What Can Be Got In America by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Story type: Essay

While I was preparing my article for the “Atlantic,” our friend Bob Stephens burst in upon us, in some considerable heat, with a newspaper in his hand.

“Well, girls, your time is come now! You women have been preaching heroism and sacrifice to us,–‘so splendid to go forth and suffer and die for our country,’–and now comes the test of feminine patriotism.”

“Why, what’s the matter now?” said Jenny, running eagerly to look over his shoulder at the paper.

“No more foreign goods,” said he, waving it aloft,–“no more gold shipped to Europe for silks, laces, jewels, kid gloves, and what not. Here it is,–great movement, headed by senators’ and generals’ wives, Mrs. General Butler, Mrs. John P. Hale, Mrs. Henry Wilson, and so on, a long string of them, to buy no more imported articles during the war.”

“But I don’t see how it can be done,” said Jenny.

“Why,” said I, “do you suppose that ‘nothing to wear’ is made in America?”

“But, dear Mr. Crowfield,” said Miss Featherstone, a nice girl, who was just then one of our family circle, “there is not, positively, much that is really fit to use or wear made in America,–is there now? Just think: how is Marianne to furnish her house here without French papers and English carpets?–those American papers are so very ordinary, and, as to American carpets, everybody knows their colors don’t hold; and then, as to dress, a lady must have gloves, you know,–and everybody knows no such things are made in America as gloves.”

“I think,” I said, “that I have heard of certain fair ladies wishing that they were men, that they might show with what alacrity they would sacrifice everything on the altar of their country: life and limb would be nothing; they would glory in wounds and bruises, they would enjoy losing a right arm, they wouldn’t mind limping about on a lame leg the rest of their lives, if they were John or Peter, if only they might serve their dear country.”

“Yes,” said Bob, “that’s female patriotism! Girls are always ready to jump off from precipices, or throw themselves into abysses, but as to wearing an unfashionable hat or thread gloves, that they can’t do,–not even for their dear country. No matter whether there’s any money left to pay for the war or not, the dear souls must have twenty yards of silk in a dress,–it’s the fashion, you know.”

“Now, isn’t he too bad?” said Marianne. “As if we’d ever been asked to make these sacrifices and refused! I think I have seen women ready to give up dress and fashion and everything else for a good cause.”

“For that matter,” said I, “the history of all wars has shown women ready to sacrifice what is most intimately feminine in times of peril to their country. The women of Carthage not only gave up their jewels in the siege of their city, but, in the last extremity, cut off their hair for bowstrings. The women of Hungary and Poland, in their country’s need, sold their jewels and plate and wore ornaments of iron and lead. In the time of our own Revolution, our women dressed in plain homespun and drank herb-tea,–and certainly nothing is more feminine than a cup of tea. And in this very struggle, the women of the Southern States have cut up their carpets for blankets, have borne the most humiliating retrenchments and privations of all kinds without a murmur. So let us exonerate the female sex of want of patriotism, at any rate.”

“Certainly,” said my wife; “and if our Northern women have not retrenched and made sacrifices, it has been because it has not been impressed on them that there is any particular call for it. Everything has seemed to be so prosperous and plentiful in the Northern States, money has been so abundant and easy to come by, that it has really been difficult to realize that a dreadful and destructive war was raging. Only occasionally, after a great battle, when the lists of the killed and wounded have been sent through the country, have we felt that we were making a sacrifice. The women who have spent such sums for laces and jewels and silks have not had it set clearly before them why they should not do so. The money has been placed freely in their hands, and the temptation before their eyes.”

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“Yes,” said Jenny, “I am quite sure that there are hundreds who have been buying foreign goods who would not do it if they could see any connection between their not doing it and the salvation of the country; but when I go to buy a pair of gloves, I naturally want the best pair I can find, the pair that will last the longest and look the best, and these always happen to be French gloves.”

“Then,” said Miss Featherstone, “I never could clearly see why people should confine their patronage and encouragement to works of their own country. I’m sure the poor manufacturers of England have shown the very noblest spirit with relation to our cause, and so have the silk weavers and artisans of France,–at least, so I have heard; why should we not give them a fair share of encouragement, particularly when they make things that we are not in circumstances to make, have not the means to make?”

“Those are certainly sensible questions,” I replied, “and ought to meet a fair answer, and I should say that, were our country in a fair ordinary state of prosperity, there would be no reason why our wealth should not flow out for the encouragement of well-directed industry in any part of the world; from this point of view we might look on the whole world as our country, and cheerfully assist in developing its wealth and resources. But our country is now in the situation of a private family whose means are absorbed by an expensive sickness, involving the life of its head: just now it is all we can do to keep the family together; all our means are swallowed up by our own domestic wants; we have nothing to give for the encouragement of other families, we must exist ourselves; we must get through this crisis and hold our own, and, that we may do it, all the family expenses must be kept within ourselves as far as possible. If we drain off all the gold of the country to send to Europe to encourage her worthy artisans, we produce high prices and distress among equally worthy ones at home, and we lessen the amount of our resources for maintaining the great struggle for national existence. The same amount of money which we pay for foreign luxuries, if passed into the hands of our own manufacturers and producers, becomes available for the increasing expenses of the war.”

“But, papa,” said Jenny, “I understood that a great part of our governmental income was derived from the duties on foreign goods, and so I inferred that the more foreign goods were imported the better it would be.”

“Well, suppose,” said I, “that for every hundred thousand dollars we send out of the country we pay the government ten thousand; that is about what our gain as a nation would be: we send our gold abroad in a great stream, and give our government a little driblet.”

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“Well, but,” said Miss Featherstone, “what can be got in America? Hardly anything, I believe, except common calicoes.”

“Begging your pardon, my dear lady,” said I, “there is where you and multitudes of others are greatly mistaken. Your partiality for foreign things has kept you ignorant of what you have at home. Now I am not blaming the love of foreign things: it is not peculiar to us Americans; all nations have it. It is a part of the poetry of our nature to love what comes from afar, and reminds us of lands distant and different from our own. The English belles seek after French laces; the French beauty enumerates English laces among her rarities; and the French dandy piques himself upon an English tailor. We Americans are great travelers, and few people travel, I fancy, with more real enjoyment than we; our domestic establishments, as compared with those of the Old World, are less cumbrous and stately, and so our money is commonly in hand as pocket-money, to be spent freely and gayly in our tours abroad.

“We have such bright and pleasant times in every country that we conceive a kindliness for its belongings. To send to Paris for our dresses and our shoes and our gloves may not be a mere bit of foppery, but a reminder of the bright, pleasant hours we have spent in that city of boulevards and fountains. Hence it comes, in a way not very blamable, that many people have been so engrossed with what can be got from abroad that they have neglected to inquire what can be found at home: they have supposed, of course, that to get a decent watch they must send to Geneva or to London; that to get thoroughly good carpets they must have the English manufacture; that a really tasteful wall-paper could be found only in Paris; and that flannels and broadcloths could come only from France, Great Britain, or Germany.”

“Well, isn’t it so?” said Miss Featherstone. “I certainly have always thought so; I never heard of American watches, I’m sure.”

“Then,” said I, “I’m sure you can’t have read an article that you should have read on the Waltham watches, written by our friend George W. Curtis, in the ‘Atlantic’ for January of last year. I must refer you to that to learn that we make in America watches superior to those of Switzerland or England, bringing into the service machinery and modes of workmanship unequaled for delicacy and precision; as I said before, you must get the article and read it, and, if some sunny day you could make a trip to Waltham and see the establishment, it would greatly assist your comprehension.”

“Then, as to men’s clothing,” said Bob, “I know to my entire satisfaction that many of the most popular cloths for men’s wear are actually American fabrics baptized with French and English names to make them sell.”

“Which shows,” said I, “the use of a general community movement to employ American goods. It will change the fashion. The demand will create the supply. When the leaders of fashion are inquiring for American instead of French and English fabrics, they will be surprised to find what nice American articles there are. The work of our own hands will no more be forced to skulk into the market under French and English names, and we shall see, what is really true, that an American gentleman need not look beyond his own country for a wardrobe befitting him. I am positive that we need not seek broadcloth or other woolen goods from foreign lands,–that better hats are made in America than in Europe, and better boots and shoes; and I should be glad to send an American gentleman to the World’s Fair dressed from top to toe in American manufactures, with an American watch in his pocket, and see if he would suffer in comparison with the gentlemen of any other country.”

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“Then, as to house-furnishing,” began my wife, “American carpets are getting to be every way equal to the English.”

“Yes,” said I, “and, what is more, the Brussels carpets of England are woven on looms invented by an American, and bought of him. Our countryman, Bigelow, went to England to study carpet-weaving in the English looms, supposing that all arts were generously open for the instruction of learners. He was denied the opportunity of studying the machinery and watching the processes by a shortsighted jealousy. He immediately sat down with a yard of carpeting, and, patiently unraveling it thread by thread, combined and calculated till he invented the machinery on which the best carpets of the Old and the New World are woven. No pains which such ingenuity and energy can render effective are spared to make our fabrics equal those of the British market, and we need only to be disabused of the old prejudice, and to keep up with the movement of our own country, and find out our own resources. The fact is, every year improves our fabrics. Our mechanics, our manufacturers, are working with an energy, a zeal, and a skill that carry things forward faster than anybody dreams of; and nobody can predicate the character of American articles in any department now by their character even five years ago.”

“Well, as to wall-papers,” said Miss Featherstone, “there you must confess the French are and must be unequaled.”

“I do not confess any such thing,” said I hardily. “I grant you that, in that department of paper-hangings which exhibits floral decoration, the French designs and execution are, and must be for some time to come, far ahead of all the world: their drawing of flowers, vines, and foliage has the accuracy of botanical studies and the grace of finished works of art, and we cannot as yet pretend in America to do anything equal to it. But for satin finish, and for a variety of exquisite tints of plain colors, American papers equal any in the world: our gilt papers even surpass in the heaviness and polish of the gilding those of foreign countries; and we have also gorgeous velvets. All I have to say is, let people who are furnishing houses inquire for articles of American manufacture, and they will be surprised at what they will see. We need go no farther than our Cambridge glassworks to see that the most dainty devices of cut-glass, crystal, ground and engraved glass of every color and pattern, may be had of American workmanship, every way equal to the best European make, and for half the price. And American painting on china is so well executed, both in Boston and New York, that deficiencies in the finest French or English sets can be made up in a style not distinguishable from the original, as one may easily see by calling on our worthy next neighbor, Briggs, who holds the opposite corner to our ‘Atlantic Monthly.’ No porcelain, it is true, is yet made in America, these decorative arts being exercised on articles imported from Europe. Our tables must, therefore, perforce, be largely indebted to foreign lands for years to come. Exclusive of this item, however, I believe it would require very little self-denial to paper, carpet, and furnish a house entirely from the manufactures of America. I cannot help saying one word here in favor of the cabinet-makers of Boston. There is so much severity of taste, such a style and manner about the best-made Boston furniture, as raises it really quite into the region of the fine arts. Our artisans have studied foreign models with judicious eyes, and so transferred to our country the spirit of what is best worth imitating that one has no need to import furniture from Europe.”

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“Well,” said Miss Featherstone, “there is one point you cannot make out,–gloves; certainly the French have the monopoly of that article.”

“I am not going to ruin my cause by asserting too much,” said I. “I haven’t been with nicely dressed women so many years not to speak with proper respect of Alexander’s gloves; and I confess honestly that to forego them must be a fair, square sacrifice to patriotism. But then, on the other hand, it is nevertheless true that gloves have long been made in America and surreptitiously brought into market as French. I have lately heard that very nice kid gloves are made at Watertown and in Philadelphia. I have only heard of them and not seen. A loud demand might bring forth an unexpected supply from these and other sources. If the women of America were bent on having gloves made in their own country, how long would it be before apparatus and factories would spring into being? Look at the hoop-skirt factories; women wanted hoop-skirts,–would have them or die,–and forthwith factories arose, and hoop-skirts became as the dust of the earth for abundance.”

“Yes,” said Miss Featherstone, “and, to say the truth, the American hoop-skirts are the only ones fit to wear. When we were living on the Champs Elysees, I remember we searched high and low for something like them, and finally had to send home to America for some.”

“Well,” said I, “that shows what I said. Let there be only a hearty call for an article and it will come. These spirits of the vasty deep are not so very far off, after all, as we may imagine, and women’s unions and leagues will lead to inquiries and demands which will as infallibly bring supplies as a vacuum will create a draught of air.”

“But, at least, there are no ribbons made in America,” said Miss Featherstone.

“Pardon, my lady, there is a ribbon factory now in operation in Boston, and ribbons of every color are made in New York; there is also in the vicinity of Boston a factory which makes Roman scarfs. This shows that the faculty of weaving ribbons is not wanting to us Americans, and a zealous patronage would increase the supply.

“Then, as for a thousand and one little feminine needs, I believe our manufacturers can supply them. The Portsmouth Steam Company makes white spool-cotton equal to any in England, and colored spool-cotton, of every shade and variety, such as is not made either in England or France. Pins are well made in America; so are hooks and eyes, and a variety of buttons. Straw bonnets of American manufacture are also extensively in market, and quite as pretty ones as the double-priced ones which are imported.

“As to silks and satins, I am not going to pretend that they are to be found here. It is true, there are silk manufactories, like that of the Cheneys in Connecticut, where very pretty foulard dress-silks are made, together with sewing-silk enough to supply a large demand. Enough has been done to show that silks might be made in America; but at present, as compared with Europe, we claim neither silks nor thread laces among our manufactures.

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“But what then? These are not necessaries of life. Ladies can be very tastefully dressed in other fabrics besides silks. There are many pretty American dress-goods which the leaders of fashion might make fashionable, and certainly no leader of fashion could wish to dress for a nobler object than to aid her country in deadly peril.

“It is not a life-pledge, not a total abstinence, that is asked,–only a temporary expedient to meet a stringent crisis. We only ask a preference for American goods where they can be found. Surely, women whose exertions in Sanitary Fairs have created an era in the history of the world will not shrink from so small a sacrifice for so obvious a good.

“Here is something in which every individual woman can help. Every woman who goes into a shop and asks for American goods renders an appreciable aid to our cause. She expresses her opinion and her patriotism, and her voice forms a part of that demand which shall arouse and develop the resources of her country. We shall learn to know our own country. We shall learn to respect our own powers, and every branch of useful labor will spring and flourish under our well-directed efforts. We shall come out of our great contest, not bedraggled, ragged, and poverty-stricken, but developed, instructed, and rich. Then will we gladly join with other nations in the free interchange of manufactures, and gratify our eye and taste with what is foreign, while we can in turn send abroad our own productions in equal ratio.”

“Upon my word,” said Miss Featherstone, “I should think it was the Fourth of July; but I yield the point. I am convinced; and henceforth you will see me among the most stringent of the leaguers.”

“Right!” said I.

And, fair lady reader, let me hope you will say the same. You can do something for your country,–it lies right in your hand. Go to the shops, determined on supplying your family and yourself with American goods. Insist on having them; raise the question of origin over every article shown to you. In the Revolutionary times, some of the leading matrons of New England gave parties where the ladies were dressed in homespun and drank sage tea. Fashion makes all things beautiful, and you, my charming and accomplished friend, can create beauty by creating fashion. What makes the beauty of half the Cashmere shawls? Not anything in the shawls themselves, for they often look coarse and dingy and barbarous. It is the association with style and fashion. Fair lady, give style and fashion to the products of your own country,–resolve that the money in your hand shall go to your brave brothers, to your co-Americans, now straining every nerve to uphold the nation and cause it to stand high in the earth. What are you without your country? As Americans you can hope for no rank but the rank of your native land, no badge of nobility but her beautiful stars. It rests with this conflict to decide whether those stars shall be badges of nobility to you and your children in all lands. Women of America, your country expects every woman to do her duty!

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