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Kepi Controversy

December 2, 2020

Attribution is an ongoing challenge for collectors of Lincolniana. When was it made and for what purpose? Is it period or commemorative? Real or fantasy?

In the last ten years, we have seen several Civil War-style kepis being offered attributed to the Lincoln campaign of 1860, purportedly worn by members of the Wide Awake’s. The first of these to hit the market were part of the Al Fostell Collection that Heritage Auctions offered in 2007. The sale included a red, white and blue kepi with an old label glued to the crown that identified it as a Lincoln item. Another red, white and brown kepi lacked a label, but carried the same attribution. The sale also included a bummer hat supposedly owned by Boston Corbett. Its sole provenance was likewise a 19th-century label affixed to the visor. The two “Wide Awake” kepis had extremely aggressive reserves which doomed any chance they may have had of selling, sketchy provenance notwithstanding. It may be that these identifying labels were affixed at the time, after the fact to enhance their value and facilitate a sale to collector Fostell, or added by Fostell to make them more interesting as components of his traveling exhibit of Lincolniana. Whether they were accurate is something we may never know.

There are some historical realities to keep in mind. Kepis were popular accoutrements for political campaign marchers from 1860 to 1880, making dating problematic. In the election of 1860, members of marching clubs for the four political parties all wore kepis. The captains of all units also carried brass and glass lanterns. To illustrate this point, we show a woodcut illustration of some members of the “Bell Ringers”. All wear kepis and the lead man holds a lantern.

Back in July 2010, an estate sale took place in Pine Bush (Duchess County), New York. It was an “old-fashioned” estate sale, offering the accumulated contents of the attic of a family homestead that went back to the Civil War years and beyond. Two kepis with an eagle badge affixed were offered “choice” and sold to the same absentee bidder. The hats were red, white and blue, indicating use in political parades of the period. The brass eagle (a common M1828 infantry emblem) was a distinguishing factor. According to the front page of the “New-York Illustrated News” for August 11, 1860, this was the “Insignia of the ‘Wide Awakes.'” Officers and founding members of the Hartford Wide Awakes are shown on the bottom of the front page. All have this eagle symbol on their hats. Although there was some latitude in the composition of Wide Awake uniforms, we can, with some certainty, say that its inclusion on a kepi or parade hat is a strong indication that its owner was a member of the club. An unadorned kepi may be a Lincoln item, but it could just as well be a Bell item, or a Garfield item from 1880.

Post-sale inquiries to the auctioneer yielded some interesting background information. The items being sold belonged to two brothers, Isaac Wood, Jr. and William Wood. They operated a dry goods store in Newburgh, New York in the 1850’s and early 1860’s. The sale also included a tintype of the brothers posed together, but the buyer of the kepis was unaware of this or failed to make the connection and the photograph was sold to a different buyer.

So, the next time you see a “Wide Awake” kepi or lantern offered to sale, please pay attention to provenance and any identifying factors that indicate their true origin. Wishful thinking is no substitute for sound, objective research.

– Donald Ackerman