Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing and the Hidden History of Power in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Oxford University Press, Feb. 2022
Laura F. Edwards, Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty

Book cover showing dress made from green plaid cloth

What can dresses, bedlinens, waistcoats, pantaloons, shoes and kerchiefs tell us about the legal status of the least powerful members of American society? In the hands of eminent historian Laura Edwards, these textiles tell a revealing story of ordinary people and how they made use of their material goods’ economic and legal value in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War.

Only the Clothes on Her Back uncovers practices, once commonly known but now long forgotten, which made textiles a unique form of property that people without rights could own and exchange. The value of textiles depended on law, and it was law that turned these goods into a secure form of property for marginalized people.

Edwards grounds the laws relating to textiles in engaging stories from the lives of everyday Americans. Wives wove linen and kept the proceeds, enslaved people traded coats and shoes, and poor people invested in fabrics, which they carefully preserved in trunks.

Edwards shows that these stories are about far more than cloth and clothing; they reshape our understanding of law and the economy in America.