"I suppose you all know what a housewife is? It is a long piece of cloth with a number of small pockets sewed along one side, and made to fold up like a pocket-book, having separate places for buttons, thread, needles, pins, &c., such as some of you may have seen your mothers or grandmothers use." - The Reformed Presbyterian magazine. Sept. 1, 1864.
Civil War soldiers did not have many extra items of clothing, so the clothing they wore took a lot of wear and tear. Soldiers were often sent off to war with “housewives” or small sewing kits made by their wives, mothers, or girlfriends. These were usually made from scraps of fabric or sometimes leather, and could be folded or rolled to pocket-size, and then fastened with ribbon, yarn, or a button. They contained essential sewing supplies such as needles, pins, thread, buttons, a small pair of scissors, extra scraps of fabric, and possibly a thimble. When a soldier needed to sew on a button or mend a tear, all of the necessary supplies would be at hand.
Since I work at a museum which focuses on Civil War medicine, we do not own any sewing kits, but we have been able to borrow two for display. Let’s take a look at them.
This sewing kit can be seen in our Everyday Life display, which shows many items which the soldiers would have had with them in camp. It has a leather exterior and cloth interior. As you can see, the only remaining contents are a few pins. It is fairly typical of the sort of housewife which would have been carried by a soldier. This kit is on loan to us from the collection of Dr. Gordon Dammann.
This is a fancier sewing kit made of maroon velvet with an embossed design and metal details. It can be seen in our Nursing display and it belonged to Miss Laura R. Cotton, who was a nurse in Philadelphia. This kit is on loan to us from the collection of Mr. Chris Foard.
The interior of the red kit is made of leather, with a cloth flap for the pins and needles, and leather loops to hold the larger sewing tools.
This tiny bone crochet hook was contained inside the kit. It would not have been a typical item for the housewives that the soldiers carried.
Most kits did contain a small set of sewing scissors. This is a fairly plain set, but many times these sewing scissors were made in the shape of a stork, with the feet being shaped into the finger loops and the bird’s “beak” forming the blades.
Another item which could be found in a housewife was a thimble. Thimbles were most commonly made of metal or wood. This one is steel with an aluminum lining. It was found at the site of Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office. It required some conservation work and so is not yet on display. This thimble is on loan to us from the U.S. General Services Administration.
You’ve probably noticed that the supplies contained in a small sewing kit haven’t changed much over the years! These kits are still fascinating though, and give us a small glimpse into the life of a Civil War soldier.
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.
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