Brian P. Luskey: Mary Lincoln, Labor Broker

Today we welcome a guest post from Brian P. Luskey, author of Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America, out now from UNC Press.

When a Civil War substitute broker told business associates that “Men is cheep here to Day,” he exposed an unsettling contradiction at the heart of the Union’s war effort. Despite Northerners’ devotion to the principles of free labor, the war produced rampant speculation and coercive labor arrangements that many Americans labeled fraudulent. Men Is Cheap shows that in the process of winning the war, Northerners were forced to grapple with the frauds of free labor. Labor brokers, by helping to staff the Union military and Yankee households, did indispensable work that helped the Northern state and Northern employers emerge victorious. They also gave rise to an economic and political system that enriched the managerial class at the expense of laborers—a reality that resonates to this day.

Men is Cheap is now available in print and ebook editions.


Mary Lincoln, Labor Broker

In May 1861, Mary Lincoln arrived in New York City’s retail district, ready to spend $20,000 of the American people’s money to refurbish the White House. She also sought credit in her husband’s name for personal items such as the “black point lace shawl” she bought at A. T. Stewart’s fashionable dry goods emporium for $650. Lincoln’s purchases for the White House, she reasoned, were necessary to upgrade the character of the president’s residence for foreign dignitaries and to foster pride in the Union during its time of crisis. Her personal purchases had national significance, too. Determined to overcome the disdain of elite politicians and their wives that she and her husband were uncultured westerners, Lincoln believed that refined appearance was an absolute necessity if the American people were to respect her. The Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, in enumerating her purchases, condemned Lincoln for “expending thousands and thousands of dollars for articles of luxurious taste in the household way that it would be very preposterous for her to use out in her rural home in Illinois.” Ideas about consumption simply would not allow her to win favor. She was an unrefined rube who could not meet the expectations of the nation’s elite consumers. But her attempts to answer this criticism exposed her to the charge that her move to the nation’s capital gave her license to exchange small-town frugality for costly urban extravagance that was particularly inappropriate in a time of war when threats to the nation called for personal sacrifice.

While she was in New York making these personal, political purchases, Mary Lincoln also “procured an excellent dressing maid and seamstress,” she told a friend. Possibly noting the proximity of dry goods palaces and employment agencies along Broadway, she had shopped for fine cloth and then shopped for someone to make it into clothing. A woman named Ellen whom she had brought from Springfield to serve as a nurse for Willie and Tad was now surplus to requirements, because in her estimation the boys no longer needed her surveillance and care and because Ellen “is not expert with her needle, or does not understand arranging or dressing a lady.” With the dual critique of her rustic simplicity and frivolous consumption surely in mind, Mary Lincoln knew that a skilled modiste would be her only hope to gain the respect she craved. And yet Ellen was a “most reliable, truthful, kind hearted girl about children,” Lincoln beamed, a recommendation that she hoped would help her discharged servant land on her feet in a new household.

By hiring workingwomen (including, most famously, the former slave Elizabeth Keckly) and finding jobs for other men and women in the federal government and Washington households during the war, Mary Lincoln became what Justin and Linda Turner have called a “one woman employment bureau.” And while northerners scoffed at her purchases of material goods, they joined her in an avid wartime quest to find obedient workers who would establish their households’ refinement. They did so by corresponding with benevolent societies that sought to move laborers whom the war had made vulnerable to northern homes. Employers contended that their participation in these movements was benevolent, too, for formerly enslaved women and children would learn the habits and practices of free labor under their care and direction. Yet northern white women’s correspondence also displays an eagerness to serve as labor brokers for their neighbors. By employing former slaves in their own households, they would demonstrate for all to see how the labor market created by the Civil War helped foster respectable domesticity. These women would also accrue the regard of their peers by making it possible for them to profit from the labor of these southern refugees. Even as they condemned outlandish consumption, northern women’s calculations in the labor market were shaped by the culture of commercial speculation that encouraged Mary Lincoln to make purchases for the White House and for herself.


Photo by Olivia Miller

Brian P. Luskey is associate professor of history at West Virginia University and author of On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America. Follow him on Twitter.