Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review--Lincoln's Labels

Schmidt, James. Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War. Edinborough Press, Roseville, MN. 2009, 208 pages, notes, bibliographic essay, bibliography, index, b/w photos. $19.95. ISBN 9781889020280.

As we go about our daily lives we seldom think about the origins or past of the companies that we do business with on a daily basis or whose products we regularly use. Jim Schmidt has written a book that provides an introduction to some of the major companies that proudly served their country and continue to be household names today.

If you own a Brooks Brothers suit you might find it interesting to know that this clothier supplies uniforms to many New York soldiers and also played a large part in the New York City draft riots of 1863 suffering approximately $70,000 in losses. In fact Brooks Brothers made the coat Abraham Lincoln was wearing on the night he was assassinated.

Prior to the start of the war Gail Borden created something he called the "meat biscuit". This failed product which was a concentrated food made of dehydrated meat and flour however led to his advances in in the dairy industry and the patent he received for advances in the concentration of milk. Despite costing soldiers up to a full days pay Borden's milk was considered a "great blessing" and was asked for in letters home.

Other companies Schmidt discusses include Tiffany and Co. who were known at the time for presentation swords, regimental flags and other symbolic items. Scientific American was a leading magazine for inventors and machinists rather than it's more general content of today. DuPont, who today may be best known for sponsoring Jeff Gordon in NASCAR, was the largest supplier of gunpowder to Union forces during the Civil War. Edward Squibb began his large pharmaceutical company and was a leader in providing standardized and effective anesthetics. Ether was the mainstay of his company at the time. While best known today as financial services companies American Express, Adams Express, and Wells Fargo all began in the express shipping business. During the war all made their name shipping war supplies. Each also was involved in the task of shipping the bodies of slain soldiers to their home towns for proper burial.

Schmidt has written an easily readable book. Each chapter is short enough to be read at a brief sitting but is thorough enough to satisfy all but the most particular readers. In his preface Mr. Schmidt sets out four goals in his book all of which I believe he has accomplished. First, he wants to tell the stories of companies who directly impacted the fighting. Secondly, he wants to relate how the war affected those companies. Third, and maybe most importantly, he is hoping this book will be a springboard to further research and scholarship on the business end of the Civil War. He even lays out areas that he feels are lacking in scholarship. Fourth, he hopes the book will show a new way of combining business and military history writing. By combining the traditional research methods of both writing styles Schmidt has written what should be considered a ground floor work that others will build upon.

For me the only area I would point out is the lack of southern view point. While several of the particulars in the book, the Borden family and DuPont Company for instance, were torn in their allegiances the book is really told from the Union side. In my opinion however I did not notice any bias and all this does is leave the door open for further research for modern companies that did business with the Confederacy.

Jim is the author of the forthcoming book Notre Dame in the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory. Be sure to check his excellent blogs here and here. While there you can order a signed and inscribed copy that will be quickly delivered to your mailbox.

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