Anyone who has spent any time in the living history sphere is doubtless familiar with the stereotypical description of a working class American as a “poor farmer.” It is frequently attached to enlisted military impressions as an excuse for ill-fitted loaner gear, or to explain well-used clothing. It is true that 19th century America was largely agrarian, but the overuse of the poor farmer stereotype does a disservice to the truth of agrarian occupations in the United States at this time.
The following is adapted from a lecture that I gave at the Corsets & Cravats conference in Raleigh, North Carolina in August 2023. As a result, the initial demographic information pertains directly to North Carolina.
In 1937, historian Guion Griffis Johnson published “North Carolina: A Social History” in which they analyzed the occupational data from the 1860 census. This analysis only addressed the occupations of free North Carolinians at this time. Another analysis of the enslaved population would be necessary to further address this question, but for the purposes of this article, and based on Johnson’s analysis, we will only be addressing the occupations of free people. Johnson grouped agrarian occupations into two categories: “Farmers” and “Laborers”. According to their analysis, 45% of free North Carolinians are listed as farmers, and 33% as laborers. This gives us a total agrarian occupational percentage of 78% in the heart of the slaveholding south. At its face, this is a huge percentage, comparable to the ~80% of Americans identifying as agrarian workers in the 1790 census. When looking a little more closely at the data, however, a different picture emerges.
Johnson’s data includes dairymen, nurserymen, and overseers as “farmers.” Dairymen and nurserymen are understandable, and a case could be made that they are farmers, though I daresay those occupations are not the first that spring to mind when imagining a 19th century farmer. Overseers strike me as fitting into another category altogether for obvious reasons, though for the purposes of this study, I am willing to admit that they are a form of agrarian middle management despite the crime against humanity being perpetrated by the people in the position.
Laborers, on the other hand, include a very diverse range of occupations: farm hands, day laborers, laundresses, servants, teamsters, apprentices, drivers, and more are all grouped in the category. While all of these occupations obviously contribute to the agrarian milieu, it is plain to see that the actual mechanisms of agrarian life, and the occupations therein, require a much more complex and comprehensive range of knowledge than can be captured by assigning one occupation descriptor to the labor involved. Additionally, it is clear, at least to me, that with so much agrarian economic participation that there was money to be made in and around the industry. All this is to say that portrayals of “poor farmers” do a disservice to the complexity of the American economy and labor force.
It is also clear from the artifact record maintained among working-class garments here at The Merchant Tailor Museum, that ill-fitted work clothes were not at all the order of the day. Indeed, fully 48% of the waistcoats and trousers in the collection show evidence of resizing in order to ensure a proper fit. Likewise, clothing damaged by hard use is repaired, well and neatly, throughout the collection.
It is worth considering a better strategy for helping living historians assume realistic interpretive roles in order to present a more accurate picture of 19th century life. Well-used loaner gear is still going to be the rule, but repairing and resizing gear is done easily enough, and can be used as a primer to 19th century sewing that will serve any living historian well in their career. Working class impressions are also a smart place to start because the garments of the working class; shirts, trousers, overshirts, work blouses and smocks in particular, are some of the simplest to recreate and can be made accurately while developing the tailoring skills necessary for more complex projects. That being said, the best thing that I believe can be done to lay the groundwork for an accurate civilian impression is to create a person that is analogous to their modern life.
By way of an example, I am reminded of an event that took place at a museum in Texas. Ben and I were talking to a young reenactor, and we asked him what he builds his impression towards. His answer was, predictably, that he was a “poor farmer”. We asked him what he knew about farming, and his answer, while expressed in a roundabout way, was nothing. Ben asked him what he did for a living in real life and he said that he was a welder. Ben explained that he should adapt that into his living history persona. He is a young welder, living along the Texas/Arkansas/Louisiana border. So naturally, as an experienced metalworker living in that area, during the period he would have gravitated toward a similar occupation, perhaps a boilermaker for the large 19th century riverboat building and shipping industry. The young man’s eyes went wide, he threw his arms into the air, and shouted “I’m a boilermaker! I’m a boilermaker!” (Alcohol may have been involved.)
Creating and building toward a persona that is familiar will allow the interpreter to create a more realistic portrayal, and will allow them to inject lessons and expertise from their real life into the 19th century person they are working to portray.
Now that we have laid out some tools for constructing a good starter impression, and laid some groundwork for expanding on the stereotypical poor farmer fallback, we can touch on some of the fundamentals of putting together a good labor class impression, and some considerations for doing so. I have already laid out some options for pieces and simple layering for a variety of impressions that require hard physical labor. A shirt, trousers, and overshirt of some variety will get you a long way virtually anywhere in the country.
Shirts should primarily be made of white linen. It is a good baseline, as borne out by the artifact and photographic records. White shirts were the rule. Shirts of cotton calico have their place, and are certainly present throughout the period we concern ourselves with, but they tend to be overrepresented in living history. Cotton is also miserable to work in in the heat, in my experience. I personally vastly prefer linen. Original shirt linen, even low quality shirt linen, is much finer than most of the stuff we have available to us today. Examine original pieces, including pieces in The Merchant Tailor Museum collection, for examples.
Trouser fabric affords a variety of options, and season and location should be taken into account when selecting trouser fabric. We maintain a fascinating pair of heavily repaired summerweight cotton trousers in the collection, that were likely used as painter’s pants based on the staining. Wool trousers are appropriate for all seasons, and they are hugely underrepresented in black. Black broadcloth or satinette woolens were enormously common, and black trousers will get you a long way across seasons and impressions. Jean trousers are hugely overrepresented in living history, presumably because of the tendency to assume that Confederate uniform garments are also acceptable for civilian portrayals. I cannot disagree with this conclusion enough. Confederate uniform clothing is not interchangeable with good civilian reproductions. Jean wool is evident in the civilian artifact and photographic records, but it is uncommon compared to wool broadcloth, satinette, linen, and cotton. Most of the civilian jean wool that I see is utilized in Missouri, specifically. It is dangerous to speak broadly about any of these things, but generally speaking, leave the jean wool at home. Once again speaking generally, trousers tend to be the most ill-fitted garments worn in living history. Your trousers should button at the naval, and not sag. If they are too large, size them down. If they are too small, size them up. The resized trousers in the Museum’s collection are typically done with a gusset in the back. Study photographs to learn where your trouser hem should hang, and study original examples to see how the hemming is done. Hemming pants is quite simple, and goes a long way to making it look like your pants fit you.
Top layers offer a lot of options in working class portrayals. For hard labor, the best option is an overshirt. Their rarity in the artifact record is due to the survivorship bias of clothing worn for gentler labor, but the photographic record bears out how common the wool overshirt was. Generally, they should be made of wool flannel, and are most commonly observed in red and blue. Leave the trim on your so-called battleshirt. An unadorned overshirt will get you far. A linen or cotton work blouse is also a hugely common and comfortable outer layer. We maintain one example of each material. These simple garments are everywhere in the photographic record. Stable frocks, or dusters, of linen, and long smocks are also good options for labor intensive outerwear. When considering which direction to lean, consider the occupation you are portraying, and do your best to document your outwear to occupation, geography, and time. But also, try things. Make an overshirt and wear it for a day of occupational labor in your portrayal, and you will quickly discover what works for you.
The rise of fast fashion and the readymade clothing industry are fascinating subjects, and they bear consideration when putting together a labor class impression. Silk waistcoats, while finery to our modern sensibilities, are ubiquitous in the period. “Beadle’s Dime Book of Etiquette” of 1859 suggests a black silk waistcoat for everyday wear, and a white silk waistcoat for special occasions. We maintain several examples of obviously inexpensive readymade waistcoats in black silk with a shawl collar. A black silk waistcoat cannot be beat for versatility, and many in the Museum collection bear the hallmarks of hard work.
The black frock coat is a subject that requires its own article, and a correctly made black frock is as rare in the hobby as they are prohibitively expensive. The correct outer fabric is not manufactured today in any form, and neither is the alpaca lining which is most common in both tailor made and readymade examples. Basically, forget about a frock coat unless you have the means and the time for a custom fitting and have sourced the fabric yourself. It is better to wear no outer layer than a bad coat.
There are, however, fine reproduction readymade sack coats available from a variety of makers. If you insist on a coat, which I will say are overrepresented in labor class portrayals, but if you insist, then source yourself a sack coat in black. If you absolutely must not wear black, reconsider. If you reconsider and still must not wear black, then navy blue or brown are acceptable alternative colors. Wear your suit like a suit, and you will not go wrong. The sleeve should rest at the top of your thumb, and not at the wrist bone like a modern suit jacket. The sleeve should feel a little long and take some getting used to. When considering your overall aesthetic, choose ONE statement piece, and avoid wild colors. Your statement piece should be your waistcoat. If it is not your waistcoat, it should be your trousers. During the period, as today, people who dressed strangely or gaudily were remarked upon. We owe it to the historical record to represent the common person, especially when portraying the working class.
The purpose of this article is to address the textiles, but a quick digression on the subject of footwear: wear boots. Shoes are fine, and if cost and timing are considerations, obviously do what you need to do, but for labor class men of the period, boots were everywhere. If you are indeed doing farm work, boots will keep the filth off your feet. Boots are also represented in cities, where filth and mud streets necessitated high top footwear. Source and wear boots that fit. While there is plenty of primary source photography showing trousers tucked into pants, the most common arrangement, and the most comfortable and useful in my experience, is to pull the trouser legs over the boot tops. 19th century trousers were mostly made with boot linings in the hem, and most of the boot linings in the Museum collection bear burnishing consistent with boots being worn under the trousers. Even the trousers that have no boot linings show evidence of boots being worn under the pant leg. In my own experimental archeology, I stopped wearing socks in my boots in warm weather, and I will never go back. I frequently wear mine when working in flowing water, on a placer gold mine, and going without socks is much more comfortable in that context. My feet temperature-regulate much better, and my feet and boots dry faster. Brendan Hamilton, a friend and astonishing researcher, found evidence of boots being worn without socks in mid-19th century New York boy’s reform school clothing records, and an 1833 account from Friedrich Ernst’s “Journey to Texas” describes “people wear[ing] their shoes without socks, almost as a common practice.” Try it, you might be surprised. And anyway, try everything you come across at some point in the course of your experimental archaeology. In my experience, the kit will feel less like a costume, and more like clothing.
It is difficult to address this subject without meandering, and it has necessitated the long-windedness of this article, but I hope to leave you with two ideas to chew on. The first is that the poor farmer stereotype is at best a misrepresentation of the majority of the lives of Americans of the 1840s-1860s. To minimize the wide variety of occupational skills necessary to operate the American economy of the period does a disservice to the public history that is at the forefront of how a huge number of us approach living history. The second is that we as interpreters and students of this fascinating period should make choices that help us embody fully the lives and experiences of mid-19th century people. By creating analogues to your modern life, you can more honestly and fully embody the lived experiences of the people you portray, and humanize these very real people, whose lives were every bit as complex and concrete as our own.