While we were dressing one of the Civil War uniforms in our new exhibition, ‘On the Home Front,’ we found that the label read “Brooks Brothers.”
Upon further research, it turns out that the story of Brooks Brothers history as a provider of Civil War uniforms is not without controversy. In fact, the New York Times ran an article on just this very subject back in the Spring. (Click here for the article) To summarize this article, the poor quality uniforms that Brooks Brothers provided for the union army epitomized the widespread corruption and profiteering that was practiced by manufactures during the war. As seen in the article’s comments section, this interpretation of events has been called into question.
While it is true that Brooks Brothers did provide some uniforms of poor quality to a relatively small number of soldiers in the union army, this is overly simplifying a complicated story. As James M. Schmidt writes in his chapter on Brooks Brothers in Lincoln’s Labels: America’s Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008):
“The historical context is also important. In the years between the world wars, the Army’s quartermasters still complained of the vagaries of supplying a large army with uniforms and pointed to the very problems that had plagued Brooks Brothers in the Civil War: securing large lots of uniform cloth of uniform color of durable fabric suitable for the rigors of campaign.”
The problem of supplying uniforms for the Civil War was a relatively novel situation. A system for standardizing sizing was being developed so that clothing could be ready-made rather than custom made. The production of ready-to-wear for men was just in its infancy by mid-century. A comparable system for women’s clothing would not gain widespread acceptance until the turn-of-the-century. The problems facing Brooks Brothers rose from both the difficulties of developing the techniques for large-scale clothing production and the shortages in wartime.
The overcoat in the exhibition serves as an interesting example of Brooks Brothers’ products. This piece is in no way an example of the mass-produced clothing that the retailer was developing at this time. In sharp contrast to the ‘shoddy’ uniforms that provoked such criticism, this coat is an exquisite example of craftsmanship and high quality materials. The braid trim is particularly impressive.
As the quality and ornament on this coat indicates, it was worn by an officer. In fact, it belonged to Major General Jacob D. Cox. After serving in the war, Cox was elected governor of Ohio. This coat is now in the collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society. The details of this coat really confirm the value of examining the actual garments in order to glean a more complete story of the period than could be gained by simply reading about it.