Lincoln’s Labels: America’s Best Known Brands and the Civil War
by James M. Schmidt Edinborough Press
Humans are often said to have three basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. In wartime, of course, armies also need medicine, gunpowder and weaponry. Historians and Civil War enthusiasts typically focus on the latter two needs, but all had an enormous impact on how the war was prosecuted, not only on the armies as a whole, but also on individual soldiers, civilians back home and especially on businesses that provided supplies. This “business end” of the war and its personal ramifications—previously overlooked in the vast literature—is now the subject of an utterly original and fascinating book, Lincoln’s Labels: America’s Best Known Brands and the Civil War, by James M. Schmidt.
Lincoln’s Labels is the story of major Civil War–era businesses and their products—businesses and products that still exist today—and how they influenced and were influenced by the fighting. Within that framework, it also examines how these goods affected the soldiers in the field, civilians and laborers in factories and, as the title suggests, the impact those companies had on the Union commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln. Overall Schmidt’s book is a combination of business and military history that examines the war from a refreshing perspective—the impact of the “things” we all need. As such, it opens up history to readers and enthusiasts of topics beyond the battles and personalities of the war.
As Schmidt writes, all Americans can find a connection to the war without tramping across battlefields in distant states—without even leaving their homes. “In their wallets, pantries, closets, jewelry boxes, magazine racks, and medicine cabinets,” he notes, “are the products of companies that also supplied Union soldiers and sailors.” He profiles companies such as Proctor & Gamble, which supplied soap, candles and numerous other necessities; Brooks Brothers, which supplied uniforms and even Lincoln’s favorite coat; Borden, which produced condensed milk and other foodstuffs; Tiffany & Co., which supplied swords and flags; Scientific American magazine, which wrote about and supported wartime invention; DuPont, which manufactured the Union’s gunpowder; Edward R. Squibb, who improved on medicines used by Army surgeons; and American Express, which transported goods, monies and even corpses.
Histories of the companies examined in Lincoln’s Labels, in addition to how and why they supported the war effort, make for a compelling collection of stories. Their contributions are unified not only by the war, but also by the involvement of Lincoln, who intuitively recognized the potential and usefulness of products and technologies, then harnessed their effectiveness to help win the war.
Lincoln’s penchant for fostering invention and technology is widely known. His compassion for the troops meant that his administration sought the best clothing, food and weapons he could find in support of his soldiers.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.