Book Review: ‘Only the Clothes on Her Back’

In “Solely the Garments on Her Again,” historian and Princeton College professor Laura F. Edwards explores the key energy that material, the power to make it and the possession of it had for marginalized figures — primarily girls and slaves. Earlier than the Civil Warfare, every kind of textiles, from bedding, tablecloths and curtains to rags, endowed those that made and possessed such objects, even servants, authorized declare to such items as property, entitling the bearers to take part, albeit in a particularly restricted manner, within the American authorized system. A runaway slave couldn’t declare to personal her personal physique, however she may argue she owned the garments on her again.

Edwards totally explains how after the Revolution the regulation linked clothes to the one that wore or produced it. Enslaved individuals and married girls may make authorized claims to clothes they normal, though on the time marriage and bondage every in its manner restricted a person’s rights to different types of property. The connection of individual to clothes was so sturdy as to increase to hats, footwear and different equipment, in addition to to uncut bolts of material not meant to be worn. The guide explores the character of textiles in these contexts rather more broadly and apparently than the wording of its title and its cowl picture recommend.


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Customary census types didn’t file industrial exercise by girls and slaves. To doc her case, Edwards pulls from diaries and private information of on a regular basis people, making clear how individuals with out some other energy nonetheless had been in a position to make use of textiles as types of forex or credit score. A poor lady may reside by her needle, whereas middle- and upper-class wives may commerce textiles they wove, knitted, bought or got. Enterprising people would possibly make a enterprise out of fabricating and promoting material.

When textiles had been stolen or clients didn’t pay, girls and slaves may go to court docket and argue their rights to the fabric as private property. Missing as they did the formal rights accorded white males, they may by no means anticipate to have all their claims honored. But by showing in court docket, girls and slaves may stretch the social material to incorporate themselves within the American financial system and the authorized system, even earlier than the Civil Warfare. As soon as the Industrial Revolution automated weaving, nonetheless, textiles grew to become cheaper, altering the property rights hooked up to them.

“Solely the Garments on Her Again” will curiosity readers wanting a totally researched examination of how girls and other people of shade had been capable of finding restricted property possession and financial company in an early American authorized system that denied them most different fundamental rights.

Michelle Mastro writes about materials tradition, particularly within the dwelling and different home areas, up to date and historic.  

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