Featured Article (from Vol 1 No. 2 and "Matchcoats, Revisited" in Vol. 3, No. 4)

Clothes Lines: On Matchcoats

The matchcoat is today being worn by many reenactors. Much of the primary source documentation has been gleaned from traveler's accounts, as well as from a fine book on Native American dress called Their Bearing is Noble and Proud; A collection of narratives regarding the appearance of Native Americans from 1740-1815. This is a well-researched compilation of quotes from primary sources edited by James F. O'Neill II (J.T.G.S. Publishing, Dayton, OH, 1995; $20.00). It may be purchased from Wilde Weavery and Trade Co.

Some accounts simply describe a manner of wearing the garment that has come to be known as a matchcoat, rather than calling it by that name. Of this type is the quote from the naturalist Peter Kalm, who traveled extensively through this country in the 1740's and 50's. In a listing of "Goods Sold to the Natives by the French," Kalm includes "Pieces of white cloth, or of a coarse uncut material. The Indians constantly wear such a cloth, wrapping it round their bodies. Sometimes they hang it over their shoulders; in warm weather they fasten the pieces round the middle; and in cold weather they put them over the head. Both their men and women wear these pieces of cloth, which have commonly several blue or red stripes on the edge" (Peter Kalm; Peter Kalm's Travels in North America; the English Version of 1770; Dover Publications, NY 1987; p. 519).

A similar description is from Pierre Pouchot: "The Indians fasten their blankets below with their belts, and make them pass over the head like a monk's hood, arranging them so well that they only expose their nose and hands" (Pierre Pouchot, Memoir upon the Late War in North America, Between the French and English, 1755-60; W. Elliot Woodward, Roxbury, MA, 1866, Vol. II, p. 215).

Words often shift meanings with usage, locale, and time; the word matchcoat may just be a prime example. Watchcoats were worn by those of European extraction as noted below; a garment called a "machigode" or "machicote" worn by Indian women was the equivalent of a petticoat, as mentioned in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Pouchot writes of the "machicote" in his memoirs, stating "The [Indian] men sleep entirely naked; the women wear only the machicote, for the sake of decency . . . .The women wear an under petticoat called machicote, made of an ell of blue or red cloth . . . .The lower edge is ornamented with several strips of yellow, blue and red ribbon or English lace. This arrangement resembles a woodsman’s skirt. It is held up by nothing more than a strap around the waist. The chemise goes over the petticoat and covers it entirely. . . .The men instead of a machicote, wear a breechcloth" (Pouchot; Vol. III, On the Manners and Customs of the Indians of North America; p. 442).

The French soldier J.C.B. (author of Travels in New France, 1751-1761), also refers to this garment: "This skirt, called a 'machicote,' reaches only to the knees . . ." (Qtd. O'Neill II, p. 29).

Though it appears that the word "machicote" may be the genesis of "matchcoat," it is quite possible the words were understood at the time to be quite different, since the former is so obviously a woman's garment in these accounts.

A contemporary note from Lieut. Henry Timberlake's 1756-1765 memoirs describing the costume of the men is quoted in Their Bearing is Noble and Proud: " . . .a large mantle or matchcoat thrown over all completes their dress at home . . .(Qtd. O'Neill II, p. 35). And later, ". . .two yards and three quarters make a match coat and leggon. . ." (Qtd. O'Neill II, p. 36). The Rev. David Jones made a similar observation in 1772-73: "The men wear shirts, match coats, breech clouts, leggings and mockesons, called by them mockeetha" (Qtd. O'Neill II, p. 42).

This garment must have been quite common, as Col. Henry Bouquet included in his 1754 list of Indian goods, "518 blankets, 60 English Match Coats, 80 White French ditto very coarse, 120 Brown french ditto very coarse."

David Zeisberger described the matchcoat in 1779 in Ohio: "If an Indian has a Matchcoat, That is a blanket of the smaller sort, a shirt and brich clout, and a pair of leggins, he thinks himself well dressed. In place of a blanket those who are in comfortable circumstances . . .wear a strowd, I. e., two yards of blue, red or black cloth which they throw lightly over themselves and arrange much as they would a Matchcoat." (Qtd. O'Neill II, p. 52).

Nicolas Cresswell also noted the use of this versatile garment in his Journal: ". . . a matchcoat serves them for a bed at night" (Cresswell, The Journal of Nicolas Cresswell 1774-1777; The Dial Press, NY 1924, p. 121).

It is interesting to note how very similar to the Scottish mantle or arisaid the matchcoat arrangement is, with similarities to the machigode as well. It may be that although English didn't habitually wear a blanket or length of cloth in such a fashion it was certainly not unknown to those of Celtic extraction. In the book Tartan; The Highland Habit by Hugh Cheape (National Museums of Scotland; Edinburgh; 1991) we see a number of examples, including an 18th century man in shirt, trews (trousers) and cloak (from Samuel Rush Meyrick's The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands, London 1815), p. 10; a belted plaid worn much like a matchcoat from the National Museums of Scotland, p. 15. On page 16, a reclining Sir Duncan Campbell "wears 'a loose cloak of several ells', fastened with a brooch at the neck and belted at the waist" from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery that is indistinguishable from our current understanding of a matchcoat. In addition we find a comely barefoot lass on p. 34 wearing an arisaid or plaid in similar fashion, from the National Museums of Scotland collection.. (The plaid or "plaide" was properly a garment, not the pattern, which was referred to as a sett or tartan.) A very similar garment is shown on a woman in Five Centuries of American Costume, by R. Turner Wilcox, Chas. Scribner's Sons, NY 1963. It's little wonder the matchcoat was quickly adapted for use by Europeans and Americans, especially those of Scottish or Irish descent. (The editor thanks C. J. Wilde for the use of her copy of Tartan, The Highland Habit.)

George Washington wrote of traveling in December of 1753: "I took my necessary Papers; pulled off my Cloaths; and tied myself up in a Match Coat. [Some editions say "watch-coat"--Ed.] Then with Gun in Hand and Pack at my Back, in which were my Papers and Provisions, I set out with Mr. Gist, fitted in the same Manner, on Wednesday the 26th." (George Washington, Diary; Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA 1925, p. 63.) A footnote on this page references the matchcoat: "So called because made of skins that were matched in putting them together. There was a coarse woollen cloth known as 'match-cloth,' which was used by the English in imitation of the Indian skin coat. It is, of course, impossible to say whether Washington's coat was of skins or cloth" (Washington p. 63).

Elias Pym Fordham's 1818 description of his style of wearing his blanket may be one of the best description we have of the match-coat as we understand it today: "...over my great coat* I wore a blanket, pinned under the chin in the Indian fashion, and confined to the waist by a leather belt; to which was suspended a large hunting or scalping knife. Fifteen years ago, this was a common dress in Kentucky, as it is now on the frontiers of Indiana and in the Illinois Territory" (Elias Pym Fordham; Fordham's Personal Narrative, 1817-1818; Heritage Books, Inc., Bowie, Maryland, 1989, p.158). A similar method is demonstrated by Mike Alton in American Pioneer Video's "Pioneering; The Longhunter Series," Vol. 3, starring Mark Baker.

Another mention that may refer to a matchcoat-like arrangement of a blanket is this from Bradbury: "I wrapped a blanket round me, tied a black handkerchief on my head, and fastened on my belt, in which I stuck my tomahawk, and then walked into the village" (John Bradbury; Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811, U. of Nebraska Press, 1987, p. 63).

In Ste. Genevieve of 1808, Schultz noted a different use of a blanket by whites: "The majority of French in this place are almost as easily supplied as the native Indians: neither of them make any use of a hat or shoes; a pair of mockasons and a blanket seems equally common to both, except that the former will cut his into the shape of a coat [probably the capote or capeau], whereas the latter always prefers his loose" (Christian Schultz; Travels on an Inland Voyage . . . Performed in the Years 1807 and 1808; Gregg Press reprint, 1968; Vol. II, p. 56).

In Alice Morse Earle's Costume of Colonial Times, she defines the matchcoat as "The definition given two centuries ago by Governor Beverley of Virginia was this: 'The proper Indian matchcoat is made of skins dressed with the fur or sewed together. The Duffield matchcoat is bought of the English.' The name match-cloth was given to a coarse woollen cloth used for these coats, but duffels were chiefly employed in their manufacture. The derivation of the word seems uncertain. In Baragoa's Chippewa Dictionary the word matchigode is given for petticoat," a similar usage to those noted above (Earle, Empire State Book Co., NY 1924, p. 159.)

Duffel, also called Duffield, Shag, and Trucking-cloth, was commonly dyed red or blue to please the Indians of Virginia and New England, according to Robert Plot's 1677 report to the Witney, the town where duffels were woven. According to Plot, "their [the Indians] manner [of wearing them] being to tear them into Gowns of about two Yards long, thrusting their Arms through two Holes made for that Purpose, and so wrapping the rest about them as we our Loosecoats." Daniel Defoe wrote that "Witney 'Duffield Stuffs' were not only worn by the North American Indians but were "much worn even here in winter" (from Textiles in America 1650-1870; Florence M. Montgomery, W. W. Norton & Co, NY, 1984; p. 228).

*For an interesting study of greatcoats, see "The Great Coat in Early America," in the MOMCC Magazine, Vol. XVI, Number 3, by Sarah Wilson LeCount.

Bob Spencer compiled this comparison from the Pennsylvania Gazette, on the usages of the terms match coat and watch coat and kindly gave the Journal permission to publish it. He writes: "I, too, have been confused by the match/watch terms. I may be getting it surrounded. A search of the entire PA Gazette showed few references to either, but both are there, and used for what seem obviously different garments. I'm including all references to both. The 'match coat,' as used in the Gazette, invariably refers to Indians or blankets in some way. I believe this is the style used by re-enactors, which is simply the draped blanket, Indian fashion, cut only to proper length and wrapped around the body and over the shoulder or shoulders."

January 21, 1778 The Pennsylvania Packet ".....a tow cloth shirt, a white ditto, white plush breeches, speckled stockings, old shoes, and a match coat blanket.

October 6, 1768 The Pennsylvania Gazette "...it is probable he will change his Clothes, and get an Indian Match coat."

October 6, 1768 The Pennsylvania Gazette "They have likewise taken with them a pretty good feather bed, with Russia drilling tick, and three or four pretty good match coat blankets;..."

July 2, 1752 The Pennsylvania Gazette "...name Jehu, looks much like an Indian, and will endeavour to pass for such, when it suits him, having a striped Indian match coat with him, which supposed he will make use of for that purpose:"

March 2, 1758 The Pennsylvania Gazette "....and on his Return, dug up an Indian which they had buried, took away his Match coat, and scalped him with a broken Stone."

August 30, 1753 The Pennsylvania Gazette "The further Conference between his Excellency JAMES GLEN, Esq; Governor of South Carolina, and Malatchi and other Headmen of the Creek Indians, held the 31st of May, promised in our last.

The "watch coat", on the other hand, is obviously a much more civilized garment, tailored, even, with capes and buttons, etc.

April 18, 1745 The Pennsylvania Gazette "...had on a brown Coat, a blue Watch coat, Leather Breeches,..."

August 30, 1739 The Pennsylvania Gazette "...and stole from thence three Pieces of Portuguese Gold, and one small piece of Spanish Silver, a red Watch Coat not much wore, and is supposed to be now worn by the abovesaid Convict."

April 15, 1756 The Pennsylvania Gazette "Had on when he went away, A red duffel watch coat, with brass buttons, and an old grey broad cloth coat,..." \

May 9, 1751 The Pennsylvania Gazette\line "Had on when he went away, a red coloured watch coat, without a cape, a brown coloured leather jacket..."

The Pennsylvania Gazette is online, for subscribers to Accessible Archives. Contact them at Accessible Archives, Inc., 697 Sugartown Road, Malvern, PA 19355\line Voice: 610-296-7441 FAX: 610-725-1745or E-Mail jnagy@accessible.com


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