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Book Reviews

Homefront & Battlefield – Quilts and Context in the Civil War

July 5, 2021

Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Zacek Bassett. Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War, Lowell, Massachusetts, American Textile Museum, 231pp, 2012.

As collectors, many of us have vintage textiles in our collections, be they ribbons, bandannas, banners, or badges mounted on rosettes. These are but a small subset of the many items produced in the Civil War period, including quilts, military uniforms, articles of civilian clothing, bandages for the wounded, etc. This book deals with the importance of textiles in 19th century America, primarily from a homefront perspective and how they reflect on the socio-economic characteristics of the people. The conclusion of the book gives a succinct summary of the author’s goals: “For those who were not writers… the objects they saved and handed down to their descendants must serve to tell their stories. These objects may not be as immediately understandable to us 150 years later, but in their own way, their eloquence is equal to words inked on paper. The quilts, embroideries, clothing, and personal and political artifacts illustrated in this book do not merely reflect the ideas and words of a privileged elite, but embody the experience of individuals of every color and place in the social hierarchy. Perhaps they can help facilitate a new narrative of the nation’s identity, connecting Confederate and Union, homefront and battlefield, and generations past and present.”

The book is meant to complement an exhibition of Civi War related textiles currently being shown at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts (ending November 25th). It will then move to the New-York Historical Society (April 4 through August 31, 2014), the Shelburne Museum (September 20th 2014 through January 1, 2015) and finally the Nebraska State Historical Society (February 1st through June 1st 2015). The ATHM is a division of the Smithsonian Institution.

While the text covers the period 1820-1920, the primary focus is the Civil War. There are seven chapters and a glossary of textile terms at the back of the book. Given its connection to the traveling exhibit, the book is extensively illustrated with examples of artifacts drawn from institutional and private holdings. There seems to be a fairly even distribution between text and illustration. Some of the chapters include essays or articles submitted by experts in a particular field.

The authors do an excellent job in objectively describing the issues of the time, as seen through the writings and works of ordinary people. They point out the fallacies of traditional stereotypes of the Civil War, helping to fill in some of the nuances. These include the divided loyalties, the involvement of the North in the cotton trade, the transplantation of populations from North to South and vice versa and the lack of homogeneity within regions, often based on economic interests.

We noticed some minor errors, including referring to Henry Clay as the “Mill Boy of the Traces” (rather than the “Mill Boy of the Slashes”), calling ambrotypes “daguerreotypes” and saying that Franklin Pierce supported the Confederacy (it is our impression that he was fairly apolitical once leaving office and did not express his political viewpoint publicly). In any event, we found the book very interesting. enjoyed the background information on the illustrated objects and thought that the “ordinary person” perspective was most refreshing. Whether you are able to view the exhibit or not, the book remains a worthwhile effort on its own.