Thanks to Netflix, I can watch documentaries while I knit. Currently I am halfway through Ken Burns’s “Civil War” (1861-1865). As I used to teach in women’s studies, I am always interested to see how women are portrayed by the film maker; as a fiber artist I keep an eye out to see how (and if) fiber-related activities are captured.
In one episode, the narrator mentioned “picking lint for bandages.” My mind immediately flew to a phrase in Gone With the Wind (a favorite book as a child), where Scarlett laments: “She saw that she was tired of the endless knitting and the endless bandage rolling and lint picking that roughened the cuticle of her nails” (p. 172).
I knew that women prepared bandages by ripping sheets and various linens into strips and then rolling them up (rather like early ace bandages). But what was lint picking?
Lint was literally picked or shaved off woven linen (sometimes cotton) and saved in fluffy masses. Commonly, woven linen or cotton was cut into small pieces and then the warp and weft threads pulled out. The short fiber ends were bundled together to form “charpies.” Picked lint or a charpie would be pressed against a wound (to absorb leakage, fluids, etc.). A regular bandage was then wrapped around the limb or body of the wounded to hold the charpie in place. Alternatively, wax or an adhesive plaster might be applied over the charpie. (For an excellent explanation, see Virginia Mescher’s “Lint and Charpie: It’s Not Your Dryer Lint.”)
While ladies’ aid societies in both the North and South were very active and support of the war effort, the only woman mentioned actively involved in the war effort was Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross, whom we learn stood “barely 5 feet tall” – though I am unsure of the relevance of her height), until the latter part of Episode 5. At that point, a five-minute or so segment briefly mentioned a few women, such Mary Ann Bickerdyke aka Mother Bickerdyke (known for her fierce lobbying for better medical attention to and care of the wounded – incompetent surgeons and doctors feared her; Generals Grant and Sherman respected her), and their contributions to the war effort through, sewing, baking, etc.
During that war, the nation turned to women’s sphere for help, and women responded enthusiastically. They wove, knit, spun and sewed; they made clothes, blankets, socks, mittens, hats, uniforms, bandages, lint, and charpies. They ran farms and stores and raised children while their husbands were fighting. A handful of women disguised themselves as men and fought. Some women followed the troops to be near and care for their loved ones. Not uncommonly, women followed the regiments to wash clothes! (pic source)
I do not think the Civil War would have lasted four years without women’s contributions. I think the role of women during the Civil War deserves more than a five-minute abbreviated review. Of course, I have four more episodes to go; perhaps Ken Burns will remedy this oversight. (I’m not holding my breath.)