J. Matthew Gallman on the Civil War History of the Word “Shoddy”

Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front, by J. Matthew GallmanOver on our CivilWar150 site, J. Matthew Gallman, author of Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front, writes about the Civil War–era origins of the word “shoddy”:

Writers have good reason to like the word “shoddy.” It is an evocative word, suggesting very much what it in fact means. Today we commonly use “shoddy” to describe poor workmanship. The carpenter who measures poorly, producing corners that are not square, has done a shoddy job. So has the painter who leaves behind paint on window panes or carpets. We might stretch the case to encompass anyone who has worked hastily and without pride in the result. Shoddy work is nothing to admire.

The word “shoddy” originated to describe a poor product and not a sloppy worker. The term, which first appeared in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, came out of the world of textile manufacturing. Shoddy was a sort of cheap cloth made by pressing together scraps of reclaimed wool. This inferior-quality material was inexpensive, but it would not stand up under heavy use. The Civil War saw the heyday of shoddy, both as a textile product and as an evocative term. And the evolving use of the word during the war years speaks volumes about how Northerners used the popular media to make sense of this terrible war.

In the first months of the Civil War, Northerners struggled to produce sufficient materiel to clothe, arm, and feed its new army of citizen-soldiers. A combination of haste, inexperience, and corruption produced some disappointing results. Before long, federal investigations had begun to uncover stories of malfeasance, and hordes of satirists, cartoonists, and poets had taken aim at the purveyors of shoddy goods. In some cases the targets were quite literally textiles that could not stand the test of hard marching. In July 1861 the cover of Vanity Fair—playing on published reports about Philadelphia contractors—showed embarrassed volunteers in dissolving uniforms “closing ranks” so that the passing ladies would not see more than they should. Other satirists expanded the definition of shoddy to include poorly made shoes, burnt coffee, and rotten meat. And whereas the term originally suggested poor products, the fraud investigations also turned up dishonest contractors who intentionally sold under-sized tents and corrupt inspectors who accepted bribes to look the other way.

Read the full post, “Shoddy: The (Sometimes) Strange History of a Civil War Term,” at uncpresscivilwar150.com