For the Fourth of July, lots of Americans flock to their local superstore to buy all sorts of flag-themed merchandise. And, as historian Joanna Cohen writes, this is nothing new. During the Civil War, the North had just begun to emerge as a consumer society, with patriots embracing store-bought items as a way to enhance their emotional connection to the cause of the team.

Cohen writes that, when the war broke out, whites in the north saw the people’s patriotic sentiments as an important part of the military effort. To cultivate this emotional commitment, he turned to Christianity, merging his love of home and home with a call for self-sacrifice, and devotion to the country. But some questioned whether the North society has become so focused on the love of money and things that the occasion would grow properly. Attorney George Templeton Strong was concerned that there was a lack of patriotism “in the spirit that worships the North.” Harper’s New Magazine The editorial said that “long periods of making money and self-indulgence are allowed to dampen public sentiment.”

However, it soon became clear that consumerism could be a means of displaying patriotism. Most clearly, Cohen explains, individuals and businesses can fly stars and stripes. Within weeks of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the commercial districts of New York and Philadelphia were ablaze with American flags. Initially, flags were usually made by hand, but the level of demand meant that retailers quickly began stockpiling large quantities of manufactured goods – along with flag pins and union-themed jewelry.

Some observers questioned the veracity of the sentiments behind these patriotic displays, but others influenced them. And some expressed a more subtle opinion. Jane Stuart Woolsey, a leading supporter of the war in New York, ridiculed the women who wore “union bonnets” made up of alternate layers of red, white and blue with flowing ribbons, a frightening object of contemplation. However, she also described the sudden display of thousands of flags through the city windows: “It seems as if we have never been alive, never had a country. When did we smile on the 4th of July? “

Soon, printers and publishers filled the consumer goods market with patriotic and war-themed books, maps, songbooks, and games. Stationery with images of flags, wartime generals and Lady Liberty was a very popular product. Some merchants sold it, advising customers to “preserve the government and the flag,” even if it was sold entirely for profit, not to benefit any wartime effort.

For a society trying to find a connection between professionalism and industrial production, Cohen suggests, patriotic products from the Civil War provide evidence that consumer products can go hand in hand with emotion.

“The history of patriotism in the North is the story of a business community,” she writes.

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By: Joanna Cohen

Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 9, No. 3 (September 2019), p. 378–409

University of North Carolina Press