Wednesday, October 28, 2009
This morning I'm talking with Jim Schmidt, Civil War blogger, and author of "Lincoln's Labels." Morning Jim.
JS: Good morning to you and thanks for this opportunity! I’ve received some great support from Civil War bloggers in regards to Lincoln’s Labels and I’m so happy to be able to return the favor. Besides, you’re doing me a solid also!
You relocated from Chicago to Houston not that long ago. Aside from the obvious difference in winter weather, how do the two cities compare?
JS: Well, in both cases we live or lived in the ‘burbs so I can’t actually compare the city life. Chicago had a great public transportation system – and a train that went way out where we were (Crystal Lake, IL, a far NW suburb) – so that did make going to the city to enjoy shopping, museums, or sports easier. People here in Texas like their cars (and trucks, of course) and Houston has only a “toy train” downtown. As for baseball, I was a solid White Sox fan but am now a solid Astros fan. When it comes to football, I’m a Sooners fan.
Trust me, I'm not trying to get you kicked out of Texas, but what's your opinion of Chicken Fried Steak? I understand that's the official State food of Texas.
JS: Believe it or not, I’ve never once ordered chicken fried steak here in Texas. No one makes it as good as my wife does, so I don’t bother. The official state food of Texas is actually chili, but I don’t order it either, because no one makes it like I do (just kidding). Houston is home to some great steaks, seafood, and Tex-Mex, all of which I enjoy…too much, in fact.
I better move on to something else before I start drooling. You've got a pretty decided interest in the Civil War. Where did that come from?
JS: I’ve always been interested in history since I was a kid, but my interest in the Civil War blossomed well into adulthood. As a kid, I was an avid reader and soaked up biographies and “Landmark” books. My dad might be surprised when he reads this, but I really owe my general interest in history to him. My ancestors – “Volga-Germans” - arrived in western Kansas in the mid-1870s. My dad is a treasure-trove of information about that heritage: genealogy, traditions, language, faith, etc., and shared it with us as kids, all as oral history. That really made an impression on me, I think, and I’m only just now beginning to appreciate that quiet but important influence.
As for the Civil War, about 15 years ago I was in Richmond, VA, on business. I had no particular interest in the Civil War at that time, but on a lark I visited the Cold Harbor battlefield. While I was looking at a wayside exhibit, an NPS ranger, Eddie Sanders, came up and asked if I’d like to join a van tour of the field with some senior citizens, which I did. His tour was amazing and I’ve been hooked ever since! I got back in touch with him a year or so ago and thanked him for the inspiration.
And from those humble beginnings, something that we can all probably relate to, you wound up writing "Lincoln's Labels." Where did the idea for the book come from?
JS: The book was actually a progression of some other research and writing. I had published several short (1000-word) “Civil War corporate history” articles in North & South magazine, but I was never able to use all my research or develop a “narrative,” and the book gave me a chance to do that. I started out by researching companies having to do with my day job”: chemistry and medicine, and it grew from there.
I bet there are people kicking themselves for not thinking of it first. Have you gotten that type of reaction?
JS: I’ve received some nice feedback on the “originality” of the book idea, but I’m not sure if anyone is kicking themselves. The book cuts across a lot of ground – business history, military history, Americana, etc - and has wider appeal than your typical battle study, etc., so I think I found a good niche. In terms of military history, I think it fills a nice middle ground between “mobilization” (how a country prepares and gears up for war) and “logistics” (getting stuff to the battlefield); that “middle ground” – so to speak – is studying the people who made the “stuff.” The premise of the book, though, is that a “company of employees” can have every bit as interesting a war story as a “company of soldiers,” and I hope I fulfilled that mission.
Who came up with the title? It's pretty clever and seems to summarize the book very nicely.
JS: What a great question! My working title was actually “Union Labels” – you know, “Union” for well…the Union, and “Labels” for the brands. I thought it was pretty clever, but I’ll admit it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was about the Civil War. I switched it to “Lincoln’s Labels” for several reasons: 1) the old saw about the perfect book title being “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog (I’m a third of the way there) and 2) the more important fact that Lincoln does indeed make an “appearance” in every chapter in his capacity as President/Commander-in-Chief, as a customer, or other relationship with the company or industry.
As a first time author, how tough was it to find a publisher?
JS: It was tough. I had been sending out proposals for a few years and even had an agent for a year or so, but collected plenty of polite rejections. I did have a few close bites. One was with a university press and although I didn’t get a contract, the feedback I received from their formal “readers” made my subsequent proposals – and the book – much stronger, indeed. From a credentials standpoint, I had a good “platform” and bona fides from the writing I had already done. From the standpoint of the project itself, I really had to prove that it was more than just the “sum of its parts.” I’ve tried to pass on some of what I’ve learned about the publication process – for books and magazines -- on my blog…I call it “School of the Writer” (borrowing from “School of the Soldier”).
Most reviews I've read have been very favorable. That has to be gratifying.
JS: It is, very much. I knew my Mom would like it – and that’s important, really – but you never know what the reaction is going to be among the Civil War enthusiast crowd. I had an early inkling that I was on the right track from some cooperation, encouragement, and important advice I got from early readers – academics and popular historians alike – but I was pretty anxious about the first reviews. It’s even more gratifying when an author/historian you really admire also has nice things to say, and that has happened as well, such as when Jason Emerson – author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln – penned a kind review in Civil War Times. As I said at the beginning, Civil War bloggers have been very supportive and that may well be the future for influential book reviews.
Lets see, the business ventures in your book include Brooks Brothers, a clothier; American Express and Wells Fargo, freight companies; Tiffanys, a jeweler; Dupont, an explosives manufacturer; Scientific American, a magazine; and Squibb, a pharmaceutical company. Which of these, in your mind, made the most important contribution to the Union war effort?
JS: Don’t forget Procter & Gamble (soap and candles) and Borden’s (condensed milk and juices)! Well, I think the most important among those was probably du Pont, for fairly obvious reasons as a gunpowder manufacturer; I’d say Squibb comes in a close second. My favorite in the book is the Scientific American chapter, as I really feel that’s where I made the biggest original contribution to Civil War scholarship. My favorite personality in the book is Lammot du Pont, chief chemist at the powder works and a fellow who lost his life at too young an age.
Were there other companies you researched that didn't make the editors cut?
JS: Well, first, I made a decision to concentrate on companies that would appeal to average Americans/consumers today. That’s why I didn’t include a firearms manufacturer. Second, I wanted to include companies that had an actual “war story” to tell. There are many other familiar wartime companies you could point to (Steinway pianos, FAO Schwarz toys, and many more), but that’s just trivia. I really think I included companies that were more than just “around”…these companies were involved. Finally, I wanted to make sure there was enough material – esp. in primary sources - to document that story.
As to other companies that didn’t make the cut…no, not really. That said, I have already “collected” another 7 or 8 familiar companies for a possible follow-up volume and have done some background research and early writing as well. It’s double-top secret. I could tell who what they are, but then I’d have to…well, you know. Actually, I have already written about one of the companies in North & South: Milton Bradley, the game-maker (September 2008 issue). He has an amazing Civil War story and a great connection with Abraham Lincoln!
Before I read the book, which I absolutely loved by the way, I thought it was going to be a pretty straight forward history of businesses that got their start by obtaining government contracts during the war. Yet the chapter on Scientific American, for example, begins with Abraham Lincoln's efforts to a patent. Rufus Porter who founded Scientific American isn't mentioned until the fifth page. It's an approach you followed throughout the book.
JS: Thanks so much for the kind words about the book. Your question about the “formula” for each chapter is a great one, and in fact, I did try to follow a pattern: 1) an introductory vignette, 2) a discussion of the industry in question during the 19th-century, 3) a brief bio of the company and its principals up the war, 4) in the main, a discussion of the company’s role in the war and how the war affected the company, and 5) a conclusion where I try to “close the circle” from the introductory vignette. I did it this way on purpose, mostly to avoid the “so what?” factor of just writing about the company. The introductory vignettes show how a company’s products or services were used in the field and how they affected the common soldier. The discussion of the industry shows that the individual companies did not exist in a vacuum.
Each chapter contains an extraordinary amount of research. How much of your time was consumed by chasing primary and secondary sources?
JS: I had actually done several years of background research to help in writing those North & South articles and for the preparation of two full chapters for the book proposal. My very best resources were the archivists at some of the subject companies. They were very enthusiastic and cooperative and shared what they could. I mined the Official Records as well; while most people are doing keyword searches for “Grant” or “Lee” or “trench,” I was searching for “American Express” or “Greek Fire” or “meat biscuit” and I hit “gold” more than once! Published company histories were OK as a starting point, but as a rule they are commemorative, celebratory, and un-annotated. I also used period newspapers, archives, and other sources.
The book is very well written. I'm suspecting a good English teacher is lurking somewhere in the background.
JS: Thanks again. I have always liked to read and write and I have had the benefit of some good English teachers to be sure. I think my mom – especially – encouraged me to write as a kid. She certainly encouraged me to read and is a very avid reader herself. I remember once I wrote a poem about Independence Day and she drove me down to the newspaper office in Joplin, Missouri, to see if we could get it published in the Globe! I don’t know if it was, but it did give me the impression that being published was something special. As a teen, I actually wanted to go to art school, but pursued chemistry instead. I guess the writing I’m doing now is that creative bit trying to get out.
I attribute any writing “success” I’ve had – such as it is – to two major factors: discipline and a lot of help. In terms of discipline, writing those shorter articles really helped me concentrate on the “heart” of a story, keep to a word count, and avoid tangents that don’t really add to the story. And as for help, several folks read the manuscript in whole or in part and provided good advice. The best came from my very good friend, Dr. Guy Hasegawa. Guy has a doctorate in pharmacy, is the editor of a leading pharmacy journal, and is a published expert on Civil War medicine in his own right. He put all those skills to work in sharpening up my manuscript and I am very appreciative of that.
The term shoddy almost became synonymous with Brooks Brothers, who supplied uniforms. They had a pretty good reputation before and after the war, but were investigated by the government for shady dealings and alleged kickbacks. Were they guilty as charged?
JS: Well, the short answer to all the questions is “Yes.” A lot of problems could have been avoided if they had not over-promised to begin with and had shared the contract with other ready-made clothing outfits. There are several bigger points, though: first, while a lot of noise was made in the press, the poor-quality uniforms were only a fraction of those they supplied, and had little or no effect on the war effort; second, Brooks Brothers replaced the poor uniforms at their cost; third, that Brooks Brothers is still a whipping boy in the Civil War literature as the model for unsavory contractors is very much un-earned; and, finally: anyone who thinks that contracting scandals are a modern problem needs to go read about the Revolutionary War.
I was totally fascinated by Lincoln's efforts to obtain a patent and how that story was interwoven with the emergence of Scientific American. That magazine seemed to be a cheerleader for innovation and prodded the Federal government to move on new ideas.
JS: I’m particularly proud of the chapter on Scientific American for several reasons. To be sure, the wartime issues have been used extensively in many studies on Civil War technology: Robert Bruce’s excellent Lincoln and the Tools of War is my favorite; Brent Nosworthy also used it to good effect in his Bloody Crucible of Courage. First, I tried to expand this by looking at Scientific American as more than just a catalog of wartime patents, but also as an institution with its own war story, including its interesting – even humorous - “secession crisis.” Second, as far as the paper itself is concerned, I looked deeper than the front page and the lists of patents. The real genius is in the “Correspondence” column and the paper’s suggestions for inventions.
Some amazing ideas were put forth. One that isn’t mentioned in the book, but just floors me, is their recommendation of the utility of a “pocket telegraph” on the battlefield. If you read the description, it sounds a lot like a cell phone. And they weren’t saying “in a century we’ll be using these in the military”…they wanted them NOW! That – and the mad genius of some of the inventors on the homefront – makes for terrific reading.
Gail Borden would certainly seem to qualify as one of those mad geniuses. Your book talks about how he created a meat biscuit, which he claimed would meet all the nutritional of soldiers. Hard tack, which had virtually zero nutritional value became standard fare for the Union army. Why hard tack and not the meat biscuit?
JS: Well, if you could ask Gail Borden, he’d blame a cabal of the meat-packing industry which already had a strong lobby in the War Department. If you could ask his contemporaries, they’d say that no taste (hardtack) is better than bad taste (the meat biscuit). You can’t fault Borden for a lack of effort, though, and some officers on the frontier raved about the meat biscuit. Those connections were put to good use when the Civil War broke out and Borden was now in the condensed milk business.
Tiffanys was famous for their presentation swords. A lot of these swords show up on eBay, yet I've never seen one made by Tiffany. Have any idea where they are and their current value?
JS: I’m not a collector so I can’t really speak to their value, but I think a starting point for the discussion is to distinguish between two kinds of swords that Tiffany’s put out: first, the general swords made to the Army/Navy “model” and second, presentation swords. Tiffany’s sold many thousands of the “model” swords on contract and I expect they would be easier to find through dealers and/or online auctions. The presentation swords were fewer in number, much more ornate, and crafted on commission. You’ll find them in museum collections and higher-end auctions. A Tiffany sword awarded to Admiral John Worden, for his heroic command aboard the U.S.S. Monitor, has been valued at $650,000. I’m sure others are valued even higher.
American Express survived shifting its focus to finances. What happened to Adams Express? I've seen them mentioned time and time again in letters written by members of the 18th Massachusetts Infantry.
JS: Great question. First, you are quite right – mentions of Adams Express are very frequent in soldier correspondence and you’ll even find many mentions in the Official Records. Adams Express is also still in business as an investment trust. While they are certainly proud of their history, my communications with their public relations department indicate they don’t have much at all in terms of an archival department. Wells Fargo and American Express take their corporate history very seriously, indeed, and have full time historians and archivists as a corporate function. The shift to the financial industry – for all the express companies – was not too much of a stretch. They were all performing some important banking services, even during the war.
Dupont seemed to have a virtual stranglehold on producing black powder for the Union army. How'd they wiggle themselves into that position?
JS: The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Du Pont is the oldest company I describe in the book with a founding in 1802. They supplied powder during the war with Mexico and continued to increased capacity and efficiency by the time of the Civil War. There were certainly other powder manufacturers, though, as Du Pont had “only” about half the government market. One of the really interesting points that I discuss in the book, though, is how important it was for them to also maintain their supply to the civilian market, as it had important implications for the war effort. As an example, consider that powder was used in mining coal and that coal was used for the “brown water” navy. “Coal for the gunboat furnaces is as important as powder for the guns!” one customer declared when he pressed Du Pont to deliver more powder.
You touched upon this in your book, but I'm wondering why the Confederacy didn't target companies like Dupont and Squibb. Their agents, after all, tried to spread yellow fever and burn New York City to the ground. Blowing up Dupont, for example, would have seriously crippled the Union war effort.
JS: There was certainly an opportunity very early but with a small window, and Du Pont was the most vulnerable. In the book, I point out that some citizens in the South wrote to Confederate authorities pressing them to take advantage of securing the Du Pont powder works with a small force. Likewise, citizens in the North wrote federal authorities of the importance of protecting the works. There were some early attempts at spying and sabotage but to no avail. Soon, the works were protected by infantry. It was still a dangerous place to work and several dozen men died in explosions during the war years.
As for Squibb, that would have been another interesting target. It may have also hurt the Confederacy, though, as they depended on captured medical supplies – including Squibb’s – to supplement their own efforts. I have also studied and written about the Squibb company during World War II. They actually had a coastal anti-aircraft battery in place on the grounds to protect their factory!
The federal government made an effort to establish their own medical laboratories and, in essence, compete against Squibb. Why didn't they attempt this in other manufacturing areas, such as uniforms and equipment.
JS: Oh, but they did! The government arsenals put out a lot of products: flags, accoutrements, food, ammunition, and weapons, and in many cases competed with or supplemented the output of the private companies. It’s actually an important economic and procurement question that all governments face in wartime and that businesses face every day: it’s called the “make or buy” decision. Historian Mark Wilson, a history professor at UNC-Charlotte – who really helped me with Lincoln’s Labels - discuses the implications in his excellent book, The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865. The arsenals employed thousands of people – including a lot of women – during the Civil War and there was friction between the arsenal workers and the contractors due to low wage pressures.
Jim, it seems like we're out of time for today, so we'll pick it up again tomorrow. This will also give our readers an opportunity to go to their favorite online booksellers and order "Lincoln's Lables" by clicking here or here.