One hundred fifty years ago the Civil War was raging. Thousands of men had already given their lives for a cause they fervently supported, and one woman had risen from total obscurity to the ranks of unimagined riches through the courtesy of soldiers’ uniforms. Unfortunately, no one today even recognizes her name.
After the firing of cannons on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for the Union Army. Each soldier would need to be clothed in uniform and given a coat, a blanket, and bedding. Philadelphia, being the epicenter of the textile industry, went into supercharge production.
Government contracts were awarded by bids. Several mill owners, wanting to get rich quick, sold the unsuspecting government shoddy bolts of fabric. Shoddy is reprocessed strips of wool glued together, heated at very high temperatures, and then ironed out to appear as a new bolt of cloth. Shoddy can be cut and sewn, and look like new fabric…until it gets wet. Then shoddy wool literally begins to disintegrate.
Documentation supports how many of the defeated Union soldiers trudged back to Washington, D.C. after the first Battle of Bull Run (Battle of Manassas) through hours of unrelenting rain, and watched as their jackets unraveled into a soggy mess. Their shoddy garments, or at least what was left of them, were discarded by the side of the road, and the term ‘shoddy’ entered the vernacular as a synonym for poorly made goods.
Enter, Ellen Canavan, an Irish immigrant in the Kensington district of Philadelphia who had spent her entire childhood surrounded by fabrics. Both her father and brother had been wool merchants, her father had also been a weaver, and her mother was a seamstress. Ellen knew textiles inside and out. In 1861 she was being courted by successful factory proprietor, James Nolan, of the St. John’s Street Mill. She was in fact, courting him as a possible business sponsor who could help her transform from impoverished immigrant to entrepreneur.
According to family folklore, she brought the idea to James Nolan of combining superior Georgia cotton with Pennsylvania wool and creating a blended fabric that would hold up against any mill’s shoddy. Uniforms made from this blended cloth would be more durable and comfortable than the current configuration of one hundred per cent wool. As the government quickly caught on to the shoddy from other mills, the St. John’s Street Factory blended cloth resulted in lucrative war contracts.
But uniforms were not enough for Ellen Canavan. She also experimented with a blend of wool and cotton to produce blankets targeted for military hospitals serving both the North and South.
Within a very short time their business venture was a smashing success. She married James Nolan, they started a family, and they continued to produce the blended cloth that had transformed her from poverty to a woman of means. Then just shy of her 30th birthday, Ellen Canavan Nolan succumbed to tuberculosis. A life cut short, and without recognition.
Sadly her name does not appear on any of the contracts or documentation for the cloth. Only her husband’s name was recorded, per the custom of that era. Then, almost as if to add insult to injury, her burial marker in the cemetery mausoleum only bears the inscription of “Mrs. James Nolan”.
How did I find out about her? I have been researching her life for the past 10 years, ever since I stood in front of her burial vault and looked at my great-grandfather’s name recorded where her own name should have been. I grew up hearing the story of how my great-grandfather became incredibly wealthy during the Civil War. The story always included a small afterthought that supposedly his wife had been his business partner and inspiration. Through old records, I was finally able to substantiate how she had helped him succeed.
Strong women deserve to have their story told. I was so motivated by Ellen Canavan’s gumption and grit, as well as her drive to achieve beyond the ordinary, that I not only dedicate this blog post to her but I have also just finished writing a novel, Cut From Strong Cloth, inspired by her life.
Cut From Strong Cloth opens a window into a time when women had few professional choices and even fewer opportunities to follow their dream. Any literary agent looking for an exciting story of a strong woman who left her mark in the textile industry, but not her name, please contact me.
“Insist on yourself. Never imitate.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson in Pearls of Wisdom arranged by Keith Adams
Special thanks to my invaluable proofreader – Dixiane Hallaj