction shirts are sold as authentic, and still sport enormous buttons. Oddly enough, if someone was to replace the buttons on his modern shirt with the ones that you find on most reproductions, common sense would dictate that they were the wrong size. Most reproductions are contrary to mass production techniques, both today, as well as in the 1860’s.

Mass produced” has often become synonymous with “farb” items in the re-enactor’s lexicon. Ironically, the people who have been accepted as making quality items are regarded as great artists, and produce on a one at a time basis. While many of these people are meticulous, they seem to overshoot the mark. They are trying to make marble statues when they actually should be aluminum hubcaps. Moreover, the original items were NOT produced one at a time during the Civil War. If one reads the appendix of Francis A. Lord’s Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia, you will encounter a list of the hundreds of contractors that produced items for the Federal and Confederate governments during the Civil War. You will also note that these contracts were for 10,000 of a particular item, and the contract proposals specify that they are to be delivered at the rat of 1,000 per week! In the Philadelphia branch of the National Archives, I encountered correspondence from a manufacturer to Colonel Crosman. This manufacturer stated that he had enough agents who could comb the streets to “gather a force requisite to produce 1,000 shelter tents per week, and even more if there is a full moon.” In America, the Civil War was the first major demand for mass produced items. Essentially, if the “one at a time” level at which the makers of higher quality reproductions was correct, you would only need one person working on the assembly line of an automobile factory. As a point of comparison, while I was at the Fashion Institute of Technology, one of my classmates worked in a coat factory in Brooklyn. On average, they produce about 10,000 garments per week. Despite the fact the working conditions in a garment factory during the Civil War could hardly have been worse, they were able to produce, without electricity, ten percent of the output of a modern factory. Still yet, one of my professors told me that he was sent overseas to supervise production. He said the noisiest factories in the world are in India, because they still use foot operated treadle sewing machines. He said the clanking sound generated in a room with over one hundred of these machines was deafening. Therefore, not only were uniforms produced on a large scale during the Civil War, there are in fact still factories operating in the world that use the same equipment as was used during the Civil War. In more recent military history, the Waffen-SS during World War II, selected the center of European garment production as one of the areas of relocation of the Jewish population. The largest of these areas of concentration would grow into what was later called the Warsaw Ghetto. Clothing is still mass-produced in this area.

When one speaks of a revolutionary concept, it is an idea that is moving forward. Reproduction items can also be viewed in this manner. At one point in re-enacting, simply having a wool uniform made one authentic. Much like the hands of a clock, our knowledge moves forward, makes a full revolution and returns to the point of origin. The point of origin of Civil War uniforms was professional military mass production. Any accurate reproduction must begin with a retracing and sensitivity of the history of the garment industry.

The Garment Industry.

Directly relate to the concept of mass production, is the notion that todayxs ferment industry is ultra modern. There is a misconception that the construction of clothing has radically changed from the time of the Civil War. Because of the erroneous acceptance of unauthentic reproductions being produced utilizing supposedly xmodernx techniques, there has followed a misconception that the items produced during the Civil War are unique unto themselves, and it has somehow become a lost art. The recent phenomenon of replica uniform xkitsx, professional sewing is not viewed as a profession and trade by re-enactors. In re-enacting today, garment construction for the most part being interpreted by people who are self taught and have no professional training. It is not so much the lack of training that has impacted re-enacting, but rather the fact that they are perceived as being experts and ironically having the last word on what is correct and what is not. For one to be able to compare xmodernx versus Civil War techniques the person must be expert, or at and sewing techniques, it is requisite that the person lived and was trained in that time period. There is no re-enactor, living, that can boast this. To that end, they only viable method available is to compare original manuals and artifacts to what are now being done in garment production. The history that emerges about the Civil War is not “granny’s sewing circle” or “old time Amish craftsmen”, but rather, the garment industry as a trade and the role of factory work in garment production. The 1860’s and the 1990’s are not two ends of the spectrum, which are radically different; rather, they are stages of evolution. The mechanization and electrical power of today’s factories have indeed brought about changes, but it still bears a strong family resemblance to the red brick three story buildings of the 1860’s.

Although there has never been anyone directly credited with its invention, the most pivotal tool in the evolution of garment production was the invention of the tape measure. Surprisingly, this occurred a mere forty years prior to the Civil War. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, strips of paper were taken for the various lengths required, and correspondingly marked chest, neck, sleeve, etc. With numerical measurements, it was found that the human body could be measured in sets of proportions. Ironically, to this day, there are tailors that do not use a tape measure, but rather, a piece of string, and use this for all of the measurements.

It was the invention of the tape measure that brought a degree of sophistication to the drafting of patterns. In Claudia Kidwell’s Cutting a Fashionable Fit, she states that the tape measure brought about a difference, in “technique, (and) the substitution of ‘scientific principles’ for the tailor’s individual judgment, or genius”. Prior and in some cases, up to the Civil War, tailoring was self engineered trade, despite the fact that is remained locked into the apprenticeship system. It was not until the 1880’s that a relatively universal system was accepted by both the custom and ready-made industries. This system was designed and written by Jno. Mitchell, and is the text that is still used at the Fashion Institute of technology. Prior to this, and very much so during the Civil War, tailors and cutters in the garment trade were coming up with their own solution to the problem of cutting clothes to fit the human body. This individualized approach is where the various “depot styles” came from during the Civil War.

Professor Caffarelli of the Fashion Institute of technology recalled a system where the tailor simply traced around his hand to form the curves of the pattern. This relied almost completely upon the experience and judgment of the tailor. Professor Caffarelli told me about this system in 1993, shortly thereafter, I obtained a copy of a book The Art of Cutting written by Edward Giles in 1896. The book is basically a timeline and comprehensive study of pattern making systems and manuals up to that time. He mentions this, as well as another system which used horseshoes to form the curves. Giles dates this system of making patterns, not from time of the American Civil War, but the late 18th century. Professor Caffarelli’s training was not academic, but, as they say in the trade, “on the bench”. His training was a continuation of the tradition where the apprentice inherited the skills of the master, and in this case, it predated the Civil War.

Directly following the invention of the tape measure came a boom in publishing systems for drafting patterns. Each one was claiming to be different in approach and result. Some required special instruments to measure the customer and special drafting implements. Others, which we have in our collection, consisted of expanding brass templates which you enlarged to the customer’s measurements. Many of these systems simply did not work, Genio Scott’s The Cutter’s Guide, published in NewYork in 1857, sold a series of paper rulers accompanying the manual. However, as he states, “the paper having dampened to print, has since shrunk, as you will perceive by comparing it with your inched-tape, …(but) in dampening it again with paste on the bottom side, by pasting it to a dry piece of pasteboard with prevent it from again shrinking.” I could hardly imagine stretching wet paper to exactly the right measurement to make the scales useful. Other pattern making systems are so limiting, that the tailor could only make one style of jacket, pants and vest.. This has remained the case to this day, and tailors are known for only making the kind of clothes that they themselves like. To that end, many of the uniforms produced at the Federal Arsenals do not display the caprices of fashion. In point of fact, the Federal uniforms, more closely reflect a style of garment almost tem years out of date.


The major reason for these systems was that the custom tailoring industry rested upon exploiting the apprentice system. It was found by the 1820’s and 30’s that one only needed to teach a few operations to the apprentices to complete the garment. Consequently, the apprentice could not proficiently complete a garment on his own. To the end, he or she would never become a viable threat to the master tailor. Professor Joseph Caffarelli spent the first two years of his apprenticeship simply threading needles. He still remarked at the speed at which the master tailor could hand stitch, but it did not make his first assignment less dreary.The end result, was that the apprentices became quite skilled in a small number of operations, primarily hand finishing and buttonhole making. Many people have remarked about the exquisite hand-made buttonholes found on original 19th century garment. Thetruth was there was an over-abundance of hand-finishers, both male and female, and that skill became commonplace. It was this approach that directly led to the factory system, known as section work.


What happened was many of these apprentices left their masters and found that they could not find work without pattern making skills. The publication of the pattern making systems and manuals was a direct attempt to fill this demand. Most of these systems were published privately, and usually by the author. They were usually sold by mail, through trade publications or at trade fairs and shows. Many pattern making systems were directly plagiarized from the manuals published in France and England, and still others were stolen from American sources. It is curious to note that some patterns had distinctive features that were particular to that respective system. For example, one the most widely imported, (and plagiarized) systems was Louis Deverexs Handbook of Practical Cutting. His trousers patterns create a distinctive, and rather unsightly puffy bump in the seat.

This feature is distinctive to the trousers coming from Deverexs system. It is of note that there are pair of trousers in the collection of the Museum of the Confederacy which have this distinctive xbumpx. The mass-produced, ready to wear garment industry is actually an outgrowth of the custom tailoring trade. The industry grew from an individual customer basis to a series of general sizes to fit average men. This trend towards standardization was well established by the Civil War, but was relatively crude by todayxs standards. Although there were civilian clothes made in a wide range of sizes, the armyxs solution was less than one-half dozen basic sizes. Common sense would dictate that there many more sizes and shapes of men in the army.

Suiting up for War. 

While the Federal Arsenals were found to adequately supply the armies in time of peace, the exigencies of war forced the government to seek contractors. While there were speculators who secured contracts for uniforms and equipment, it was in point of fact the centers of garment production that switched over to military contracts. In her masterxs thesis, Mary L. Davis Myers wrote, xNew York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Cincinnatti produced more than 50 percent of the total volume of ready-made (menxs) clothing in 1860, New York would take the lead as the major clothing production center in the 1860xs.x (it should be noted that New York is still the fashion capital of the world.) All of these locations later would become major supply depots for the Federal Army during the Civil War.

As the garment industry grew from the custom tailoring trade, and the trade itself was regionalized due to the pattern making systems, it would stand to reason that these various depots, both North and South would have correspondingly different styles of uniforms. It is my belief that the clothing for instance produced for the New York depot closely resembled the clothing being produced for the civilian market in that area.

Moreover, in terms of garment style, there is a radical difference between Union and Confederate issue garments. As stated, the Federal uniforms reflect a style and fit more akin to the late 1840xs and early 1850xs, whereas the Confederate uniforms, especially those attributed to the Richmond Depot, reflect a correct 1860xs style. As many of the latest civilian fashions were coming from England and France at that time, it is very likely that this could be the lineage to the Confederate pattern making systems.

It should be stated that all of the work produced at a particular factory, or arsenal in the case of military work, came under the direction of one master tailor. This gentleman would be responsible for all of the patterns and styles of garments produced at that location. Furthermore, it is very likely, that by researching the master tailors for the individual arsenal and contractor, you may be able to find exactly what pattern making system he utilized to make the uniforms. While it may be moot if there is an extent original, the manuals also contain corresponding trousers and overcoats. For instance, this would enable one to find the Columbus Depot uniform in its entirety as the tailor saw it. It is essentially making a reproduction from the industrial standards of the day, and not solely on original artifacts.

A tribute.

The quality of the surviving uniforms do stand alone in terms of the historical progression of mass produced garments. The menswear industry consisted largely of women, and it was, as described in Ms. Davis-Myers thesis, to be xa cheap abundant labor force,xand the massive number of women needing work kept them the least paid of the work force.Trade unions did not come about in the garment industry in the United States until well after the close of the Civil War. When a contract for uniforms could be obtained, the female workers were barely paid subsistence wages. If there was no work, they simply starved. The traditional heroes of conflicts are the great generals who we remember with statues on the battlefields of the war. Military historians and the living history field have been altogether blind to the tremendous contribution made by female garment workers during the Civil War. Although they were paid little at the time of manufacture, it is almost poetic justice that these surviving originals are bringing upwards of $40,000. at today's figures, this is equivalent to the price of a marble statue. It is these surviving garments that are a lasting monument to their role in the American Civil War.

This article was published on Sunday 31 January, 2021.
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