By Sue Huesken
Members of the living history community are always searching for modern equivalents of period fabrics. Corduroy is one fabric often overlooked for use in Revolutionary War portrayals.
Florence M. Montgomery in her excellent book, Textiles in America 1650-1870, defines corduroy as: "A kind of coarse durable cotton fabric, having a piled surface, like that of velvet, raised in cords, ridges, or ribs" (Merriam Webster). It was made with an extra weft for the pile.
The character of corduroy has not changed greatly since the late 18th century. The name derives from "Corde du roi, the kings cord" (Beck). Just how it differed from Queens cord can only be conjectured. According to Perkins, it was made either twilled or plain in several Qualities, "olives, drabs, slates, fawns, and white." There is mention of a great variety of cotton velvets made in the Manchester area as "strong cotton ribs and barragon, broad-raced lin(en) thicksets and tufts" (Aikin). James Beekman first referred to it by name along with jeans, dimities, pillows, and velverets in a London order for goods dated 1784, his first order after the Revolution. This last reference has led many people to believe that corduroy is unacceptable for the Rev War period. However, there is substantial primary documentation to refute this myth.
William Barrel lists corduroy among his goods for sale in an ad in the Pennsylvania Ledger, April 15, 1775. William Adcock also had some for sale at his vendue store as advertised in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, October 3, 1775. In the same newspaper on July 23, 1776, Thomas Gad, an English servant and weaver, is reported to have run away wearing corduroy breeches. Also mentioned in that paper on June 19, 1777, Joseph Fawcett had one pair white and one pair of drab corduroy breeches stolen. During the British occupation of Philadelphia during the winter and spring of 1778, at least 21 merchants listed corduroy among their goods for sale. In 1782, Amos Taylor, a tailor, sold corduroy mentioned in ads in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on January 22 and May 2.
On the evidence of advertising frequency the fabric does not seem to have been common, but it was available. A few ads list corduroy by color such as white, drab, and "colour'd." An ad in the Providence Gazette for December 5, 1789, refers to "all kinds of corduroy." This could indicate a variety of wales.
The difficulty of newspaper documentation is that we do not know exactly what the cloth looked like. Was it the same as our modern fabric? Did they have narrow and wide wales? Montgomery states that little has changed since the late 18th century.
Another interesting piece of primary information is documented in the Journal of Captain [Georg] Pausch, edited by William L. Stone (Arno Press, 1971). This journal entry is dated Nov., 1776.
"Immediately upon going into winter quarters, the entire company, by order of the General, were furnished with the following clothing..."
Included in the list are:
One pair of blue mittens lined with
One capacious under-jacket, the sleeves being made of strong white corduroy
While decisions must be made by the individual interpreter or the site portraying the Revolutionary War time period, corduroy should be one alternative to be considered for men's wearing apparel.