Laura F. Edwards presents from her new book project, “Only the Clothes on Her Back: Law, Textiles, and Commerce in the Nineteenth-Century United States.” The book tells the history of law and commerce in the United States between the Revolution and the Civil War by foregrounding textiles. Textiles figured prominently in the new republic because of their legal status, widely understood at the time, but overlooked in the scholarship. Longstanding legal practices recognized the attachment of clothing to its wearer, which extended to cloth and applied even to married women and enslaved people who could not claim other forms of property. When draped in textiles, people assumed distinct legal forms that were difficult to ignore: they could own textiles, trade them, and make claims to them — which they did, using textiles as leverage to include themselves in the new republic’s economy and governing institutions.
The chapter under discussion in this workshop focuses on the methods of accounting that those without the full range of property rights used to establish legal claims to textiles.
Laura F. Edwards researches women, gender, and the law in the 19th century, particularly the U.S. South. In addition to articles on these topics, she has published four books: A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2015); The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Scarlett Doesn't Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (University of Illinois Press, 2000); and Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (University of Illinois Press, 1997). The People and Their Peace was awarded the Charles Sydnor Prize for the best book in southern history by the Southern Historical Association, and the Littleton-Griswold Prize for the best book in American Law and Society by the American Historical Association. She has received fellowships from the American Bar Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the Newberry Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Smithsonian Institution. She is now working on a new book project, “Only the Clothes on Her Back: Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth Century United States.”