Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Civil War Housewife


     "I suppose you all know what a housewife is?  It is a long piece of cloth with a number of small pockets sewed along one side, and made to fold up like a pocket-book, having separate places for buttons, thread, needles, pins, &c., such as some of you may have seen your mothers or grandmothers use."  - The Reformed Presbyterian magazine. Sept. 1, 1864.

     Civil War soldiers did not have many extra items of clothing, so the clothing they wore took a lot of wear and tear.  Soldiers were often sent off to war with “housewives” or small sewing kits made by their wives, mothers, or girlfriends.  These were usually made from scraps of fabric or sometimes leather, and could be folded or rolled to pocket-size, and then fastened with ribbon, yarn, or a button.  They contained essential sewing supplies such as needles, pins, thread, buttons, a small pair of scissors, extra scraps of fabric, and possibly a thimble.  When a soldier needed to sew on a button or mend a tear, all of the necessary supplies would be at hand. 

 
In this image from the Library of Congress titled, “War views. No. 1501, Camp life, Army of the Potomac - writing to friends at home” you can clearly see a soldier in the foreground doing some mending.

 
     Since I work at a museum which focuses on Civil War medicine, we do not own any sewing kits, but we have been able to borrow two for display.  Let’s take a look at them.

 
This sewing kit can be seen in our Everyday Life display, which shows many items which the soldiers would have had with them in camp. It has a leather exterior and cloth interior. As you can see, the only remaining contents are a few pins. It is fairly typical of the sort of housewife which would have been carried by a soldier. This kit is on loan to us from the collection of Dr. Gordon Dammann.

 
 
This is a fancier sewing kit made of maroon velvet with an embossed design and metal details. It can be seen in our Nursing display and it belonged to Miss Laura R. Cotton, who was a nurse in Philadelphia. This kit is on loan to us from the collection of Mr. Chris Foard.

 
The interior of the red kit is made of leather, with a cloth flap for the pins and needles, and leather loops to hold the larger sewing tools. 

 
 
This tiny bone crochet hook was contained inside the kit. It would not have been a typical item for the housewives that the soldiers carried. 

 

 
Most kits did contain a small set of sewing scissors. This is a fairly plain set, but many times these sewing scissors were made in the shape of a stork, with the feet being shaped into the finger loops and the bird’s “beak” forming the blades.

 

 
Another item which could be found in a housewife was a thimble. Thimbles were most commonly made of metal or wood. This one is steel with an aluminum lining. It was found at the site of Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office. It required some conservation work and so is not yet on display. This thimble is on loan to us from the U.S. General Services Administration.

 

     You’ve probably noticed that the supplies contained in a small sewing kit haven’t changed much over the years!  These kits are still fascinating though, and give us a small glimpse into the life of a Civil War soldier.

 
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

5 comments:

  1. I had never heard that those kits were called "housewives"! You learn something new every day!

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  2. Nice blog of Civil War Clothing and housewife. Thanks for posting this. I was looking for this info all over the web.

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  3. Not many Confederate house wives actually had scissors they were a luxury not a necessesity.

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  4. When my husband was doing military, I made him a housewife and also another that looked like a housewife but had pouches that carried his modern day medications and diabetic supplies. He still uses the housewife in his Christian commission impression.

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  5. it is something that is still being used today. You can buy a housewife in most PX's or a military supply store it has needles thread, buttons and scissors etc. I am pleased to find the origin.

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