Thursday, January 8, 2009

"We Are Going to Have Some New Clothes!" (Said President Lincoln)

Over at his excellent "A. Lincoln Blog," Brian Dirck - Associate Professor of History at Anderson University and author of a number of works on President Abraham Lincoln - has an interesting post today on the fate of the overcoat that President Lincoln was wearing on the night of his assassination.

The post is about a story from the Washington Post that Ford's Theater has decided not to put Lincoln's overcoat on permanent display for a number of reasons. In his post, Brian raises a number of interesting points:

1) The coat's lining is embroidered with the phrase "One Country, One Destiny." That sounded a "little too ostentatious for Lincoln," according to Brian, because:

2) Lincoln "was notoriously careless in his dressing habits, even as president," as he suggests in his post, adding:

3) "It's difficult to imagine Lincoln himself having such work done; so I wonder how that saying came to be embroidered in his coat? A gift, perhaps?"

Well, here I am to happily try and answer (even correct!) some of Brian's points. I've come to learn a bit about the coat in question - and Lincoln's dressing habits - as part of the research for my recent (and first!) book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008).

You see, one of the "labels" I discuss in the book is the venerable clothier Brooks Brothers. Brooks Brothers has a very interesting war story, from being a uniform supplier, to a (overblown) contracting scandal, to labor problems, to a harrowing night during the Draft Riots, to outfitting generals such as Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, and - like many Chief Executives since - also "outfitting" President Lincoln. Indeed, the coat that Brian refers to in his post was a gift from Brooks Brothers.

Below is an excerpt from the book which I hope will answer some of Brian's questions and possibly even change his opinion of Lincoln as a "sloppy dresser":

Another westerner - President Abraham Lincoln - also carried a reputation as a careless dresser. "He may have been honest," one biographer wrote of Lincoln's early career as a lawyer, "but he wasn't much to look at. His blue pants floated a good inch above his socks." His homespun wear was typical of the frontier, but because Lincoln was so tall his clothes fit worse than most (his trousers - four feet in length - would have reached the underarms of an average man).

In 1855, when Lincoln arrived in Cincinnati to help defend a client in an important patent case, his fellow counselors (including his future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton) described Lincoln as "awkward and ungainly in appearance, his clothing utterly devoid of the tailor's art, ill-fitting and in no wise suited to his angular frame...his appearance was that of the average western farmer of the period."

Others, though, insisted that Lincoln "wasn't sloven and wasn't a buffoon." Judith Bradner - a Bloomington socialite who once entertained Lincoln in her home - recalled that he "was not so careless about his clothes looked as some people say." She admitted that Lincoln's clothes "did not fit him well," but added, "the material was of the best. His linen was always fresh and clean."

As president, Lincoln at least had plenty of clothes to choose from. From the time he was nominated gifts poured in, many in the form of wearing apparrel, including hats, socks, shoes, and full suits (includinga bullet-proof coat of chain-mail). One gentleman, who carried a handsome silk hat to the President-elect in January 1861, recalled that in receiving the hat, Lincoln laughed heartily over the gift and remarked to Mrs. Lincoln, "Well, wife, if nothing else comes out of this scarpe, we are going to have some new clothes are we not?!"

Brooks Brothers tailored several of President Lincoln's suits (as they have for many Chief Executives since); on the occasion of his second inauguartion, the clothier presented him with a handsome overcoat (a "great coat" as they were known then) as a gift. The coat was truly one-of-a-kind: not just as a gift to a sitting president, but for its exquisite workmanship. made of wool finer than cashmere, the coat was pieced and sewn with intricate stitching. The most appealing aspect of the coat was its lining. A talented NewJjersey seamstress spent several weeks hand-stitching an elaborate pattern, repeated on each side; at the center of the design was an American bald eagle, wings spread; in its beak, a ribbon bearing the patriotic inscription "One Country, One Destiny"; shields - filled with stars and stripes - were above and below the eagle; the field was surrounded with scallops and other rich ornaments.

The coat was a favorite of Lincoln's, and he wore it on special occasions, including the night he was assassinated, April 14, 1865 - ironically one of the happiest days of his life - dressed for the theater in the style of the day: black broadcloth frock coat and matching pants, white shirt, bow tie (Lincoln preferred the pre-formed bows), and his favored Brooks Brothers overcoat.

As interesting as how Lincoln got the coat is what happened to ita fter his death...the story continues:

Lincoln's Brooks brothers coat has endured as both legend and relic. Rumors and myths surrounded the late President's assassination clothes soon after his death. One story had the suit being displayed in the window of a brooks Brothers store on lower Broadway as a promotion. As the legend goes, an angry crowd - appalled at the crassness of such a marketing campaign - smashed the window and trashed the store. Another equally false (but equally persistent) legend has Brooks Brothers never makinga black suit again, in deference to the suit worn by Lincoln that night.

The coat, now on display at Ford's Theater National Historic Site, in Washington, D.C., had a long and indirect trip in getting there. Mrs. Lincoln gave the assassination clothes to White House doorkeeper Alphonso Dunn (who remained as doorman through the administration of Grover Cleveland). Donn cherished the garments and refused many offers to buy the clothes, including a $20,000 offer from P. T. Barnum. From the time Donn received the coat, it became the victim of souvenier hunters as they snipped pieces when his back was turned. Upon Alphonso's death, the coat was passed down through the family.

Late in 1915, a Massachusetts Congressman introduced "A Bill...Providing for the purchase of the suit of clothes worn by President Lincoln at the time of his assassination." The legislation authorized the sum of $7,500 "from any unexpended moneys of the amount set aside for the construction and expenses of the Lincoln Memorial." The bill did not pass. In 1924, the latest of the Donn owners - inneed of funds - placed the clothes at auction, but they were returned to her by a mysterious starnger who bid a few thousand dollars to protect the interests of the family. The clothes were then willed to Dorothy Donn, grandadughter of the original owner, who placed the items in a series of bank vaults for safekeeping.

The grandadughter tried to sell the Brooks Brothers coat in the 1930s, with hopes it could be properly conserved and dispalyed, but her asking price of $50,000 found no takers among the museums and historical societies she contacted (not even from Brooks Brothers, another story has it). In 1967, Mrs. Smith renewed her efforts by placing advertisements in the New York Times (the paper would call it "the most famous and expensive Brooks Brothers suit of all time.") The coincident reopening of Ford's Theater as a National Historic Site afforded an ideal opportunity to acquire the clothes. Another Congressman - Iowan Fred Schwengel - secured a generous gift from American trucking interests and bought the artifacts from Mrs. Smith. The coat was then clean and restored.

Well - I hope that helps Brian and any other interested readers! Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions!


brdirck said...

Great post, Jim. I stand corrected! :-)

Ingrid said...

Dear Jim,

I love your blog - and have been trying to find your email address (without success), to ask if you might be willing to contribute an article to a book I'm editing. Might you shoot me an email at, so I can send you details and see if you might be interested?
Warm wishes, Zoe Trodd

Jim Schmidt said...

Brian - Thanks for the kind message on this blog and your own...I think you'll find that Lincoln had associations with other well-known companies - both as commander-in-chief and as an "ordinary" customer: Tiffany & Co., du Pont, Scientific American magazine, American Express, and others.

Thanks also for your great work, esp. Lincoln the Lawyer.


Jim Schmidt said...

Zoe -

Thanks so much for your very kind can expect an e-mail from me very soon. I'm certainly aware of some of your very interesting work, esp. on modern slavery but also on John Brown, etc.


pinkdeer said...

Dear Jim,
Abraham Lincoln is turning 200 in February, and we want you to celebrate his bicentennial with us!
We’ve read your site Civil War Medicine (and Writing) and think you’d be interested in hearing about our project because your site is a Civil War history blog.
My name is Alexis Lerro and I work for a company called Lime Projects based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For the last month or so, we have been helping the Rosenbach Museum & Library get ready to launch an exciting new project called “21st-Century Abe” to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abe Lincoln’s birth.
21st-Century Abe grew out of an awareness that there is an intense interest in Lincoln among the great number of web-savvy folks who spend much of their days surfing the net, as the abundance of Lincoln-themed YouTube videos and MySpace pages will attest, but that he is almost exclusively represented and discussed in a mythical and clich├ęd way. The goal of 21st-Century Abe is to engage this audience in exploring a nuanced and complex view of Lincoln and to create a community of dialogue (both textual and artistic) around contemporary issues that grow out an understanding of Lincoln’s historical materials. The organizing themes of the project include Lincoln’s views on race, his patterns of thought and rhetoric, and his role as a celebrity, both in his own day and ours.
In addition to the blog the Rosenbach has started, there will be a full website launch on February 12th, Lincoln’s 200th birthday, and exciting contributions from scholar and author Douglas Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center and respected Lincoln academic; visual artist Maira Kalman, author and illustrator of numerous children’s books and illustrator of the illustrated version of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; composer and rock musician Bryce Dessner, (member of the band The National); and multi-media artists Archive (Anne Walsh and Chris Kubick) as they reflect on Lincoln documents and provide their own creative interpretations.
But we’re not stopping there! Your responses—in words, songs, videos, photos, drawings, web links, whatever — define 21st-Century Abe. With the full site launch, we invite you to contribute your own Abe finds and interpretations and maybe even win one of our Abe contests.
After researching many blogs on the subjects of history, civil war reenactment, art, politics and education, we are excited to share 21st-Century Abe at the Rosenbach with your website, Civil War Medicine (and Writing).
The 21st-Century Abe blog is located at the following URL:
Plus there are great supplementary Abe media sites like:

Let us know what you think about it! If you like it, pass it along and tell a friend, or even post about it on your blog.
Thanks for your time—we hope to hear from you on our blog and website, and if you’re in the Philly area, we hope to see you at the Rosenbach’s festivities!
Alexis Lerro
Production Manager and Research Coordinator
Lime Projects