COLLECTIBLES: Clothing in the Attic

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It’s always fun digging around in the attic of an old house. It can be hot, cold, dirty and nasty, but sometimes you find things that are so cool.

Last week I was in a house in Connecticut to search for military items. The place was in disrepair, the roof was leaking, and animals were living up in the attic. It was a hoarder situation and not really that pleasant. I spotted a few things and then needing a break went outside for some fresh air. There were a few other workers up there trying to clean it out and one came out with an armful of old clothing. In the pile I spotted something that caught my eye and immediately dug into the pile.

There were some 19th century civilian clothes with moth damage and dirt, but the collar of another coat made me move faster. In the middle of the pile was a dark blue coatee with white lace in two rectangles and white woolen cording around the edge of the collar. I pulled it out and brushed some of the dirt off. My eyes hadn’t deceived me. It was a Schuylkill Arsenal Model 1832 infantry sergeants coatee! I looked inside the right sleeve cap and sure enough found the arsenal size markings which were a tell-tale sign. Two light half inch or so dots meant it was a size two for a very small soldier. I was stunned as I had only seen one of these before 30 years ago in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

Schuylkill Arsenal was founded in 1799 and built in 1800 at Philadelphia to manufacture and supply clothing for the army. Arguably it is most famous for supplying the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1804. It was the major manufactory and supplier of clothing to the army till the Civil War and the advent of sewing machines and the need for contractors to supply such a huge army. Before that time, Schuylkill had tailors that cut the clothing in four sizes that would fit most of the young soldiers, then paid soldiers wives by the piece to assemble them. During the Civil War, they were inspected to make sure that nobody cheated and used a sewing machine. Even then the quality of hand sewn clothing was considered superior to machine sewn garments.

But back to this coatee, somewhere along the line the owner had taken the majority of buttons off, probably to sell thinking that the garment had no value. Given its age it is in need of restoration work as it has some lose seams and moth damage but the fact that it survives at all is a miracle to me. What is it worth? Time will tell. I can say that for me it was priceless to find such an amazing thing balled up in an attic. I was glad I was there as it might have been tossed into a dumpster and lost forever but now it will go to a museum or private collection and be restored for others to study.

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