Tuesday #Trivia: Union Suits and Linens

#amwriting #history

Thanks to the movies and mid-20th century TV, when we think of men’s underwear in the Old West, we usually picture the union suit, a garment that looked like a cross between a onesie and today’s longjohns, with buttons up the front and a flap in the back to accommodate nature’s needs.  But union suits weren’t always a single piece — it was possible to buy shirts and pants separately.  They also came in an above-the-knee length (for the especially hardy).

Union Suit Advertisement Sears & Roebuck catalogue

Union Suit Advertisement
Sears & Roebuck catalogue

Less well-known were garments called “linens”, from the material they were made out of.  Linens could be long, though they were usually knee-length or shorter.  They had buttons or grommets with laces, and some had wide waistbands.  Even more obscure was a cotton garment with buttons and ribbed legs that’s quite similar to the recently-popularized “boxer-briefs”.  From my research, I believe these were among the first to be considered “drawers”.

Tuesday Trivia #26: Little Bighorn

June 25, 1876. Not quite the “massacre” we learned about in school.

Gall, Leader of Sioux Forces

Gall, Leader of Sioux Forces

So many myths surround this battle, not the least of which is that all of the US Cavalrymen died, George Armstrong Custer among them, and that only Custer’s horse survived. Most of the misconceptions are based on wife Elizabeth Custer’s memoirs, which painted quite a different picture from other contemporary sources.

The battle actually resulted in 268 deaths of US Calvary troops out of 700, and 168 Native American deaths out of an estimated 1,600 to 1,800 warriors. The horse Comanche belonged to another of the officers who died at Little Bighorn, Captain Myles Keough.

Do you ever wonder why, when the white man lost, the battles were labeled massacres, but when the white man won, it was always considered a victory, regardless of the number, age, or sex of the Native Americans who died?

Tuesday Trivia #25: The Sod Shanty

So you’ve left your home somewhere in the east and staked out your forty acres on the plains. The government is gonna give you a mule. And all of a sudden, you’re a farmer, living off the bounty of the land. Sounds like a great life, right?

What you might not have realized before you got there was that there’s very little building material on the plains. But you’ve got a wife and two kids, some chickens and maybe a goat or a pig, and you just can’t stand around all day out in the open. For one thing, Indians. For another, cattle ranchers. Both are now your natural enemies (not to mention rain, snow, sleet, heat and tornadoes).

One thing raw farmland does have a lot of is dirt. And grass. And that’s what you’ve got to build your house with. If you’re lucky, your field will have lots of medium-sized rocks in it and you can start building with them as a base. Or if you’re really lucky, there’s a hill on your 40 acres that you can burrow into, and then you’ll only have to build the front of a house. (Just don’t forget the chimney pipe!)

Dirt floor’s fine for now, so you’ll start by pacing off a one-room home.  And that’s where you start stripping off the grass. You’re gonna want strips about 4” deep and between 2 and 3 feet wide*. It’s gotta be nice and wide because thinner strips wouldn’t be stable when you stack ’em. And that’s just what you do: stack ’em up to make the walls of your house.

Taller grasses can be cut into thatch to make a weather-proof roof (the kids can lash them together), though you’ll have to create some sort of support for it – maybe woven willow branches or the boards from your wagon. Maybe add a window made of oilcloth or canvas. And what you wind up with looks quite a bit like this:

A Little Old Sod Shanty

A Little Old Sod Shanty

The best thing about the sod shanty is that it’s pretty well-insulated: it keeps cool in summer and warm in winter (at least compared to the weather outside). The worst thing about it is scent of poverty it gives off. But someday, maybe, when the farming starts to pay off and you have six more kids working the fields – someday you’ll maybe build yourself a real wood cabin.

But for right now, it’s “the little old sod shanty in the west”.

*My note: The strips are very similar to the sod we use today for lawns.

Tuesday Trivia #24: Population Decimation

In 1492, when Columbus “discovered” America, the estimated number of Native Americans in what would become the United States was between 5 and 18 million.

Historians estimate that up to 80% of population loss was due to diseases like smallpox and influenza, to which the aboriginals had no immunity.  A 20% survival rate of the lower estimate of 5 million would be 1 million; of the higher estimate, 3.6 million.

In 1900, the US Census showed a total Native American population of 350 thousand.

Which means that 65% to 90% of the populace is “unaccounted for”.  Why do you think that is?

Tuesday Trivia #23: Patient Sustenance

Warning! This post examines the history of feeding tubes;  if you’re easily grossed out, it might not be for you!

In one of my novels, a woman falls into a coma after the birth of her child.  I needed to know what specific methods there were in the 1880s for nourishing a comatose patient.  What I found surprised me.

Before the popular acceptance of feeding tubes (the type that were forced down the throat), nutrition was given to comatose patients via enema.  The most common preparation at the time of my stories was a mixture of beef broth and whiskey!  President Garfield lived on that limited diet for 79 days after he was shot.

But the history of feeding tubes goes back to the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations, where a bladder attached to a reed was used to feed patients.  In the US, the most common conduit was a hollow bone, specifically whalebone.  A major development as far as patient comfort was concerned was wrapping the bone in eelskin.  By the 1870s, these bone-and-skin contraptions were replace with flexible leather tubes, again affording the patient more comfort and allowing the tube to go as far as the esophagus.

It’s interesting to note that another device was used for patients who could swallow but didn’t want to eat.  It looked like a teapot with an extra-long spout and might be filled with a mixture of milk, egg, beef tea and wine thickened with arrowroot.  It was commonly used in mental hospitals at the time and also, according to one source, on “fasting girls and spoilt children who, when ill, refuse food”.

Hmmm … if I had a dollar for every time … all I can say is I’m glad my mother didn’t know about this!

Tuesday Trivia #22: The Round-Up

In most of the Old West, the ranchers managed two yearly round-ups. A spring round-up was done to identify and brand the new calves in a herd, and castrate any male calves that were not needed for reproduction (these cattle were called “steers” and often outnumbered the females).

It was a big job to get cattle from the open range to the railhead or directly to market. Round-ups for this purpose were usually done in the fall and could take several weeks. The cowboys might live out on the range for that entire time, accompanied by a ramrod (boss), a chuck wagon and possibly a cook. In addition to food stores, the chuck wagon carried their water and emergency medical supplies.

However long it took, a cowboy would draw his wages at the drive’s destination. Many would then find themselves unemployed until the following spring. Since the work load was so light in the winter, particularly in the northern territories, only a few favored cowboys were actually employed year-round. It’s no wonder that most cowboys were young, unmarried, and tended to drift from one town to another.

Tuesday Trivia #21: African-Americans in the Old West

History tells us that at least 15%, and possibly up to 33%, of cowboys in The Old West were African-American. Among them was William Pickett, who invented the trick we now call bull-dogging — catching and throwing a steer — though Bill’s habit of biting the cow’s lip to control it is no longer practiced. (Not too surprising, imho.)

Nat Love

Nat Love

Probably the most famous Black cowboy was Nat Love (above), aka Deadwood Dick, who wrote an autobiography of his years riding herd in a number of Western states. Love claims to have met many of the most famous Wild West figures, including Billy the Kid.

Ned Huddleston was known as the Calico Kid; he trained horses for the Wild Bunch and later became an outlaw himself, changing his name to Isom Dart.

On the other hand, Bass Reeves, who served as a scout and guide for the US Marshalls in Arkansas and the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), was one of the first Black lawman; he became a Deputy US Marshall in 1875.

Stagecoach Mary_Fields

Stagecoach Mary

And lest we forget the women, Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary, was the second woman and the first African-American woman to be hired as a mail carrier by the US Post Office. When the snow in Montana was too high for her coach and horses, the 6-foot-tall Mary would deliver the mail on snowshoes.

Tuesday Trivia #19: The Transatlantic Crossing

In the mid-19th Century, most transatlantic crossings were still done by sailing ship, although steamship passage was available for those who could afford it, primarily through the Cunard Line of Britain and the Inman line of the US.  A steamship would routinely make the voyage in 11 to 13 days, but until 1860, most steamships had no accommodations for steerage (or 3rd class) passengers.

In the 1850s, American sailing ships routinely made the voyage from Cork, Wexford or Liverpool to the East Coast of the US and Canada in about 35 days, while a British sailing ship would take up to 10 weeks for the identical crossing; British captains had a (probably superstitious) habit of not sailing at night.

Tuesday Trivia #17: The Chisolm Trail

Every fan of Western lore is familiar with the Old Chisholm Trail. The Chisholm Trail originally ran from the Red River in Texas north to Kansas City, Kansas. It was established by Jesse Chisholm, a mixed-blood Cherokee trader, who scouted to find the best locations for his trading posts.

Jesse ChisholmJesse Chisholm

The trail’s fame, however, lies in its usage as a cattle trail to get Texas beef to the railroad stockyards in Kansas, where instead of $4.00 per head (in Texas), the ranchers could be paid $40.00 per head. It led to the great boom in cattle ranching not only in Texas, but New Mexico and Arizona as well.

There’s a legend that Billy the Kid rode for Jesse Chisholm. Although Chisholm did eventually get into cattle ranching, the legend is false. Billy rode for John Chisum, one of the powers behind the Lincoln County War in New Mexico.