Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men's Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860 / Edition 1

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Ready-Made Democracy explores the history of men's dress in America to consider how capitalism and democracy emerged at the center of social life during the century between the Revolution and the Civil War. The story begins with the elevation of homespun clothing to a political ideology on the eve of Independence. Homespun clothing tied the productive efforts of the household to those of the nation, becoming a most tangible expression of the citizen's attachment to the public's happiness.
Coarse dress did not long remain in the wardrobe, particularly not among those political classes who talked most about it. Nevertheless, exhortations of industry and simplicity became a fixture of American discourse over the following century of industrial revolution, as the mass-produced suit emerged as a badge of a uniquely virtuous American polity. It is here, Zakim argues, in the evolution of homespun into its ready-made opposite, that men's dress proves to be both material and metaphor for the rise of democratic capitalism—and a site of the new social arrangements of bourgeois life. 

In thus illuminating the critical links among culture, ideology, political economy, and fashion in antebellum America, Ready-Made Democracy will be essential to anyone interested in the history of the United States and the construction of modern life.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226977959
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 306
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Zakim teaches history at Tel Aviv University.

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Read an Excerpt

Ready-Made Democracy
A History of Men's Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860
By Michael Zakim
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-97795-9

Chapter One
A Homespun Ideology

Homespun clothing became a means of revolutionary agitation in colonial America. A patriot donned these unrefined products of household labor to renounce imperial hubris and promote its antithesis, domestic manufactures. In 1765 Daniel Dulany declared that Tyranny would be resisted with the "Spirit, and Vigour, and Alacrity" manifest in such productive efforts. In 1767, after British passage of the Townshend duties, Boston's town meeting voted to resuscitate linen production throughout the colony. Bounties were proposed for each yard of Massachusetts homespun produced. Newspapers published instructions for raising flax, the raw material from which linen is made, and in Providence a prize was offered to whoever produced the most. The goal was to "prevent the unnecessary Importation of European Commodities, which threaten the Country with Poverty and Ruin." Mercantilist anxieties over the drain of specie and artisanal worries over competition from abroad were not the only concerns, however. Political principles no less informed the homespun campaign. As Benjamin Rush, president of the United Company of Philadelphia for Promoting American Manufactures, argued, "a people who are entirely dependent upon foreigners for food or clothes must always be subject to them."

"Industry and Economy" were the antidote. They would ensure American independence, which meant that when "thirty-three respectable ladies ... met about sunrise, with their wheels, to spend the day ... in the laudable design of a spinning match," they became actors in the great revolutionary drama. "At an hour before sunset, the ladies then appearing neatly dressed, principally in homespun, a polite and generous repast of American production was set for their entertainment, after which ... Mr. Jewett delivered a suitable and instructive discourse from Rom. xii. II: 'Not Slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord.'" The Boston Gazette reported in 1768 that a number of women from South Kingston, Narragansett, had been invited to the "House of a Gentleman of the first Rank and Figure in the Town, to celebrate the New-Year Anniversary in a festival Manner; where they all appeared in homespun Manufactures." Reports from Providence, Salisbury, Byfield, Newbury, Rowley, Ipswich, Beverly, and Boston told of Daughters of Liberty gathering to spin in coordinated displays of "industry" designed to "save their sinking country." Harvard College's graduating class of 1768 wore homespun at commencement ceremonies. So did the graduates at Yale and the College of Rhode Island. The South Carolina Gazette described the appearance in Charleston of a gentleman "completely clad in the Product and Manufacture of his own Plantation." In Virginia, too, genteeler types dressed in home manufactures in order to register their dissatisfaction with English imperial policy in America. Robert Wormely Carter wore a whole suit of clothes made by a favored slave that became the envy of Williamsburg. At the House of Burgess ball in December 1769, men and women affected "a genteel appearance ... chiefly dressed in Virginia cloth." And a Virginian declared that "the Whirling of our Spinning Wheels afford us the most delightful Musick, and Man is the most respected who appears clad in Homespun; as such a Dress is a sure Evidence of Love to his Country." In the Pennsylvania Gazette a "Freeborn American" was even more adamant: "The skin of a son of liberty will not feel the coarseness of a homespun shirt! The resolution of a Pennsylvanian 'should be made of sterner stuff' than to be frighted at the bug bear-fashion!"

"The bug bear-fashion" that so exercised a Freeborn American was the thoughtless emulation of metropolitan style. It was fueled by love of luxury and was inimical to liberty. As "Brutus" explained in 1769, luxury bred immorality and excess, which made persons vulnerable to corruption. According to the Virginia Gazette in 1778, luxury had even precipitated the war. It "begot Arbitrary Power," which "begot Oppression," which, in turn, begot resentment and revenge. It was a credible genealogy. John Adams later recalled how "scarlet and sable robes, of broad bands, and enormous tie wigs" became the sartorial standard in Massachusetts's imperial courts exactly in the years when popular discontent with British rule intensified. The Yankee Doodle dandy, born a generation earlier as a British caricature of the uncouth colonial who could only dream of emulating a London macaroni, now proudly inverted his tastelessness into a symbol of patriotic simplicity.

"Sterner stuff" was consequently required. For to resist luxury and so preserve their liberties Americans would have to forsake the "conveniences and superfluities" (Benjamin Franklin's categories in his testimony to the House of Commons in 1766) regularly imported from Britain. Were colonials capable of such sacrifice? Did they have the requisite virtue to "consider their interests as [in]distinct from those of the public"? George Washington assured his London merchant in 1765 that once domestic manufacturing became widespread in the colonies, "the Eyes of our People will perceive, that many of the Luxuries which we have heretofore lavished our Substance to Great Britain for can well be dispensed with whilst the Necessaries of Life are to be procured ... within ourselves." Franklin, polemicizing under the pseudonym "Homespun," promised that Americans would be able to give up their English tea and instead breakfast on Indian corn, which was no more "indigestible [than] the Stamp Act." Proof of their resolution was evidenced already by the innumerable calls to stop eating lamb and deliver the extra fleeces to colonial spinners. The logic, as the Boston Gazette explained, was simple. "Suppose that one half of the Woolen that is used in this Province is manufactured here of our own Wool: If therefore, they who keep Sheep would but double their Flocks ... we might be enabled to make all our Woollen Clothing; and to prevent the Importation of any more from Europe." In such a spirit, the Cordwainers Fire Company in Philadelphia likewise declared that "whereas the Increase of our Woollen Manufactories will greatly conduce to the Benefit of this Country, it is therefore agreed ... that we will not purchase any Lamb, nor suffer any to be purchased or used in our Families, during the Present Year."

The industrious American householder thus confronted the empire simultaneously as the guarantor of popular sovereignty and of material independence. Planting, harvesting, shearing, cleaning, drying, rippling, wetting, braking, hackling, dyeing, separating, and combing, and only then spinning for three weeks and weaving for yet another to produce the six yards of cloth necessary for a plain dress, to be made with material inferior to imported goods from England or the continent-this was the stuff of virtuous politics. The rhetoric of res publica thus became suffused with the less sublime grammar of skeins and yards. The Boston Gazette, surveying the progress of the patriot cause in 1767, congratulated Mr. Ebenezer Hurd of Connecticut for having made "in his own Family this present Year, by only his Wife and Children," no less than 500 yards of linens and woolens, "the whole of the Wool and Flax of his own raising," as well as Capt. Simon Newton, of Providence, for spinning and weaving 364 1/4 yards of linen cloth and for producing another 300 skeins of yarn that remained unwoven, "the greatest part of the whole (and all the fine) spun in his own house." William Attlee similarly reported to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia on cloth production in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for 1769: 3,744 yards of striped cotton, 4,091 yards of flax linen, 4,232 yards of tow linen, 1,394 yards of linsey-in all, more than 30,000 yards of household manufactures, "so great is the Spirit for Home-spun among our good Females at present." Atlee identified each family "who had manufactured any Part of the above Quantity, and also the Number of Yards of each Kind manufactured by each of them ... all digested in proper columns."

Attlee's proper columns represented a political accounting that sought to put an end to business as usual-to the ever-growing volume of imported British manufactures reaching the colonies. This was the trade that led Adam Smith to call America "a nation of customers." In the early years of settlement, when the fulling mill (which finished, or "dressed," the homemade product) was a measure of civilization in the wilderness, individual colonies had organized cloth production in order to guarantee basic supplies. But America was soon too important a market for English textiles to allow colonial production to develop into a large-scale, commercial project. In 1660 Parliament forbade the exportation of sheep from England, meaning that American manufacturing would be limited to the coarser qualities of goods. In 1688 the ascendent Whigs established a permanent Board of Trade to supervise economic activity in the colonies. In 1699, in response to complaints about American-made woolens reaching foreign markets traditionally supplied by English manufacturers, Parliament simply outlawed the trade. That, in turn, put an end to colonial bounties for woolen cloths. When, for instance, Rhode Island attempted to renew an incentive system for home production in 1751, the law was quickly repealed for fear that "it may draw the displeasure of Great Britain." In addition to such direct prohibitions, the British also instituted a system of drawbacks on duties. These effectively cheapened the cost of imports, again making American production less practical, as did the open toleration of smuggling. In these ways, America became integrated into the empire as exporter of raw materials and importer of finished goods from the mother country, woolens being the most important of the latter. Officials zealously protected this mercantile system. After seeing "Serge made upon Long Island that any man may wear," for example, Lord Canbury became concerned enough in 1705 to publicly fret about an American woolen manufacture that "will hurt England in a little time."

His fears proved baseless, however. Sir William Keith, the former governor of Pennsylvania, reported in 1728 that the American colonies consumed more than a sixth of Britain's woolen manufactures and double its nominal value in linens and calicoes. After 1750 the tempo of this consumption rose dramatically, as shopkeepers regularly advertised "broad-cloths, serges, cambets, ozenbrigs, cotton checks, damasks, calicoes, cambricks, sattins, taffeties, [and] highland plads" at prices that had been falling sharply since the end of the previous century. Such inventories constituted well over half the goods arriving from Britain, and an even higher percentage of the items shipped out from port cities into the countryside for sale. Not only did this balance of trade satisfy mercantilist economics; it also supplied English cultural refinement to a growing number of colonials. Indeed, the late-eighteenth-century surfeit of cloth was manifest in one of the most important American cultural projects of the day: John Singleton Copley's hundreds of portraits of the New England elite that faithfully reproduced the plush interior tapestries and, most of all, the effusive materiality of his sitters' raiment. Neither Copley nor, apparently, his contemporaries could avert their gaze from all these fabrics. The 1769 portrait of the Boston merchant Nicholas Boylston thus emphasizes the heavy silk damask of Boylston's voluminous morning gown. His beige silk waistcoat is opened just enough to reveal the wide ruffles of the linen shirt beneath. Full white cuffs counterbalance the richer, darker silks. And a red velvet turban is angled high over the brow so as to mimic and so call attention to the sweeping diagonals of the background drapery and the folds of the gown. The fabrics, in short, were the real subject of Boylston's portrait. Even Copley's portrait of the shirt-clad Paul Revere, noticeably shorn of the usual layers of genteel outer dress, the hand tools of an artisan ostentatiously arrayed before him, was a study in the fineness of linen and the semiotics of sleeve ruffles.

The growing relationship between commerce and culture so emphatically evident in the improving standards of colonial dress did not signal the obsolescence of domestic production, however. In fact, the economic role of the household only increased in importance: yeoman farming proved highly adept in responding to the pressures and opportunities of the commercializing times. The steady climb of prices for livestock and wheat after mid-century generated a new division of labor within the family by which men stayed outside feeding the herds, mowing the fields, planting clover for feed, and building their barns while women assumed increasing authority over "indoor" tasks such as milling, baking, gardening, dairying, and soap making. But it was textile production, which began with planting the flax patch and shearing the sheep and ended with cutting and sewing the cloth into clothing-a sixteen-month cycle, for instance, in the case of making a linen shirt-that emerged as the focus of the intensifying domesticity of colonial householders. The operations were so varied, and required such a wide range of skills, technologies, and physical resources, that it was usually unrealistic to carry out the entire process within a single household. Cleaning the raw fibers, carding the results in preparation for spinning, the spinning itself, then dyeing the yarn, warping the loom, weaving, and cutting-the plethora of tasks were divided among family members or between neighbors, or given to itinerants with the requisite skills, who worked in one's own home or someone else's. Such household production, in short, entailed an elaborate division of labor organized largely through a local barter exchange that, without too much effort, could be identified with republican notions of civic cooperation.

Such homespun cooperation was not divorced from the trans-Atlantic Economy. Rather, the two systems became highly complementary, even symbiotic. Households were supplying more of their own basic needs at mid-century in order to free up resources to purchase more higher-grade imports. Similarly, homespun yarns and cloths were often exchanged directly for imported fabrics of finer quality, the homespun then being marketed elsewhere in the empire. In fact, those same households that were buying greater amounts of cloth on the market were also producing more cloth of their own. Consequently, these years witnessed an explosion in the number of spinning wheels and looms in the colonies.

This was the context for homespun politics. Making cloth at home with the sole intention of wearing it, and it alone, was a pointed departure from colonial practice, economic orthodoxy, and imperial rules. However, the attendant sacrifice of the material benefits of the trade with Britain was not a protest against commerce per se. It was an attempt, rather, to reconstitute an American economy that would rest on the energies and skills of householders who had proven themselves up to the challenge. Thus, when in 1774 the first Continental Congress declared a general policy of "non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation," it was far less concerned with ascetic self-denial than with encouraging American arts and manufactures, "especially that of wool." Nonconsumption, in other words, was not synonymous with anticonsumption, and political independence rested not on the sacrifice of property but on its industrious, that is, its virtuous use. Indeed, the homespun protest was an implicit acknowledgment that the world of goods had become integral to any discussion of public happiness.


Excerpted from Ready-Made Democracy by Michael Zakim Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Sartorial Politics
1. A Homespun Ideology
2. A Clothing Business
3. The Reinvention of Tailoring
4. Dressing for Work
5. Ready-Made Labor
6. The Seamstress
7. A Fashion Regime

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