Lost in the Archives: Pondering the Lives of White Seamstresses

My work with PACSCL’s grant funded digitization project, In Her Own Right, over the last year has been very rewarding. I worked on several aspects of the project, from scanning materials to transcriptions. The transcriptions of letters of recommendation for the seamstresses who worked at the Schuylkill Arsenal during the Civil War influenced me the most. While working on these transcriptions, I began to think about these women: who were they, how were they able to provide for their families during this time of war, and were black women among the seamstresses?  

post by Vanesa Evers, former Graduate Assistant at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center

As I began to research, I gained more knowledge of the historical context and realized that the majority of the letters were from white women. Slavery and racism were both still a thriving industry even beyond the date of the abolition of slavery in the winter of 1865, which made it nearly impossible for black people to gain equitable and sufficient employment, even in the free state of Pennsylvania. 

The questions that followed were centered around the working lives of white women. What did it mean to be a white woman living and working in the North in the mid-19th century? What rights did she have? Was she able to address her lack of rights at a conference meant to discuss the temperance movement in 1853 in New York City? How was she able to provide for her family during a time when women’s social, political, and economic lives were limited? Women often had to rely upon their husbands or family members in order to get a job, and even then, they had a difficult time supporting these family members with their earned wages.

Correspondence Relating to the Employment of Hannah Kelley; Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; Recommendations for Employment, 1861-1867, Record Group 92; National Archives and Records Administration – Mid Atlantic Region (Philadelphia). https://catalog.archives.gov/id/131516761

In the above letter written by Mrs. Mason Archambault, she concludes her recommendation for Hannah Kelley by stating her husband’s job status as a worker in the gas house. This action shows that though Mrs. Archambault has a high status, it is closely tied to her husband’s job position and personhood. What did it mean to be a white mother in the mid-19th century? In the letter below in reference to Mrs. Mary Holden, who was supporting five small children, being a mother meant seeking employment as a seamstress, making low wages while working from home, as her husband fought in war.

Correspondence Relating to the Employment of Hannah Kelley; Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; Recommendations for Employment, 1861-1867, Record Group 92; National Archives and Records Administration – Mid Atlantic Region (Philadelphia). https://catalog.archives.gov/id/131516728

Supporting one’s family was a constant struggle during this time. Women were thought to be worthy of employment, especially if their husbands or sons were in the military. But what if they were unwed or if their husbands were not serving in the military? What happened to those women? Did they receive the same recommendations for arsenal work? Many of the letters that were digitized were letters in support of women who were married or who had lost their husbands, sons, or even fathers during the war. 

Women wanted more than just employment, they wanted their voices to be heard for increased wages and better work conditions through the creation of the Female Improvement Society. Women who were employed by the Arsenal also petitioned the War Department and were successful in getting a raise in pay during the Civil War, which were direct effects from the woman’s reformer groups and organizations. Some seamstresses explored unionization which ultimately helped them form relationships with the male labor movement. This ensured some seamstresses’ participation in the National Labor Union’s 1868 convention in Philadelphia. They also organized around unfair treatment of white women who were threatened to be discharged based on their lack of close relation to the soldiers. 

The claim of poverty and financial need of some widows and women were seen to be favorable by the hiring manager at the Schuylkill Arsenal and the women were given work. Once these women found work at one of the nation’s biggest arsenals, Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia, PA, the women were committed to supporting their men in the Civil War efforts. They supported the men who denied them their rights; the men, however, were more than willing to have their trousers, tents, uniforms, bedding and other textile goods for the military sewn together by these women. But is that all these women wanted, to gain employment as seamstresses and tailors and to make meager wages? 

In the early 1860s, the U.S. Sanitary Commission was created to supply Union troops with food, medicine and supplies. This initiative was heavily supported by women volunteers, and was much to the success of the urgings from women activists. Women volunteered to send care packages once a month, which would help to slow the spread of diseases and unsanitary conditions on the battlefield. Now, out of the household, these women were teaching soldiers how to be clean and healthy on the frontlines. 

Though arsenal work was available work for women, an issue that the Schuylkill Arsenal experienced was subcontractors who bought enormous lots of work and then would distribute the sewing to women in the suburbs or to home workers in the city for less than half percent per haversack. Women who gained employment directly from the government were paid 12.5 cents versus the 5 cents from the subcontractors. This took the already very poor financial support for seamstresses to an even lower possibility of supporting themselves and their family. 

Women also supported the war effort in other ways, including volunteering or working as nurses, raising money for supplies and funds for the troops, or, in rare cases, entering the war by disguising themselves as men or becoming spies. Women who entered the war and disguised themselves as men could be punished by imprisonment if caught, and yet the threat of punishment was not enough to stop them from fighting for a country that did not allow them to vote. These women were dedicated to their country regardless of their status. They believed their day to vote, and achieve other rights, would come, and it did. Through great effort of reform brought forth by literature and the press, white women were able to see much success in their fight for better pay and work conditions. The work of women during this period made a tremendous impact on the direction of woman’s rights and equality. Though it is important to note here that black people were not permitted to join union membership and were given even lower support and payment than white women. The efforts of these groups benefited the white working class. 

When some white women encountered change that even they were not ready for, like working next to black people for the same fight, they were in strong opposition of these small advancements. Regardless of their own gender equality fight, some white women even had a hard time with equitable change that came to black people. In the letter below addressed to “Logan’s Desk”, Mary King thought herself of a higher status in regards to the black soldiers who were fighting for emancipation. King was willing to lose her job in the Inspection Room if it meant she did not have to live under a black “government,” and as can be seen in the letter, she was ultimately discharged upon her request.

Correspondence Relating to the Employment of Mary King; Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; Recommendations for Employment, 1861-1867, Record Group 92; National Archives and Records Administration – Mid Atlantic Region (Philadelphia). https://catalog.archives.gov/id/131516783

When looking at these materials, a scholar may feel conflicted by what they find. Yes, white women were making some great strides during this time: they finally got a chance to be useful outside of the home, they were able to make ends meet for their children and household, they were even able to sneak onto the frontlines, and they were able to form groups which made an impact on the political front. But what about the others who were also experiencing discrimination during this time at the hands of white women? 

The long fought battle of woman’s suffrage and labor rights achievements came to a victorious climax in 1920 for middle-class white women, but not until 45 years later would other women across racial and class backgrounds be afforded the same privileges received by some of the white women in the collection. Digitization projects like InHOR allows researchers to think deeply about the context of this history, one seamstress’ letter at a time while also reading the invisibilities of black women in between the seams of this problematic history. 


Works Cited

Bryan, Kerry L. “Civil War Sanitary Fairs”. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Foner, Philip Sheldon. Women and the American Labor Movement. New York: Free Press, 1979.

Giesberg, Judith Ann. Army At Home: Women and the Civil War On the Northern Home Front. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Seidman, Rachel Filene. Beyond Sacrifice: Women and Politics on the Pennsylvania Homefront During the Civil War. Ph.D. diss, Yale University, 1995, 127-170.