Event—Public Programming

Only the Clothes on Her Back: Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century United States

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Join us for a talk based on Laura’s new book project Only the Clothes on Her Back: Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century United States which tells the history of law and commerce by foregrounding material culture, specifically textiles. Textiles figured prominently in the new republic because of their legal status, which was widely understood at the time, but has been overlooked in the scholarship. Longstanding legal practices recognized the attachment of clothing to its wearer, a connection that extended to cloth and applied even to married women and enslaved people who could not claim other forms of property. When draped in textiles, people assumed distinct legal forms that were difficult to ignore: they could own textiles, trade them, and make claims to them. That was what they did, using textiles as leverage to include themselves in new republic’s economy and governing institutions. This story of human creativity, however, has a tragic arc. Textiles mattered in the decades following the Revolution because the options available to so many Americans were so few. But their powers were always fragile and ephemeral, dependent on a very particular economic and legal context. The book’s final chapters turn to changes, visible by the 1830s, that undermined the economic versatility of textiles and their legal status. By mid-century, textiles had become more like other consumer goods: they no longer had the legal or economic power that they previously had. Without either textiles or strong claims to rights, those who had depended on the textile were left only with the clothes on their backs.