Fashionably cut from a coarsely woven and poorly dyed fabric, this circa 1805–1810 homespun coat is a study in contradictions. As Americans sought economic and cultural independence from Europe, even their clothing choices became political statements. Efforts to establish an American textile industry were underway, but “homespun” fabrics, whether produced in the home or in factories, were not yet sufficient to supply the entire country. Nevertheless, some citizens made symbolic purchases in support of “domestic manufactures.” Presidents, members of Congress and college graduates were lauded by newspapers for wearing suits made of domestically grown and woven cloth.
This coat, a gift of Bessie Napier Proudfit, was probably worn by South Carolinian John Gilbert in the early 1800s. Thomas Jefferson’s Non-Importation Act of 1806 and subsequent trade regulations gave the homespun movement a boost, and several coats of that time survive as a testament to their owners’ patriotism. Although its high waist, turnover collar, long sleeves and turned-back cuffs were in fashion, the coat’s cotton and wool blend is of a noticeably inferior quality to imported cloth. The wearer could proudly proclaim himself not a rustic unable to afford a stylish coat, but rather a patriotic citizen supporting domestic textiles—and homespun values.