One reason so few quilts survive from the Civil War years is that everybody who had time to sew seems to have been stitching men's drawers. Keeping the soldiers supplied with underwear kept women busy North and South. Patchwork was no longer a primary time filler.
Block signed Mrs. Philo Brown, Scituate, R.I. August 2nd, 1862.
Many women devoted time to plain sewing every day, the functional garment making that kept everyone clothed and warm.
Finishing a shirt.
Armies issuing uniforms often ignored shirts and underwear.
Once the war began that time was spent stitching clothing for soldiers---long-johns for one's brother or for an unknown patient in a hospital.
Ellen Renshaw House of Knoxville, Tennessee stitched underwear in an informal assembly line: "Sister cut them out and ... we sent them around to the girls near us. I never knew a dozen pair could be made in so short a time."
In 1862 the Vermont Military Hospital in Brattleboro thanked the "Ladies of Vermont" for
- 162 sheets,
- 78 pillow cases,
- 41 quilts,
- 6 bed sacks,
- 22 flannel blankets,
- 14 dressing gowns,
- 8 flannel shirts,
- 20 prs. slippers,
- 5 prs. flannel drawers,
- 6 prs. cotton drawers,
- 3 coverlets
Sewing underwear for unknown men was a strange turn of events for the properly raised lady of the time.
Bellows in the center
Henry Whitney Bellows of the Union's Sanitary Commission noted that many of the donated drawers did not fit. "Most of our ladies have so magnified our soldiers in their hearts that the shirts and drawers they send would fit the Anakims [a Biblical race of giants.]" He advised women to use their husband's measurements for size.
Of course, some women, like 22-year-old Emma Holmes of South Carolina had no husband to serve as dressmaker's dummy.
"Finished my first pair of 'drawers' today. I could not help laughing at the idea of being able to teach [sister] Lila how to put them together. I do not find the machine as hard to manage as I expected...." August 5, 1861
Underwear being stitched was neither boxers nor briefs. As one 1862 article suggested:
The drawers should be made much like pantaloons, as they are worn instead of pantaloons in the hospital. ...The drawers should be as long as pantaloons."
Pair of wool blend drawers lined with cotton on display at the
Atlanta History Center.
Atlanta History Center
Scrap of wool cloth purported to be a souvenir of
Jefferson Davis's underwear (!?!)
From the Getty Collection
Read more about men's underwear here:
From the ladies of Illinois to the Union hospital in Memphis in one month 490 pairs of men's drawers!