Only the Clothes on Her Back: Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century United States
What can dresses, bedlinens, waistcoats, pantaloons, shoes, and kerchiefs tell us about the legal status of the least powerful members of American society? In the hands of historian Laura F. Edwards, these textiles tell a revealing story of ordinary people and how they made use of their material goods’ economic and legal value in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War.
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What can dresses, bedlinens, waistcoats, pantaloons, shoes, and kerchiefs tell us about the legal status of the least powerful members of American society? In the hands of historian Laura F. Edwards, these textiles tell a revealing story of ordinary people and how they made use of their material goods’ economic and legal value in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War. Only the Clothes on Her Back uncovers practices, commonly known then, but now long forgotten, which made textiles—clothing, cloth, bedding, and accessories, such as shoes and hats—a unique form of property that people without rights could own and exchange. The value of textiles depended on law, and it was law that turned these goods into a secure form of property for marginalized people, who not only used textiles as currency, credit, and capital, but also as entree into the new republic's economy and governing institutions. Edwards grounds the laws relating to textiles in engaging stories from the lives of everyday Americans. Wives wove linen and kept the proceeds, enslaved people traded coats and shoes, and poor people invested in fabrics which they carefully preserved in trunks. Edwards shows that these stories are about far more than cloth and clothing; they reshape our understanding law and the economy in America. Based on painstaking archival research from fifteen states, Only the Clothes on Her Back reconstructs this hidden history of power, tracing it from the governing order of the early republic in which textiles’ legal principles flourished to textiles’ legal downfall in the mid-nineteenth century when they were crowded out by the rising power of rights.
Laura F. Edwards is the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty in the History Department at Princeton University. Her work focuses on the legal history of the nineteenth-century United States, with an emphasis on people’s interactions with law and the legal system. Her talk is based in her most recent book, Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing and the Hidden History of Power in the Nineteenth Century United States (2022). She is also author of A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights (2015) and The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (2009), which was awarded the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold prize for the best book in law and society and the Southern Historical Association’s Charles Sydnor prize for the best book in southern history. She has received fellowships from the Newberry Library, the National Humanities Center, the NEH, the ACLS, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Bar Foundation.
The Washington History Seminar is co-chaired by Eric Arnesen (George Washington University and the National History Center) and Christian Ostermann (Woodrow Wilson Center) and is organized jointly by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Woodrow Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. It meets weekly during the academic year. The seminar thanks its anonymous individual donors and institutional partners (the George Washington University History Department and the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest) for their continued support.
Laura F. Edwards
Martha S. Jones
History and Public Policy Program
The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs. Read more