A Coat of Shoddy

shoddy jacketI Wish I Had a Fat Contract
to the tune of Barbara Allen

But if I had a fat contract
To make clothes for de solders
De army coats and striped pants,
I wouldn’t use no shoddy
Nor no oder stuff that’s rotten;
But I’d use the very best of cloth,
Widout a bit of cotton.

Den I wish I had a fat contract,
But it ain’t no use a-wishin’–
For I ain’t a-goin’ get it,
‘Kase I ain’t a politician.
W. A. Devon War Lyrics 1864

The need for thousands of uniforms for soldiers heading into battle was a bonanza for northern cloth and clothing manufacturers. It also created a multitude of problems. Ready-wear clothing and sizing were just beginning to take hold in this period. So there was no uniform sizing system in existence. The quantities needed were also overwhelming. In 1861, 2 weeks after war was declared, Brooks Brothers of New York City received an order for 12,000 uniforms. In 1861 they produced over 36,000 uniforms.

According to an article in the New York Times, the ill-fitting jackets produced in great hurry often lacked buttons and button holes. In addition, a scarcity of wool and profiteering led to the use of rags and other poor fabrics being pressed together into a semblance of wool, that fell apart in the rain. These poor quality jackets resembled shoddy a type of cloth made of reused fibers as described here in a trade journal:

It was about half a century ago that Yorkshiremen began to conceive the idea of doctoring up old woollen rags, and using them with new wool in the manufacture of cloth. Or the idea may have been formed earlier, but not realised until then. A ragmill was set up at Batley, to tear the material into fragments. The rag-wool for the woollen manufacture requires to be more completely disentangled; it is not merely torn; it is almost ground. The principal part of the rag-wool machine is the swift, a frame provided with ten or twelve thousand vicious-looking teeth, and that rotates six or seven hundred times a minute. What would be the fate of James’s coat, or Alphonse’s jacket, when exposed to the action of such a monster, the reader may readily imagine. One machine will produce four or five packs of shoddy in a day, with two or three hundred pounds in each pack; and then it is that the kicking up the dust takes place—for, enclose the machine how we may, the fibrous articles will fly about, and be both dirty and bad-smelling. Chambers Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts, 1861

Shoddy uniforms became a popular topic of jest in newspapers, magazines, and songs of the day. Here are some voices of the time.

Song of the Shoddy
I am Lieutenant-Colonel GRAHAM,civil war uniforms
Of the Twelfth, depose and say,
That the coats contractors gave us,
Were of shoddy-cloth of gray,
Badly made, and badly fashioned,
Much too large or small for men ;
Only for a day we wore them,
And they came to pieces then.
Bad the buttons—bad the breeches,
Breeches only fit for mending
O the ripping l O the darning!
O the tailoring unending !
Vanity Fair 9/21/1861

Oh! a wonderful man is a shoddy contractor,
A man very useful, indeed—to himself.
The purest of patriots is he in fact, or
Enough so to gain him a plenty of pelf.
While our soldiers are cold on the battlefield lying*
Or shedding their blood for the Union, still
He is aiding the cause of the Union by trying
His pockets, by contracts for shoddy, to fill.

CHORUS : Shod-shod-shoddy! How are you, Shoddy?
There’s a place that is made for the meanest of men,
And a great day of judgment that’s certainly coming.
And where, Mr. Shoddy, will you be then?
But freely his errors should all be forgiven,
When his pockets so nicely are lined with the tin;
His money should buy him a ticket to heaven*
For surely so rich a man never can sin.

His wife, who a short time ago was plain Bridget,
As Mrs. Fitz-Shoddy she now feels her oats;
She can ride, she can dress, she can primp and can fidget,
For her husband is able to pay all her notes. CHORUS—3hod-shod-shoddy!
While others are pouring their blood and their treasure
For Union and Liberty, freely and well,
Our Mr. Fitz-Shoddy is taking his pleasure,
Or seeking his rotten old shoddy to sell.
In his ill-gotten gains for a while he may revel,
Secure from all punishment, heedless of blame,
But his soul has been bartered away to the devil.
And soon the Old Nick will his property claim.
W.A. Devon War Lyrics 1864

To learn more about Union uniforms see:
Union Soldier’s Uniform 1864
Master List of Union Uniforms


3 thoughts on “A Coat of Shoddy

Add yours

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