Socks and Stockings, Shirts, Drawers, and Sashes
Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol., 53 no. 4, December 2000
by Richard M. Candee
Hand and Machine Knitting for the Union Army
This paper explores the Civil War’s impact onthe making of knit‑goods, especially woolen underwear, socks, and stockings, by contrasting a system of volunteer female home knitting in support of the Union Army organized by the U.S. Sanitary Commission, with the products of factory machine knitting. The direct and indirect governmental support for both hand and industrial knitting had a lasting impact. It fostered post‑war domestic hobby knitting, while helping to establish the factory manufacture of utilitarian woolen undergarments. Industry lobbyist John L. Hayes recalled that government orders between 1861 and 1865 absorbed all the output of hosiery factories, and stimulated the addition of new knitting machines in woolen mills “to furnish the class of clothing the most indispensable for the health and comfort of our soldiers.” In fact, Hayes credited the Civil War with the widespread “substitution of wool for cotton underclothing.” This “change of habit in the whole country,” he claimed, was modeled on the “sanitary efforts” developed by the Union Army for its soldiers.
Twenty years ago, the only article of woollen [sic] underclothing worn by the laboring classes was an occasional Guernsey shirt, of a coarseness reminding one of the goathair garments… Through our manufactures, the use of soft and strong wool under‑garments has become extended among most of our laboring men and even women and children. No sumptuary law could have conduced so much to the health of the community as this...(1)
While the availability of woven textiles increased ready‑made cotton or flannel shirts and drawers for urban consumers, hand knitting of socks and stockings continued to be the norm in rural areas. Despite foreign imports and a scattering of framework knitting in cities along the east coast, the government estimated in 1832 “that about two‑thirds of the clothing, including hosiery…worn and used by the inhabitants of the United States, who do not reside in cities, is the product of family manufactures.” (2) By the time of the Civil War, however, factory manufacture of stockings, shirts, drawers (underwear), and other knit‑goods reflected a changing technology. Much was the product of emigré English artisans known as “stocking weavers” who worked the old hand‑ and foot‑powered framework knitting ma‑ chine. As late as the 1850s, these were even found in those factories in which carding and spinning was done by power. By then, however, several experimental knit‑ ting machines imported from Europe had been improved in America. (3)
The first American innovation was a slow single‑stitch machine, patented by Pennsylvanians Joseph Hollen and John McMullen in 1831. It was improved by them in this country as well as by others in Britain. This machine was initially conceived as a hand‑cranked home machine to be turned by children, and most who acquired a licensed machine used it locally. When Joseph M. Merrow of Mansfield, Conn., contacted the Boston patent holders in 1837, he was offered:
the right of Mansfield at 1% on the population of the town. We pay for making machines 15$ & sell them for 30$. The last town I sold was in Maine for 30$ & contained about 12 or 1500 Inhabitants, which was 3%. (4)
After buying his patent rights and fourteen machines from a Leicester, Mass., mechanic in 1838, however, Merrow ran them by waterpower in a new factory. These single‑stitch machines knit a flat web which could be widened or narrowed for “shirts and drawers, ladies stockings, men’s half‑hose, gloves, mittens, and caps, all full‑fashioned. The shirts and drawers were made of all‑wool, three‑thread yarn, and after a little time, mixtures of cotton (called merino).” (5) Like the products of the hand frame, the flat‑fashioned goods had to be seamed into garments.
But single‑stitch machines could make only 300 stitches a minute. To survive into the Civil War, as Merrow did, some factory owners began to import new knitting machines from England and the continent. Philadelphia, the traditional center of hand frame production, was among the first to experiment with these. Power machines were also found in New York City and Cohoes, N.Y., Boston, and Portsmouth, N.H., where American inventors made substantial improvements over the 1840s and 1850s.
Warp knitting was the first to rib by power and competed with handframe “Derby rib” hosiery. During the 1850s it replaced earlier machines in most water‑powered factories. Meanwhile, circular knit‑ ting machines imported from Europe in the mid‑1840s produced tubes of bulk goods from which garments could be cut and sewn. These imported machines could only knit plain, however. Two inventions were needed to adapt early circular knitters to Derby rib: the rib dial and the latch needle. John Pepper of Portsmouth, N.H., can be credited for the first circular ribber—used experimentally in a factory at Franklin, N.H., from 1852 to 1857. (6) The latch needle, which eliminated many parts needed to manipulate traditional needles for hand frames to circular motion, had many fathers. First patented in France in 1806, it was forgotten or ignored in Britain until 1849, when it was simultaneously reinvented in England and America just as experiments with power were begun. “Self‑acting” latch needles were first successfully combined in plain and rib circular machines by Walter and Jonas Aiken, who in 1854 sold them to the Enfield, N.H., Shakers. There a system of adding the toes and heels by hand was invented, creating a huge outwork system for a growing number of factories using such machines throughout northern New England. (7)
Women increasingly tended the factory knitters, too. One wrote, “I use three of Aikens’s knitting machines, and other machinery for making yarn. The wool is first made into yam and then knit into webbing, and marked for heeling and toeing. It is then divided into doz‑ ens, and distributed around the country to be heeled and toed, in which branch we employ five hundred American women.” In 1860 John Pepper reported that in his factory in Ashland, N.H., “We are trying women where men have been employed,” and found, “women are in some respects superior workers to men.” (8) At that time he was making some 72,000 dozen pairs of cotton and woolen stockings a year on his circular machines.
The work is very even and beautiful and it is done very rapidly, as one machine will knit the legs of twelve dozen pairs of stockings in a day of ten hours, and one girl can tend eight machines, making say ninety‑six dozen pairs of stocking legs as the day’s work of one girl. The feet are knit on another machine, which requires the attention of a girl, and turns out twenty‑five dozen pairs of feet. The feet then require to be shaped a little at the toe, and sewed up at the sides and heel. The leg being knit of uniform size, the hose requires to be shaped by stretching on a form to prepare them for market. (9)
By war’s end, the value of Massachusetts hosiery had trebled since 1855 and observers noted New England was making “rapid strides” in Derby rib goods made “on Aiken’s and Pepper’s patent speedy circular frames, producing handsome goods.” (10) The Aikens sold factory machines for all sizes of circular goods (Figure 1). The smallest was a ribbed cuff or “tip machine” for the waistbands of shirts “and for the bottoms or lower extremities of the legs of drawers.” There were three sizes of multi‑feed plain knitting machines for shirts and drawers to make men’s, women’s and children’s goods. Aiken claimed “the best method of making shirts is to make the fabric half the size required then cut it open and double it. This method avoids the seam on the shoulder and the goods are better and more saleable to have the seam on the sides.” (11)
To a foreign manufacturer he gave this description of how all their machines worked together:
The largest is the drawer machine which has 4 feeds and knits from four bobbins or is virtually four machines in one as it knits four times as fast as a machine with one thread. The shirt machine has but three places where the yarn is fed in, so also the same in the machine for knitting sleeves…
The drawer machine knits the fabric just wide enough to have the fabric cut up without any waste like the enclosed diagram [Figure 2] & the sleeves are cut up of fabric from the sleeve machine in a similar manner. The shirt machine has a knife which cuts open the fabric lengthwise as fast as it knits and is self acting. This is then spread open to its widest extent and doubled over end wise and seamed at the sides—except where the arms are inserted[;] this leaves the sholders [sic] of the shirts whole and gives a chance to insert the arms or sleeves of the shirt. The shirts are then cut open at the top for a space sufficient for the neck and also down the brest [sic] and bound off in a proper manner. (12)
While Aiken machines for cuff, shirt, sleeve, and drawers were expensive, more than $1,100 (£226) for the four, they were in widespread used across the Northeast by 1861.
With such machines for knitting bulk goods, and using the new sewing machine in the factory, Cohoes manufacturers ignored stockings in favor of cut and sewn underwear for New York’s urban market. Here the large Aiken circular knitters competed with English machines and local improvements. J. Sturgis Potter, a Boston shoe entrepreneur, asked Herrick Aiken if he could represent their machines to upstate factories. “I think I could sell quite a large number of your ribbing and footing machines,” he wrote, but noted, “I cannot afford to give it the necessary attention without drawing from it some compensation. Parks & Ells make a fair ribbing machine, and offer inducements to sell them, so also do two other manufacturers of knitting machines.” He claimed, “I can organize one or two companies immediately who will adopt such machines as I shall recommend, and if you will allow me a fair compensation.” Aiken only reluctantly did so. (13)
Potter did apparently start some hosiery companies, but they ended up using similar machines invented by Darius and Augustus Goffe “said to knit a perfect stocking in less than 5 minutes.” The Aikens sued the owners of the Goffe patents, Downs & Co. of the Seneca Knitting Mills, Seneca Falls, N.Y., until they adopted a design for their machines which avoided patent infringements. Orders from the Quartermaster General even before the Civil War show that Downs & Co. contracted for 63,000 army socks in February 1859 and a nearby Waterloo, N.Y., supplier contracted for another 54,000 socks at $2.88 per dozen in October 1860. In 1861, within months of Fort Sumpter and Lincoln’s mobilization, the Union Army contracted with J. S. Potter, then of Seneca Falls, for 100,000 stockings at the same price, perhaps made in the Seneca Knitting Mills. (14)
Hand Knitting for Union Soldiers
When the Civil War began there were just over 300,000 men under arms. As Congress voted an army of another half million volunteers, the Quartermaster’s Department grappled with problems of uniforming the growing number of troops. Until then, all uniforms had been supplied from a single depot, the Schuykill Arsenal in Philadelphia, where goods purchased from private suppliers were cut and sewn into uniforms and shoes. This central depot was emptied of supplies soon after Lincoln called for volunteers and contracts were given to outside manufacturers. However, the army lacked experienced officers to oversee private contracting, and politically appointed civilians proved even less qualified. Supplies quickly became dangerously low and the government devolved clothing and equipage of troops onto the individual states. (15)
Part of the need was filled by the United States Sanitary Commission (often called the forerunner of the Red Cross), founded in 1861 to aid the Medical Bureau in field hospitals. This brought the many local Soldiers Aid Societies under a national system of coordination and imposed a “masculine discipline” on the voluntary benevolence of women. Frederick Law Olmsted, just at the start of his career as a landscape architect, became its secretary in the summer of 1861. After investigating the problem, he noted “Potter’s machine was the only machine that made stocking really suitable, but it could not be made fast enough to meet the demand.” (16) Thus, the Commission proposed that if Union women hand knit and donated socks, its agents could distribute them as part of their hospital duties. The first ladies’ Soldiers Aid Society was formed in April 1861 at Bridgeport, Conn. Soon thousands of Soldiers Aid Societies were established all over the North, whose members, like “the patriotic ladies of Portsmouth,” were “actively employed the past week in making Havelocks” (the lightweight cloth covers for military “forage caps”). (17)
By late 1861 even more useful goods were being provided in large numbers by such informal sewing circles and other aid societies. A West Point officer wrote to one newspaper to “suggest woolen mittens for the soldiers will be greatly needed when the cold weather begins.” He told readers that during the Crimean War more soldiers were disabled from frostbitten fingers than any other cause. “Will not all who can employ themselves in this way, help to furnish five hundred thousand pairs? They should be knit with one finger, to allow free use of the first finger and thumb.” (18) But the most common form of home knitting for the Union Army was the Sanitary Commission’s “Pattern for Socks” reprinted in newspapers across the North. (19) The story of hand knit socks or stockings for both the Blue and Grey has been well told by Anne Macdonald, who notes that “Stockings topped each separate group’s and each region’s inventory.” Even a group of Canadian sympathizers forwarded their knitting through Vermont in 1863. “Like American women, their largest donation was socks!” By 1862 the Boston area alone supplied 34,138 pairs as Samuel Gridley Howe (Julia Ward Howe’s husband) reported. Even the Howe’s daughter, Florence, “added her mite.” As she recalled years later, “My first pair were by no means mates. As I learned to knit better, and so more loosely, the second stocking bloomed to tremendous size! I could only survey it sadly in the fond hope that shrinking in hot water might reduce it to the size of its companion.” (20) Such stories abound, many of them written by female participants after the war; others can be found in letters and diaries. Thus, Vermonter Alice Watts, exhausted by tasks which mushroomed after both her mother and grandmother died, resolved in her 1862 diary “to knit two hours a day and meet weekly with other women to sew for soldiers.” (21) The need was real, as photographs, personal testimony, and letters like those between the Woolsey and Huntington families confirm (Figure 3).
Mrs. Woolsey wrote, “alas, I understand a pair of socks lasts a soldier one week and therefore they will not last to be washed often.” To this her sister, A. W. Huntington, responded:
We hear stories of the durability of knit stockings. One man told the Gilman’s, ‘Why the real army socks last a man a whole week but the knit things from New Haven only last three days!’ Men have so little management! If they would keep two pairs or more in wear at a time, changing, washing them often, they would last ever so much better. The washing clears out the sand & gravel & thickens them up when trodden thin. When you give socks with your own hand you might add the advise. (22)
Many young women did include sentimental verse or personal notes in their handiwork to cheer (or instruct) the anonymous recipient on the field of battle. Hospital clothing sent from Conway, Mass., contained a pair of socks knit by a lady ninety‑seven years old with a note stating her readiness to do all she could. Another old woman wrote, “The fortunate owner of these socks is secretly informed, that they are the one hundred and ninety‑first pair knit for our brave boys by Mrs. Abner Bartlett, of Medford, Mass., now aged eighty‑five years.” (23)
In 1863 a Sanitary Commission doctor assured the home front they had distributed “5642 woolen shirts, 4439 pairs of woolen drawers, 4269 pairs of socks” to wounded or needy soldiers at his field station. (24) Nor was the U.S. Sanitary Commission the only charitable supplier of goods to the army. A parallel U.S. Christian Commission primarily provided Bibles and religious materials, but its pious members also made “hospital garments.” From May to July 1864 alone, besides bandages, flannel shirts and drawers, these Christian volunteers distributed 11,500 socks to the Union Army at Richmond. (25) Such confirmation was especially needed after an 1863 scandal when 5,000 donated (and marked) Sanitary Commission socks were sold to soldiers for 33 cents a pair. It later appeared that the quartermaster had “borrowed” these when army supplies ran low after the Battle of Fredericksburg. This illustrates one major difference between the Quartermaster’s Corps, which charged for its garments, and the Sanitary Commission, which as an act of female patriotism and charity, gave them out free to those in need. Mrs. Woolsey felt, “The dishonest quartermasters are a curse to our army and our cause.” When the army repaid the Commission for the socks, the funds were used to purchase others to be freely distributed. As Jeanie Attie has noted, this raised questions of the Commission’s judgement. They seemed to believe “that buying mass‑produced socks to replace the handmade donations would placate its female constituency.” (26) Not only did it conflict with their idea of charity, but it was (and generally still is) an article of faith among knitting women that hand knitting was better than machine made goods.
Quartermasters Orders and Northern Knit‑goods Suppliers
Gendered perceptions of the value of the quartermaster’s commercial stock and charitable hand knit goods can be seen in a series of letters between one of the leaders of the New York Aid Society and her patriotic New Haven, Conn., daughters, descendants of a Yale president. As early as October 1861 J. S. Woolsey of New Haven wrote, “We are all knitting woolen socks for the soldiers now, the home being so much better than the contracted.” (27) They were, however, “knit with reference to field soldiers, strong and stout‑,” she wrote her nursing sisters the next month. But, “I have no idea of knitting stockings for hospital wear; a much cheaper & sleazier kind answers every such purpose and can be bought.” (28) She worried, however, that:
Speculators are holding everything of the best back. Stewart for instance bought up all the yarn in the country & is having it knit up himself—or is hoarding it in the third story. The usher had to confess it to us the other day. The brown socks in the second barrel are a specimen of Stewart’s at $3.75 a dozen. They are made by him on a hand knitting machine—the toes and heels put in afterwards entirely by hand. You see they are stiff and shapeless. (29)
Alexander T. Stewart was a dry‑goods merchant on Broadway. Mrs. Woolesy sent some of his sub‑standard machine‑made stockings with her hand knit ones to her sisters, all Sanitary Commission nurses, to compare with other factory‑made socks apparently purchased from Jewish dry‑goods merchants near the front.
Please compare your Jew socks with those we send on—if they are as good as ours … See if there are any hard lumps in the heels. I presume they are made on a hand knitting machine at twenty cents a paid—like a half dozen (which I sent in the second barrel) from Stewart’s. They are as thick as a board & when washed we thought would be so stiff and thick as to be unwearable. (30)
While Goffe’s “inferior” knitter was sold in New York City, the most likely hand‑cranked knitting machine was that of Jonas B. Aiken. Just before the war he patented the first successful “family” knitter marketed nationally from his Broadway salesroom (Figure 4). His treadle‑powered table model, based on the sewing machine, was too expensive, and in January 1861 he introduced a cheaper, hand‑cranked, portable that could be screwed to any table top (Figure 5). Stewart or Mrs. Woolsey could easily have found it in his showroom or even one of the soldier’s aid societies in the city. In November 1861 Aiken sent the New York Ladies Union Society “one of my Portable family knitting machines 12 gage (#741) as a present to the Society,” and added, “I should be happy to hear that the Society receive the machine safely and have it in operation successfully.” (31)
When the war closed the southern plantation market, Aiken targeted his agents toward the Midwest and border states. There men and women, like agent Susanna Branson in Cincinnati, demonstrated and sold both the domestic and factory machines which were used primarily to make woolen goods. While much is written about the selfless female hand‑knitters, less is known of the knit goods bought by the Quartermaster Department for uniforms. Military socks, stockings and sashes (Figure 6) traditionally came from hand frame “stocking weavers” or factory “stocking manufacturers” around the Army’s depot at Philadelphia. Anne Macdonald even identified that Hannah Haws, who offered hundreds of pairs of stockings, must have been the proprietor of such a hosiery business as the time between the order and delivery was “too short for hand knitting.” 32) Computer compilation of Union orders makes it now possible to explore what goods were knit and by whom. Matching this data with my own reconstruction of the early industry, shows something of the geography of specialized machine knitting. Instructions, photographs, and surviving artifacts also allow us to explore the construction of these machine knit products.
Once the war began the Army’s single depot in Philadelphia was not enough and new facilities were soon added in New York City and Cincinnati. This is why contractors for knit goods seem to cluster within easy transportation to these cities (Figures 7 and 8). A close examination of what came from each region also suggests the technology behind the numbers (Table 1). Old hand frame shops in Philadelphia might knit silk sashes, purchased privately by officers from an army clothing allowance and the woolen sashes issued to noncommissioned officers from army stock. With but few large factories, the Philadelphia region provided only one third of the “seamless” socks and stockings that others in the Northeast made on improved circular machines. Thus, after his factory burned just before the Civil War, in 1861 Joseph Merrow rebuilt and bought new Aiken machines. His new factory ran day and night to meet army orders for soldiers’ stockings and mittens. While the quartermaster orders show Merrow and his partner in Mansfield, it lists the Agawam Woolen Company in Boston, although the company owned woolen mills in Guilford, N.H., Willowdale in Hamilton, Mass., and West Townsend, Mass Aiken machines were added in their Massachusetts mills before an 1865 order for 150,000 “army… ribbed stockings.” (33)
Thus Table 1 data is incomplete, as shown in the quartermaster’s 1865 report (Figure 7) where, unfortunately, knit shirts and drawers are combined with sewn woven textile garments. But even contracts for exclusively knit goods do not match Table 2 totals. Not the more than 530,000 knit sack coats—normally flannel military version of the pilot coat or “paletot” made in Philadelphia before the war—were produced for the New York depot. (34) The only known contracts for “grey” or “mixt” shirts with collars, sack coats, or knit uniform jackets were to Hunt, Tillinghast & Co., who owned the Oakland Hosiery Company at Sag Harbor, N.Y. (Figure 7). But these made up only a fraction of the New York depot total. Use of knit goods for sewn garments suggests circular machines here even before those bought from Aiken in 1864. Such knit goods from similar circulars were cut‑ups. In October 1861 a “Mrs. Sewall of Boston…being a lady of ‘means and leisure’ took the government contract for woolen shirts in Mass” as a form of philanthropy. These were:
cut and made up under her own eyes by poor women at good prices. She wishes to secure good and well made clothes for soldiers and make the business a double benefit by getting work for the workless. Her labor has been immense and her reward in proportion, in knowledge that the sum that would have gone into some wretched contractor’s pocket has blessed hundreds of needy women. (35)
Most knit shirts and drawers for which orders survive came from New York, although the exact location is confused by New York City merchants who controlled upstate factories. (36) Manufacturers in Amsterdam, Troy, and Cohoes, N.Y., who employed 10,000 workers by war’s end, already specialized in underwear sewn in the factory by machine. Even Henry E. Bradford’s rural woolen mill in nearby Bennington, Vermont, provided the army with shirts and drawers similar to those described by Aiken (see Figure 1).
Despite the evidence of surviving orders in Figure 8, New England also supplied many stockings and socks called “half stockings.” Few stockings came from upstate New York, except those Mr. Potter and other early con‑ tractors made on Goffe machines near Seneca Falls, but orders from Boston jobbers like Jordan, Marsh & Co. in 1861, and J. S. Potter (who had moved back to Boston by August 1862), provided the army with nearly a million stockings. The fact that by 1868 Potter’s father (president of Boston’s Shoe & Leather Bank) was Treasurer of the Dalby Knitting Mills in nearby Watertown, Mass., suggests that this, and many factories in New Hampshire, may have supplied the son’s contracts with the quartermaster.
At Franklin, N.H., for example, the local paper reported in June 1861 that its two hosiery factories—not among the known orders (Table 1 and Figure 8)—were “doing a large business, and the piles of men’s hose waiting for transportation is astonishing. Each machine will knit 13 or 14 dozen pairs per day, the stitch being the same as common hand knitting.” At Laconia two companies were “turning out large quantities” of army hosiery by September. This was a new branch of the industry: “the machinery for this particular kind of work demanded by Government having been introduced here this season.” These orders and “their former contracts will keep the mills running to their fullest capacity, night and day til next April.” (37)
Letters from Susanna Branson, Aiken’s sales agent in Cincinnati, Ohio, show how goods were contracted in the Midwest. She wrote Aiken in June 1861: “I am keeping up my business by clarking in a Military store. I have the privilege of attending to my own business … knitting Military sashes and sell them fore $10, they cost me about two—this is quite a profit.” (38)
While no sashes are recorded in the known con‑tracts, they may be among the nearly 6,100 recorded there by 1865. “I have also an order for six heads of the foot power machines,” she wrote; “a gent here is going to put them to steam.” This was “John H. Creede & Co. of New Albany, Ind. the gent I sold the power machine to.” Asking Aiken to send him information on larger machines, she said, “I do not think he would hesitate to buy if he thinks he can work them…he says he will get one of the Seneca falls machines if he does not take that. He is very much pleased with the one he has…he is making 150 p[ai]r a day on the one he got.” (39) Using Aiken machines, Creed’s firm supplied the Union with 60,000 stockings between 1862 and 1864, plus 25,000 socks for which an 1863 contract survives. Soon Miss Branson found a partner (he “finds the money, I find the machinery”), and by September they had “a contract fore 75000 pairs or 1000 pr a day fore three months…they will have nothing else but plain knitting.” Moreover, she later told him:
I have now a Contract given me of 60,000 pairs of socks fore the Army. A fortune is before me with men of Honor and means to back me at what ever price I can afford to make them at..when I have filled this contract I can have as many more as I can fill. (40)
Chicago agents who promoted Aiken’s domestic machines told a potential salesman in La Crosse, Wisconsin, late in the war:
It has proved itself to be the most useful invention ever gotten up, for women to earn money with. By its use she can earn more in a week than with a sewing machine in a month—this fact is testified to by hundreds who have had experience with both kinds of machines…We have machines in the hands of women who earn from $3 to $5 a day by their use. Old ladies 70 years of age, making as high as $15 a week with them. Boys & girls can earn several dollars a week by turning the machine for their mothers or older sisters. An old man or an invalid can work it successfully & profitably…In the family of the volunteer, where there are women to be supported, it is the greatest of helps & in many such families they are proving a profitable support where the husband or son has not got his pay regularly or, by the sad chance of war, may never return again to support his family.
Moreover, they claimed, “Business men with capital run numbers of them with great profit. We have in mind now two men who have run four machines the last year & have
cleared over five thousand dollars profit in the 12 months.”
Where there are women to work it—in the family, in the store, in the workshop, large profits can be made by its use during the war particularly, when all the large stocking factories are engaged exclusively on government work & the stores have to look for their supply, either directly or indirectly, to home or domestic manufacture to which the machine is adapted. There is a great demand for socks & the price of them is very high, consequent upon the army demand—hence the profit of & great demand for the family knitting machine to make up goods for the trade… . The machine we are now selling has the same working parts & is just as serviceable & profitable as the $300 machines (by the same inventor) formerly sold to large factories. (41)
Civil War Impact on Late Nineteenth‑Century Machine Knitting
One also sees in the Civil War an expansion of the industry beyond its earlier locations. As the army became “the largest purchaser of the heavy and staple classes of hosiery goods, such as shirts, drawers, blouses, and stockings,”
Lucrative employment was given to a large number of hands, mostly American women, thus affording sustenance and comfort to many families whose protectors and supporters were fighting the battles of the Union, and materially contributing to that prosperity at home, which sustained the hearts of the North. (42)
In fact, army demand “was so great, that our own workshops were not only put under requisition for additional machinery, but the enterprise and energy of our manufacturers and capitalists became thereby excited” by the chance to undercut foreign imports which had previously dominated the trade. It was estimated that in a reunited post‑war America of 35 million people, some 8 million “from poverty, mildness of climate, or other causes, do not wear stockings.” If the remaining 27 million each used three pair of stockings a year, there was a need for 81 million pair, and if half the 18 million men wear one knit shirt and drawers there was a continuing need for 1,500,000 dozen each year. Only a quarter of the country’s female population (17 million) was thought to use one undervest and drawers, but this would be 375,000 dozen annually. (43)
Machine improvement was one notable aspect of the government’s inadvertent support of the nascent knit‑goods industry. George “Johnson,” who in 1861 contracted for 25,000 pair of army socks, was likely George Johnstone, a Germantown, Pa., woolen hosiery manufacturer. By 1870 he patented two improvements in circular knitting machinery which may have resulted from wartime manufacture. (44) In New England several large corporate mills added knitting departments using the best imported machines; other investors in American machine inventions also founded new companies after the war. New England’s growth in knitting factories was not unique. By 1878 Cohoes, N.Y., manufactured half the merino shirts and drawers worn in this country. “Of the knit goods heretofore made,” one Cohoes manufacturer said, “two thirds were for men and one third were for la‑ dies, simply because the latter could not wear the coarser goods we were then making. Now one half of the knit goods—$5,000,000 worth—manufactured annually in the United States are fit to be worn by ladies, the physicians having generally commended their use throughout the country.” (45)
Despite this, not all post‑war knitting was done in factories. Victorian hobby knitting was encouraged by independent yarn spinners who published their own patterns or placed them in ladies magazines. Continued immigration of British frameworkers also assured that the ancient hand frame, still in commercial use, continued to be used occasionally into the twentieth century here as in Europe.46 Moreover, small‑scale, female‑owned businesses blossomed as new hand‑cranked machines replaced the Aiken knitter after it went out of production in 1867. Thus, in 1869 Mrs. H. J. Moore, of Newton, Mass., who in 1862 had orders for 100,000 army socks, had a short‑lived New England agency for Bickford’s knitting machines. That her license included both use and sale, suggests that she entertained thoughts of an outwork system of home knitters like that developed by Mrs. Abby Condon in Penobscot, Maine. In 1864 Mrs. Condon, former school teacher, paid rural women in surrounding towns 25 cents a pair to hand knit mittens at home. To meet postwar factory competition, however, Mrs. Condon had to lower her rates. She bought new Lamb knitting machines for a small shop and soon lent Lamb machines to rural women in her growing mitten empire.47 Well into the twentieth century such women and men supplied local stores, clubs, churches and later sports teams with knit goods, using machines pioneered during the Civil War.
1. John L. Hayes, “Protection a Boon” (1867) in Memoirs Relating to the Wool Industry, (Boston: John Wilson & Son, 1872), pp. 12‑13.
2. Walter Lowie and Matthew St. Clair Clarke, eds., “Manufactures,” Documents Legislative and Executive (Washington: Gales & Seaton, 1832), VI: p. 427.
3. Richard M. Candee, “British Frameworkers in New England: Technology Transfer and Machine Knitting in Ninteenth‑Century America,” Textile History 31, no. 1 (Spring 2000), pp. 27‑53.
4. Richard M. Candee, “Domestic Industry in the Factory Age: Anglo‑American Development of the Family Knitting Machine,” Textile History 26 (Spring 1998), pp. 64‑66; T. J. Whittemore to Jos. M. Merrow, Mansfield, Conn., June 9 1837, Letters, Box I: v‑1 (1837‑1839), Merrow Family Collection, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Conn.
5. See Merrow correspondence with Bradford McFarland, Merrow Collection, Box I: u‑1 (1838‑1839); J. B. Merrow, “Early History of the Knit‑Goods Industry,” American Journal of Fabrics & Knit-Goods Manufacture 4 (1884), p. 80.
6. Richard M. Candee, “The ‘Shaker Sock’: A New Hampshire Contribution to 19th‑Century Machine Knitting,” Historical New Hampshire 52 (Fall/Winter 1997): pp. 60‑77 and “Illustrating Invention: Nineteenth‑century Machine Advertising for the Aikens of Franklin, New Hampshire,” Printing History, Vol. XX, No. 2, pp. 12‑25.
7. Richard M. Candee, “The Hibbert‑Townsend Latch Needle Mystery Unraveled: Patent Control and Nineteenth‑Century American Knitting Machines,” paper for the Dublin Seminar 19 June 1999.
8. Penny, Employment of Women 2nd ed. (Boston: Walker, Wise & Co., 1863); How Women Can Make Money (Springfield, Mass.: D.E. Fiske & Co., 1870), p. 455; Holderness Hosiery Co., Holderness N.H., 1860 U.S. Manufacturing Census Mss, N.H. State Archives, Concord, N.H.
9. Third Exhibition of the Middlesex Mechanics’ Association Held in Lowell September and October 1867 (Lowell: Stone & Huse, 1868), p. 23.
10. William Felkin, A History of the Machine-wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufactures, reprint 1867 ed. (N.Y.: Burt Franklin, 1967), p. 542.
11. J. B. Aiken to Brown Wood, 16 April 1856, Letterbook 2, Aiken Collection, Franklin (N.H.) Public Library.
12. J. B. Aiken to Mr. F. Anderson, Christiania, Norway, 10 January 1865, Letterbook 4: pp. 162‑164.
13. Mss Letters J. S. Potter to Herrick Aiken, 24 Feb. 1860; J. B.. Aiken to Downs & Co., 27 July 1859, Aiken Collection, Franklin (N.H.) Public Library.
14. I thank Dean Nelson, director, Museum of Connecticut History, for providing Civil War knit‑good orders from the U.S. Quartermaster Contracts, 1861‑1865, compiled from U.S. Archives RG 217, entry 236 by Earl J. Coats & Fred C. Gaede (1993) and for his photographs.
15. Private companies often voided contracts with Washington if the state government offered better terms, and ignored their contract with one state if they could gain by taking a contract in another. See Russel F. Weigley, Quartermaster General of the Union Army, a Biography of M. C. Meigs (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1959), pp.182‑184.16. William Quentin Maxwell, Lincoln’s Fifth Wheel: The Political History of the United States Sanitary Commission (N.Y. & London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1956), pp. 41‑44.
17. “Havelocks,” American Ballot & Rockingham County Intelligencer, Exeter, N.H., 30 May 1861, p. 3, for women and the Sanitary Commission see Jeanie Attie, Patriotic Toil; Northern Women and the American Civil War (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998), pp. 34‑35, figures p. 97 and p. 112 and Elizabeth D. Leonard, Yankee Women. Gender Battles in the Civil War (N.Y.: W. W. Norton, 1994).
18. “Woolen Mittens,” American Ballot ., Exeter, N.H., 14 Nov. 1861.
19. Attie, “Patriotic Toil,” p. 53‑91; Hartford Courant (14 November 1861). “U.S. Sanitary Commission—Pattern For Socks” reads “The yarn should be as heavy as No. 20; needles, No. 15; 24 stitches on a needle’ leg 13 inches long. Of one quarter of the number of socks knit, the feet should be 101/2 inches long, one quarter 91/2 inches, and half of them 10 inches; weight at least 4 ounces. The necessity for running the heels and toes is avoided by knitting in a thread of knitting cotton No. 14. Narrow once each side of the seam on commencing the heel, and begin to knit with the cotton at the toe with the first narrowing.”
20. Anne L. Macdonald, No Idle Hands: the Social History of American Knitting (N.Y.: Ballantine Books, 1988), pp. 97‑133, quote, pp. 103‑104.
21. Watt’s diary is quoted in Lynn A. Bonfield’s and Mary
C. Morrison’s, Roxanna’s Children: The Biography of a Nineteenth-Century Vermont Family (Amherst, Mass., 1995) and cited in Attie, Patriotic Toil, p. 38.
22. Abby H. Woolsey to My Dear Girls, 6 Dec. 1861, Box 183, letter 188; A. W. Huntington to Dear Girls, 31 Dec. 1861, Box 185, letter 206, Woolsey Family Civil War Letters, Bellamy‑Ferriday House Archives, Bethlehem Conn.,[hereafter Woolsey Letters]
23. Brockett, Dr. L. P. & Mary C. Vaughan, Woman’s Work in the Civil War (Philadelphia & Boston: 1867), pp. 84‑85; see Mary A. Livermore, My Story of the War: A Woman’s Narrative (Hartford: A. D. Worthington & Co., 1890) pp. 136‑41 for other letters and notes.
24. The U.S. Sanitary Commission: A Sketch of its Purposes (Boston, 1863) in Attie, p. 119.
25. Rev. Lemuel Moss, “Annals of the Christian Commission” (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott & Co., 1868) p. 648; see Addie,
p. 176 for comparison with the Sanitary Commission.
26. Attie, pp. 174‑175; A. H. Woolsey, 6 December 1861, Woolsey Letters, box 185, letter 188.
27. J. S. Woolsey, New York City, to Mr. Huntington, 14 October 1861, Woolsey Letters box 185, letter 165.
28. Abby H. Woolsey to My Dear Girls, 11 November 1861, Woolsey Letters box 185, letter 174.
29. Abby H. Woolsey to My Dear Girls, 28 November 1861, Woolsey Letters box 185, letter 184.
30. Abby H. Woolsey to My Dear Girls, 6 December 1861, Woolsey Letters box 185, letter 188.
31. J. B. Aiken to R. H. Atwell, Esq., 7 November 1861, Let‑ terbook 3: 101. In December 1863 he also sent another of his domestic knitters for exhibition as a gift to the Boston Sanitary Fair fund‑raising event.
32. Macdonald, No Idle Hands, pp. 98‑99.
33. July 1862 inventory, Merrow v. 4; Aiken to Merrow, Aiken Letterbook 3:117; Aiken to J. E. Pinkham, Esq., 4 March 1862, Aiken Letterbook 3: 242; Pinkham to J. B.. Aiken 16 June 1864, Franklin (N.H.) Public Library; Oliver Warner, comp., “Statistical Information Relating to Certain Branches of Industry in Massachusetts for the Year Ending May 1, 1865” (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1866), pp. 146, 776.
34. Paul McKee, “Notes on the Federal Issue Sack Coat,” Military Collector and Historian, Vol. 47, no. 2 (Summer 1995), pp. 50‑59; Dean Nelson, “The Union Army Standard Size and Make Shirt,” Military Collector and Historian, Vol. 47, no. 3 (Fall 1995), pp. 110‑118.
35. J. S. Woolsey to Mr. Huntington, 14 October 1861. Woolsey Letters, box 181, letter 165. See Livermore, My Story,
36. Dean Nelson, “The Union ‘Army’… Shirt,: pp. 110‑111; 117‑118; Charles H. Adams, George Bosson, I. R. Scott, Letter Exhibiting the Condition and Necessities of the Knit Goods Manufacture (Boston: John Wilson & Sons, 1866),
37. Winnipissaukee Gazette (1 June 1861) p. 3 and “Hosiery in Laconia,” (21 September 1861) p. 1; Boston Directory 1868.
38. S. Branson to J. B.. Aiken, 27 June 1861, Aiken Letters, Franklin, (N.H.) Public Library.
39. S. Branson to J. B. Aiken, 14 September 1861, Aiken Letters.
40. S. Branson to J. B. Aiken, 2 and 18 September 1861 Aiken Letters.
41. Branson & Elliot to W. H. J. Nichols, 14 March 1864, Aiken Collection, Franklin (N.H.) Public Library.
42. Adams, Bosson, and Scott, Letter, pp. 5‑6.
43. Adams, Bosson, and Scott, Letter, pp. 5‑6.
44. Candee, “British Frameworkers,” pp. 44‑5; Philadelphia Directory, 1865-1869; U.S. Patents nos. 80,965 (1868) and 107,381 (1870).
45. “Another Triumph for American Inventors,” Scientific American, v. 38 (1 June 1878), p. 340.
46. Candee, “British Frameworkers,” pp. 46‑55; New York City directories, 1852‑1871.
47. Patent Assignment Dana Bickford to Mrs. H. J. Moore, 7 June 1869; Deborah Pulliam, “Mitten Production in Nineteenth‑century Downeast Maine,” in Textiles in Early New England: Design, Production, and Consumption, Peter Benes, ed. (Boston: Boston University Scholarly Publications, 1999), pp. 127‑134.
Richard M. Candee is professor of American and New England Studies and director of the Preservation Studies Master’s Program at Boston University. He is currently working on the nineteenth century Anglo‑American transfer of technology in New England’s lace and knit‑ ting industries. In 1998 he mounted an exhibit on the Aiken family of New Hampshire inventors of tools and knitting machines at the Belknap Mill in Laconia, N.H., and is seeking unusual knitting machines for a projected 2004 exhibition at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass.