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With all due respect to what you call the resolves of Congress, I think a hundred thousand spinning wheels put in motion by female hands will do as much towards establishing our independence, as a hundred thousand of the best militia men."  - Dorothy Distaff writing to the Raleigh Register in 1810

Historians are beginning to discover that throughout time dress has been more than fiber, more than construction techniques, perhaps even more than art. Clothing is "one of the most revealing signifiers of popular culture, in which the manufacturer, the wearer, and the spectator account for a rich diversity of meanings." While this might appear obvious when discussing national costume or military uniform, in 1860 to 1861 one of the most potent symbols of Southern economic and political independence was a homespun suit or dress.

Homespun as a patriotic statement dates back to the revolution. It served to promote American industry, simplicity, and democracy as opposed to "British luxury and corruption."  In 1767, shortly after Parliament passed the Townshend Act increasing duties on manufactured goods, the various colonies passed non-importation resolutions. They urged citizens to rely instead on their own resources, including textiles. The Reverend Charles Woodmason proudly reported that "50 Young Ladies all drest in White of their own Spinning" were among those who attended his Sunday services in Camden, South Carolina. In 1769, the ladies of Williamsburg showed their support for the colonial boycotts of British goods by wearing homespun gowns to a public ball at the capitol.

Again, in 1807, with the Embargo Act, domestic manufactures were encouraged and European luxuries condemned. In 1808, the members of Virginia's  "Surry Society to Encourage Domestic Manufactures" asserted that they were "already for the most part, clad in homespun." Dorothy Distaff writing to the Raleigh Register in 1810 wrote "With all due respect to what you call the resolves of Congress, I think a hundred thousand spinning wheels put in motion by female hands will do as much towards establishing our independence, as a hundred thousand of the best militia men in America." The situation eased after the War of 1812 concluded, but heated up again, particularly in South Carolina, during the Nullification Crisis in the 1820's and 1830's. This time the call was to produce homespun and boycott New England textiles as a protest against high tariff's.

As tensions rose once more, in 1860 and 1861, Southerners again turned to the old symbol, fully aware of homespun's historical significance. While across Virginia, in late 1859, men met and spoke on self-dependence, by early 1860 "the ladies have began to act. Without noise they have commenced to give force and color to our resolutions" by sponsoring homespun parties. "More than a hundred ladies and gentlemen, belonging to the most respected families in the city [Richmond], were present all of who were attired in part or in whole in garments made of Virginia fabrics, woven in Virginia looms." Southern ladies of 1860 and 1861 created and wore their homespun dresses as a means of being "heard" politically, without leaving their separate spheres and without having the vote. Homespun became, for them, a visible tie with their heroic and independent past and a uniform to match the gray of their brothers and beaux.

The words below from the Staunton Vindicator ring as true for the South today as they did in 1860.

The Vindicator, January 13, 1860, p, 2, c.1

We like it much. It has the sweet savour of the cargo of tea that was thrown overboard in other days. Let Massachusetts remember that tea, and tremble at the homespun movement. the same spirit that animated her Southern sisters then, and brought chivalry to her side, to avenge the injustice of a foreign tyrant, animated them now, and enables them to dare and suffer everything in defense of their Constitutional rights - their honor, and their sovereign equality.

We like it too, because it enables us to fight the battles of the Constitution within the Union, in the most effective manner, and by the use of the most simple machinery. Without arms, without even legal enactments, let every Southern man, woman and child exercise their undoubted right to determine with whom they may deal. Let them resolve each for himself that not one cent shall go from the South into the services of the merchant princes, manufacturers, institutions of learning, yankee book sellers, yankee teachers, yankee peddlers, or any other channel. By such a policy, the Union will be perpetuated, and the immense resources of the South built up. By such a policy alone can the  conservatism of the Northern States be aroused into action, and the reign of their demagogues be terminated. They can only be enlightened by a pressure on their pocket nerve.

The below article from the Charleston Mercury illustrates the South's early attempts to catalog the industries within their borders which would help them to win their independence both economically and militarily.  The South of today stands on a far superior foundation in manufacturing, industry and military strength than it did a century and a half ago.

Charleston, South Carolina  Mercury, June 6, 1864, p. 1. c. 6

Little steps toward Southern Independence.
The following list of manufactories of general utility, not heretofore made in the South, is copied from exchanges within the past few days, says the Charlotte Bulletin. It shows that our people are really making some progress towards the Independence that we have heard talked about so much. We have not included the cotton and woollen mills dotted here and there in all the States, or the iron establishments, or the Government works for making arms, powder, etc.

We have no doubt there are many other establishments of which we have no notice, that are adding to the resources of the country, by making articles that we have heretofore depended upon the Yankees to furnish us:

Hat Manufactory at Statesville, NC
Stocking Factory at Columbia, SC
Stocking Factory at Eufala, Ala.
Bonnet Frame Factory at Newberry, SC
Cotton Card Factory at Greenwood, SC
Cotton Card Factory at Fayetteville, NC
Cotton Card Factory at Columbus, Ga
Cotton Card Factory at Danville, Va, 2
Cotton Card Factory at Selma, Ala
Cutlery, Knives and Forks, at Raleigh, NC
Cotton Batting Factory at Charlotte, NC
Corn Broom Factory at Davidson's College, NC
Match Factory at Danville, Va
Blanket Manufactory at Montgomery, Ala
Knitting Needles at Columbia, SC
Pyroligneous Acid at Columbia, SC
Glass Manufactory at Columbus, SC
Glass Manufactory at Richmond, Va
Glass Manufactory at Savannah, Ga
Button Manufactory at Columbus, Ga
Powder Manufactory at Columbus, Ga
Several Copperas Mines, extensively worked in Rutherford County, NC
One Copperas Mine in Chesterfield, SC


 

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