"They Call It Patriotism":
Homespun as Politics in the South, 1860-1861*

by Vicki Betts 

            Historians are beginning to discover that throughout time dress has been more than fiber, more than construction techniques, perhaps even more than art.  Clothing is "one of the most revealing signifiers of popular culture, in which the manufacturer, the wearer, and the spectator account for a rich diversity of meanings."  While this might appear obvious when discussing national costume or military uniform, in 1860-61 one of the most potent symbols of Southern economic and political independence was a homespun suit or dress.[1]
Homespun as a patriotic statement dates back prior to the Revolution.  It served to promote American industry, simplicity, and democracy as opposed to "British luxury and corruption."  In 1767, shortly after Parliament passed the Townshend Act increasing duties on manufactured goods, the various colonies passed non-importation resolutions.  They urged citizens to rely instead on their own resources, including textiles.  The Reverend Charles Woodmason proudly reported that "50 Young Ladies all drest in White of their own Spinning" were among those who attended his Sunday services in the backcountry community of Camden, South Carolina.  In 1769, the ladies of Williamsburg showed their support for the colonial boycotts of British goods by wearing homespun gowns to a public ball at the capitol.  During the subsequent Revolution, with British goods cut off by war, many across the fledgling nation, North and South, of all economic classes, turned to homespun.  One editor wrote "The industry and frugality of the American ladies much exalt their character in the eyes of the World and serve to show how greatly they are contributing to bring about the political salvation of a whole Continent."  The all male graduating classes of Harvard, Yale, and the College of Rhode Island wore homespun to their commencement exercises.[2]
Again, in 1807, with the Embargo Act, domestic manufactures were encouraged and European luxuries condemned.  In 1808, the members of Virginia's "Surry Society to Encourage Domestic Manufactures" asserted that they were "already for the most part, clad in homespun."  "Dorothy Distaff," writing to the Raleigh Register in 1810 wrote "With all due respect to what you call the resolves of Congress, I think the resolves of our sex of full as much consequence to the nation, a hundred thousand spinning wheels put in motion by female hands will do as much towards establishing our independence, as a hundred thousand of the best militia men in America."  The situation eased after the War of 1812 concluded, but heated up again, particularly in South Carolina, during the Nullification Crisis in the 1820s and 1830s.  This time the call was to produce homespun and boycott New England textiles as a protest against high tariffs.[3]
As tensions rose once more, in 1860 and 1861, Southerners again turned to the old symbol, fully aware of homespun's historical significance.  While across Virginia, in late 1859, men met and spoke on self-dependence, by early 1860 "the ladies have begun to act.  Without noise they have commenced to give force and color to our resolutions" by sponsoring homespun parties.  "More than a hundred ladies and gentlemen, belonging to the most respected families in the city [Richmond], were present all of whom were attired in part or in whole in garments made of Virginia fabrics, woven in Virginia looms."  Over a thousand miles away, the editor of the Dallas Herald approved. 

Old Virginia seems thoroughly aroused to action, by the alarming encroaching of Northern fanatics and their insane teachings. . . . 'Anterior' to the Revolution the ladies and gentlemen of the old Dominion attended balls and parties, and received their most distinguished guests, dressed in homespun clothes, one of the means adopted to show the Mother country that the colonies possessed within themselves all the elements of independence. . . . The daughters of the Old Dominion have ever been patriotic,--since the days in which Mrs. Washington draped in homespun, received her highborn company arrayed in fabrics manufactured at home and by her own hands partly.

In nearby Ellis County, Texas,

The matrons of Ellis county are aroused by the present aspect of affairs and have resolved to show their spirit, that they can imitate their grandmothers in days of yore, when oppression forced us from beneath the British yoke of bondage, almost as degrading as that of the servile masters of the North at present.  The women of Ellis have formed what they call 'home spun societies.'  They say that the immense sums of money sent North, to purchase finery to decorate their persons, can and ought to be expended in encouraging home industry and home manufactures.  Hence they propose to wear and use all such articles of Southern make as they can possible [sic] obtain, in prefence [sic] to the Northern articles, even though our home article be inferior.  As far as articles of dress go they propose to wear nothing manufactured at the North.[4]

The editor of the Austin State Gazette wrote:

We are much pleased to find that many papers have entered the list in favor of homespun.  During the embargo under the administration of Mr. Madison, the richest and finest ladies in the country vied with each other who could produce the handsomest dresses.  Old pieces of silk were picked, carded, spun, wove and made into dresses.  Many of them equaled the finest silks and cambrics.  Fourth of July celebrations were held where both the ladies and the gentlemen all dressed in homespun. . . . God send that our wives and daughters, could be induced to imitate the customs of the days of Martha Washington. . . [5]

            Thoughts in South Carolina turned to that state's unique history.  In a WPA interview, Mrs. Wary Ann Lipscomb recalled: "During the second year of the war I was making me a homespun dress, and while my father helped me with the weaving he told me of a dress that one of his friends made during the Nullification days.  I carded and spun the filling for my new dress, wove it, made the dress and wore it to Charleston when I went to see my husband."[6]
Showing one's Southern patriotism wasn't necessarily cheap.  "Jennie Freedom" in Atlanta chided her editor that "You certainly don't know how costly homespun is in these war times," and a later writer to the Columbus [GA] Enquirer rebuked the wealthy women of that town with "You who, in the first flush of your patriotism, gave twenty five and thirty dollars for homespuns and ostentatiously wore them. . ." Yet the rewards seemed to make the effort worthwhile.  Elzey Hay, also in Georgia, wrote after the war: 

In the first burst of our 'patriotic' enthusiasm, we started a fashion which it would have been wise to keep up.  We were going to encourage home manufacture—we would develop our own resources, so we bought homespun dresses, had them fashionably made, and wore them instead of 'outlandish finery.'  The soldiers praised our spirit, and vowed that we looked prettier in homespun than other women in silk and velvet.  A word from them was enough to seal the triumph of homespun gowns. [7]

            Southern merchants also supported the "cause."  In Memphis, a storekeeper writing under the name Cynicus, publicly doubted the girls' "oft-repeated cry to 'Live and die for Dixie''" and "challenged them to put aside their pretty, airy, muslin frocks and walk down the fashionable thoroughfare of Main Street clad in humble homespun."  He even offered the cloth free of charge.  Margaret Drane, aged fourteen, and her "bevy" of friends marched down to the store.

There they selected the unmistakably genuine article, with their own hands made the dresses in the style of the day—ten widths to the skirt, tight waist, and low-corded neck.  Wearing their homespun not as housemaids, but as if it were the ermine of royalty, and trying to keep step in their ungainly brogans, with cornshuck hats of their own braiding, bravely trimmed with red-white-and-red ribbons, shading their blushing faces, the appearance of the quartette on Main street at once set the patriotic fashion and made them the toast of the hour.[8]

            Schools also encouraged homespun.  In October of 1860, twenty-seven teachers and pupils of the Spring Hill School attended the Georgia State Fair "all attired in a substantial Check Homespun Dress, made fashionably full and flowing" "a sight worth seeing on a southern fair ground."  One of the students, Sarah Conley Clayton later wrote about the experience.  According to her

to show our patriotism at that critical time, we were all clad in homespun dresses made by our own hands, the girls, with two or three exceptions being under sixteen years of age.  We were a proud set, and were confident of being the first to appear in Georgia cotton; so in our simply made blue and white and brown checks, with all eyes upon us we walked proudly from the Union Depot out to the grounds on Fair Street near the cemetery.

The girls did win a prize, but were they were "a little bit crest fallen" to discover another homespun clad young lady also in attendance.  Years later Sarah could describe almost every detail: "In her dress, a clear, bright blue was the predominating color; a narrow buff stripe, with probably a red and white thread running through it, alternating with the blue about every half inch.  It was made quite stylishly, as I remember; more of a riding habit, a pretty skirt and tight coat piped with buff and ornamented with numerous buttons, we understood that she herself had woven the material."[9]
Graduating classes made a special effort to patronize homespun, much as Harvard and Yale did during the Revolution.  In March 1860, the students of Mercer University pledged themselves to buy "no more apparel of Northern manufacture. . . [and] to appear on the rostrum of our next Annual commencement in Southern-made clothing."  During the summer of 1861, an article entitled "Home Spun at the Mary Sharp" announced that the young ladies graduating from this Baptist college in Winchester, Tennessee, had chosen "home made cotton dresses" as their clothing of choice for commencement.  

"It was designed to be emblematical of the intention of these young women to make themselves all the present condition of our country may require her daughters to be.  We have since heard of some of these graduates appearing at church in the same humble but becoming garb, where it elicited the earnest admiration of the right thinking of the other sex."  The Trustees later discussed purchasing a bolt of cottonade "from some of our own factories" to serve as the school uniform.  "They could thus be all dressed alike, and hence all temptation to extravagance would be removed."  

Myrtie Long remembered her cousin Carrie graduating from College Temple in Newnan, Georgia.  The class chose homespun for their graduation dresses.  "The whole county praised the act.  On that day every body was singing the popular song:  'Hurrah, Hurrah!  For the Southern girls, Hurrah!  Hurrah, for the homespun dresses that the Southern Ladies wear!'"[10]

            Editors and correspondents noticed particular young ladies around the region who exemplified the Southern ideal.  "Home Industry" wrote in to the Charleston Mercury in November, 1860:

We observed, while on a visit to a lady friend, a bonnet and dress of Georgia linsey and cotton, designed for the daughter of one of our leading Secessionists.  The dress is made in fashionable style, a la Gabrielle, and the bonnet is composed of white and black Georgia cotton, covered with a net work of black cotton, the streamers ornamented with Palmetto trees and Lone Stars, embroidered in gold thread, while the feathers are formed of white and black worsted.  The entire work is domestic, as well as the material, and exhibits considerable ingenuity.  The idea illustrates the patriotism of the ladies, and their earnest sympathy with the great Southern movement, while its execution affords convincing proof of how independent we can be of our Northern aggressors, when we have the will to undertake and the energy to achieve.

Within the next month, the Columbus [GA] Times noted "In the street yesterday was observed one of our pretty young ladies attired in a dress of Georgia homespun and wearing the blue cockade.  The make of the dress and the style of the cloak, gave it the appearance of silk at a distance, and attracted the attention of all."[11]
The year 1861 brought more accolades from the press.  "Two of Portsmouth's (Va.) fair daughters appeared in its streets Tuesday in homespun, and the general verdict was they looked charming."  The Atlanta Locomotive reported that

A gay and fashionable young lady attracted the attention on the Fair ground yesterday, because of a most handsome, and neatly fitting copperas homespun dress, which she wore, and seemed justly proud.  She is wealthy of a fine family, and for her dress, which really was among the handsomest of any kind on the ground, she certainly deserves a grand premium, and we insist upon the Agricultural Society awarding her one.  We heard a number of ladies wish for a dress like it, but whether they wished it because of the style of the goods, or because they discovered it to be so popular we will not say.  But most assuredly we were delighted to see this one Southern lady rigged out in home made cloth.[12]

            "Miss T.", the daughter of a friend of the editor of the Atlanta Southern Confederacy, arrived at that printing establishment on August 24, 1861,

dressed in beautiful checked homespun; white, blue, copperas, and 'Turkey Red' colors were beautifully woven into the fabric.  It really was refreshing.  Then it fit right.  It was not only spun and wove, but cut and fit by the accomplished wearer, who has just completed a collegiate education. . . .Let us have more homespun dresses—enough at least to destroy the novelty; and let us have more good warm jeans for gentlemen, and for our soldiers to wear this winter.

By fall, the Charleston Courier  was noticing "Many beautiful damsels were seen yesterday on King street, in suits of homespun.  We trust the example will be followed, and if our fair ladies know how much pleasure it afforded to the volunteers and to all good citizens, it would be generally and universally followed."[13]
If editorial comments were not enough, some prominent citizens sponsored "homespun parties" of various sorts.  One early Virginia party has already been noted.  In Milledgeville, Georgia,

The ladies of this city, or at least a good many of them, had a homespun party at Newwell's hall, on last Thursday evening, which was decidedly the most pleasant affair that has occurred in the city for many years.  The ladies all wore homespun dresses, and their persons were tastefully and appropriately ornamented with native jewels and charms.  Many of the dresses, though of the plainest cotton fabric, were beautiful, and the wearers looked charming in them. . . . [The group was] delighted with the first experiment of a social gathering in plain and unpretending attire.  The animus of this party was decidedly secession, but we believe there was perfect union among the company.

In Leake County, Mississippi, Col. Donald gave a party in which "The ticket sent to each young lady, required that she should come dressed in Mississippi manufactured apparel, in the manufacture of which she must in some way assist.  The gentlemen were also required to dress in the manufacture of Mississippi, made in Leake and Attala.  There were near one hundred persons of both sexes in attendance, all attired as specified above."  In March, 1861, the young ladies of Albany, Georgia, gave a "Homespun Pic Nic."  "We were not present, but learn that a great number of the fashion and beauty of the city were there, and several gentlemen and many of the young ladies dressed in plain but neat Homespun dresses.  This is praiseworthy."  In Atlanta, for one of the first Fairs sponsored by the Ladies' Relief Society in September, 1861, the notice in the newspaper announced that "The ladies will appear in southern homespun."[14]
One of the most interesting accounts, however, is of an Alabama homespun ball.  Mrs. Elizabeth Lyle Saxon recalled the preparations leading up to that event and the unintended results. 

The young ladies were all preparing for a grand ball, that was soon to be given, and four of them were going to wear homespun dresses. . . The four girls were sewing on their dresses, vile-smelling, common checked goods, such as we used for our servants at that time.  They were making them with long trains, low neck and short sleeves, and the lace they were trimming them with was Pointe de Alencon, Honiton and Valenciennes, suitable for the dress of a duchess at a court ball. . . When the ball came off the girls looked as lovely as when in satin and lace, for the dresses fitted their perfect figures to a charm.  One of the young men who had danced with all the four came to me, and taking me to one side, asked in a hollow whisper:  "Miss Lizzie, what in heaven's name is it that smells so awfully about those girls?"  "Why, it is a new perfume they are using," I said.  "They call it patriotism; I call it indigo dye."  "Oh," he said, "it is the dresses; why didn't they wash them?  It is a horrid smell."  I told the girls about it, and when they got home they were a beautiful blue all about their necks, and they hardly allowed the word homespun ever to be uttered to them until we really had to make it at home and wear it."[15]

            The young Southern ladies of 1860 and 1861 created and "ostentatiously" wore their homespun dresses as a means of being "heard" politically, without leaving their separate spheres and without having the vote.  Homespun became, for them, a visible tie with their heroic and independent past and a uniform to match the gray of their brothers and beaux.  Some soon became disillusioned with the fashion, putting their dresses aside when they washed poorly or were too hot to wear.  But by late 1862, many civilians were beginning to turn back to homespun out of necessity, as the blockade cleared off the merchants' shelves and the Confederate army consumed much of what came out of Southern textile mills.  Eventually, even the Alabama girls with the Valenciennes lace "really had to make it at home and wear it." 

            *Originally appeared in The Citizens' Companion vol. 9, no. 4 (October-November 2002):  12-17.

[1] John Tosh, review of The Hidden Consumer:  Masculinities, Fashion, and City Life, 1860-1914, by Christopher Breward, in American Historical Review 107 (April 2002):  619-620.  For this article, "homespun" is defined as fabric handwoven using threads either totally hand spun or machine spun warp and hand spun filler, fabric handwoven using factory spun threads, or even coarse fabric woven in Southern factories using only factory spun threads, a definition occasionally used by mid-19th century Southern newspapers and magazines.

[2] Michael Zakim, "Sartorial Ideologies:  From Homespun to Ready-Made," American Historical Review 106 (December 2001):  1553 (first quotation), 1554-1556; Cynthia Kierner, Beyond the Household:  Women's Place in the Early South, 1700-1835 (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1998), 75 (second quotation); Catherine Clinton, The Other Civil War:  American Women in the Nineteenth Century,  Rev. ed.  (New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984), 13 (third quotation); Paul Mitchell Marks, Hands to the Spindle:  Texas Women and Home Textile Production, 1822-1880.  (College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 1966), 13; Patricia A. Cunningham, "Simplicity of Dress:  A Symbol of American Ideals" in Dress in American Culture, ed. Patricia A. Cunningham and Susan Voso Lab (Bowling Green, OH:  Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1993) 180-199; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun:  Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York:  Knopf, 2001), 176-178 (mostly on handspinning as a symbol of independence)

[3] Kierner, 133 (first quotation), 135 (second quotation); William Kovarik, "Hezekiah Niles and the New South," accessed 28 July 2002; available from http://www.runet.edu/~wkovarik/papers/niles.html.

[4] Richmond Whig, quoted in the Dallas Herald, 8 February 1860, p. 1, c. 6 (first quotation); Dallas Herald, 8 February 1860, p. 1, c. 6 (second quotation); Crockett [TX] Printer quoted in Dallas Herald, 27 February 27 1861, p. 4, c. 1 (third quotation).

[5] Austin State Gazette, 21 December 1861, p. 3, c. 2.

[6] "Mrs. Wary Ann Lipscomb, Gaffney, S. C. American Civil War Women," accessed 28 July 2002, http://www.americancivilwar.com/women/nl.html.

[7] Southern Confederacy [Atlanta, GA], 3 November 1861, p. 3, c. 1 (first quotation); Columbus [GA] Enquirer quoted in Memphis Daily Appeal [Atlanta, GA], 6 February 1864, p. 2, c. 6 (second quotation); Elzey Hay, "Dress Under Difficulties; or, Passages from the Blockade Experience of Rebel Women," Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine 73 no. 1 (July 1866):  32 (third quotation).

[8] Adelaide Stuart Dimitry, War-Time Sketches Historical and Otherwise.  New Orleans: Louisiana Printing Co. Press, 1911, accessed 28 July 2002, http://metalab.unc.edu/docsouth/dimitry/dimitry.html.

[9] Daily Chronicle & Sentinel [Augusta, GA], 28 October 1860, p. 3, c. 3 (first quotation); Memphis Daily Appeal, 5 December 1860, p. 2, c. 3 (second quotation); Sarah Conley Clayton, Requiem for a Lost City:  A Memoir of Civil War Atlanta and the Old South (Macon, GA:  Mercer University Press, 1999), 30 (third, fourth, and fifth quotations).

[10] Jonathan M. Bryant, How Curious a Land:  Conflict and Change in Green County, Georgia, 1850-1885 (Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 61 (first quotation); Tennessee Baptist, 24 August 1861, p. 2, c. 3 (second, third, fourth and fifth quotations); Natchez Daily Courier, 16 October 1861, p. 1, c. 2; Myrtie Long Candler, "Reminiscences of Life in Georgia During the 1850s and 1860s," Georgia Historical Quarterly 33 no. 3 (September 1949):  227 (sixth quotation).

[11] Charleston Mercury, 20 November 1860, p. 1, c. 3 (first quotation), repeated in Daily Chronicle & Sentinel [Augusta, GA], 27 November 1860, p. 3, c. 2; Columbus [GA] Times, quoted in the Daily Chronicle & Sentinel [Augusta, GA], 2 December 1860, p. 2, c. 1 (second quotation).

[12] Charleston Mercury, 6 February 1861, p. 4, c. 4 (first quotation); Atlanta Locomotive, quoted in San Antonio Ledger, 19 July 1861 (second quotation).

[13] Southern Confederacy [Atlanta, GA], 25 August 1861, p. 3, c. 1 (first quotation); Charleston Courier quoted in the Natchez Daily Courier, 2 October 1861, p. 1, c. 3 (second quotation).

[14] Milledgeville [GA] Union, quoted in the Memphis Daily Appeal, 30 January 1861, p. 2, c. 6 (first quotation); Marshall Texas Republican, 20 April 1861, p. 3, c. 3 (second quotation); Albany [GA] Patriot, 21 March 1861, p. 3, c. 1 (third quotation); Southern Confederacy [Atlanta], 27 September 1861, p. 2, c. 1-2 (fourth quotation).

[15] Elizabeth Lyle Saxon, A Southern Woman's War-Time Reminiscences.  Memphis:  Pilcher Printing co., 1905, pp. 18, 22, accessed 28 July 2002, http://sunsite.unc.edu/docsouth/saxon/saxon.htm.