Review: Lincoln’s Labels: America’s Best-Known Brands and the Civil War

by Brett Schulte on August 5, 2009 · 0 comments

Schmidt, James M. Lincoln’s Labels: America’s Best-Known Brands and the Civil War. Edinborough Press (April 1, 2008). 224 pages, illustrations, index. ISBN: 978-1889020211 $27.95 (Hardcover).

LincolnsLabelsAmericasBestKnownBrandsAndTheCivilWarJamesMSchmidtMany people have heard of famous jewelers Tiffany and Co. of New York.  But most are probably not aware of that company’s massive output of award medals, finely crafted swords, and even a ceremonial flag for the famous Iron Brigade during the Civil War.  Many people also have American Express credit cards today.  But most do not realize this firm was an express shipping company during the Civil War and was even involved in sending corpses home from the battlefield!  With Lincoln’s Labels, Jim Schmidt has created a fascinating look into what some famous companies of today were up to during the Civil War, one which will appeal to a much wider audience than most Civil War books could ever hope for.

Author Jim Schmidt is “a chemist by training and profession and currently work[s] in the Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics department of a mid-size pharmaceutical company near Houston, TX.”  He also happens to be a fellow Civil War blogger, practicing his craft at Civil War Medicine (and Writing).  Jim’s interest in both business history and military history were the obvious sparks for Lincoln’s Labels.  Schmidt has had several articles published in North & South Magazine as well.

Lincoln’s Labels looks at the activities of famous companies of today during the Civil War years.  Each company receives its own chapter in the book.  Proctor & Gamble manufactured soap for Northern Civil War soldiers.  Brooks Brothers contracted with the U.S. government to make soldiers’ uniforms.  Inventor Gail Borden’s condensed milk was a hit during the Civil War.  Tiffany & Co. designed numerous medals for individuals (George Armstrong Custer) and states (Ohio), was charged with creating swords for officers, and even created ornate flags for famous Union units.  The owners of Scientific American continued to publish accounts of new inventions during the war years, quite reasonably tending to favor military enhancements during that time frame.  The famous and wealthy du Pont family kept their gunpowder works churning out the vitally important material for the Union war effort despite pre-war ties to the South.  Dr. Edward R. Squibb supplied safe medicines to the Union army in standard doses.  Express companies like Adams Express and American Express offered safe arrival for precious packages in an era when the United States Postal Service charged a lot and delivered little.

As the author is quick to point out, Lincoln’s Labels is not a definitive look at any of these companies during the Civil War.  He hopes that his work will serve as a jumping off point for future detailed studies of these and other businesses.  In his notes on sources near the end of the book, Schmidt points readers who want to learn more about these famous firms in numerous interesting directions.

Each chapter in the book begins with an anecdote which ties neatly into the focus of that particular chapter.  The story of the express companies, for instance, is prefaced by a family’s search for their son who was killed at Gettysburg.  Ultimately they used the Adams Express company to ship his body home.  I thought the author did a particularly fine job with these stories by setting the stage and drawing the reader in at the same time.

There were some truly engaging stories told in Lincoln’s Labels, especially those relating the experiences of Tiffany’s and the du Pont gunpowder works in Delaware.  As a result, this book will surely appeal to a much wider audience than your typical battle or campaign study.  No real prior knowledge of the Civil War is necessary to read and enjoy the stories presented.  In fact, I encourage readers who are looking to get friends and family into the study of the Civil War to introduce them to Lincoln’s Labels.  Who knows what might happen as a result?

One odd oversight was the lack of a conclusion to the book which could have tied things together, possibly relating what happened to these firms in the years immediately following the war.  This is obviously a bit of nit-picking, but the book was so well done there were not many things with which to find fault.

Lincoln’s Labels is a well done introduction to famous companies and their varied experiences during the Civil War.  The book is sure to appeal to those interested in both military history and business history.  It will definitely see a much wider audience than the typical book reviewed at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.  Hopefully this work will serve as a stepping stone for more studies on this fascinating topic.

Note: The book reviewed above was the hardcover version, still available at some bookstores and through Edinborough PressThe paperback version of Lincoln’s Labels will be available on October 1, 2009.

I would like to thank Jim Schmidt at Civil War Medicine (and Writing).

Fellow TOCWOC Blogger Jim Durney reviewed Lincoln’s Labels in July 2009.

*****

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