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The Trimming Shop: 1865

The Trimming Shop: 1865

April 1865. Washington, D.C. "Workmen in front of the Government [Wagon] Trimming Shop." Civil War archive, wet plate glass negative. View full size.


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Representative of the population.

A little perplexed at the comment about all white men. No black men here , but then a war was going on to set that race free. Perhaps a little early for the diversity police. As far as no women in this particular work place, society as a whole has some evolving to do first.

I wonder if 150 years in the future when, for all we know, vegetarianism is universal, if the Shorpy postings on page 65,914 will contain remarks about photos of a little league team at McDonalds: "Cute little guys, too bad they are all participating in the slaughter and consumption of bovine brothers."

Army Architecture

Long, white, two story wooden frame structure with lots of windows. Looks like what would become the standard US Army barracks buildings of World War 1 and WW2 fame.

Bench vise

The four sawhorse looking things in the front row are harness makers' vises (also known as saddle maker's vises when used for that purpose). The harness maker presses his right foot down on the lever and the jaws clamp the piece of leather, freeing up both hands so that he can sew or trim. Here's an older one:

harness vise

The fellow on the right with his arm propped on the wagon wheel is holding a saddle maker’s hammer, used for driving tacks in very hard to reach places. Jumping two places to his right, there is a short fellow with canvass over his arm who is holding canvass shears, while the chap above him seems to wield leather shears. The watch chain wearing man in-between the two vises on our right is holding a straight edge rule and a harness maker’s/saddlers’ draw-gauge – used for cutting out lengths of leather for straps, belts, reins, etc. The fellow over his right shoulder holding the gutta-percha tarp must make the waterproof covers that top the canvass as seen on the wagon to our left. His hand rests on the shoulder of a guy pointing his round knife right at the camera. The man with the striped tie and leather cap sitting above our left-most vise is holding another harness maker’s/saddler’s round knife so that we can see the shape of the blade. The man standing to his right has a coach trimmer’s hammer. I’m not positive, but the fellow sitting on the wheel to our left looks to be holding a screw-crease. That is an adjustable tool that is heated and used to etch a line along the edge of a harness strap to help to seal in the fibers.

The wagons themselves are Rucker style Army ambulances, designed by Brigadier General D. H. Rucker. They were introduced in the latter part of the Civil War and could carry patients in either sitting or prone positions. This model proved to be the most serviceable of nearly a dozen or so designs that were in the field at that time. All of the Rucker style ambulances were built at the Government Repair Shops at Washington, of which the Trimming Shop was part.

The odd hammer

I believe that is a tack hammer for setting carpet and upholstery tacks.

Vastly More Conveniences

The craftsmen in the first row are straddling specialized tools. Are there any leather or canvas workers who could shed light on their purpose and function?

Stoddart's Encyclopaedia Americana, 1883

The materials used in trimming carriages are leather, rubber, metals, and cloth. The art of carriage-trimming consists in fitting the top or hood; upholstering the seats; covering the wooden and iron portions of the tops with leather, rubber, and cloth; making the dash-boards, lamps, whip-sockets, cushions; and, in short, decorating and finishing the interior and all the parts not painted or varnished. There is field in this work for the display of considerable artistic skill, and in this respect the work of American shops appears to be fully equal to anything seen in Europe. At the same time, American carriage trimmings and fittings show a greater variety and more freedom in decoration, with vastly more conveniences, than English or French work of the same class. Nickel- and silver-plating is much used in American trimming to protect metallic surfaces exposed to much wear.

Best Dressed Trimmer

The fellow in the dapper Wyatt Earp style clothing has outdone them all with his velvet tapestry vest, gold watch fob, jaunty Derby and male model stance (slightly right of center, below the "M" and "I" in the sign). His clothes are not new, they've seen lots of service and could use a "clean and press" but he's well put-together and had elegant taste. Perhaps he was a salesman or advertising rep as he makes a good first impression.


Best I can tell, everyone is wearing a hat. All the clothes, boots, and hats, etc. must be mostly handmade. What is that odd hammer that the fellow leaning on the wagon wheel is holding used for?

I always wonder the age of the oldest person, maybe someone in this photo was born in the 18th century!

Assorted Hats

Interesting assortment of hats. Apparently social mores required the wearing of a hat, but it made no difference what it looked like!

Oh, man, a freezer AND an oven of a building!

In DC, too. You're wiggling blue fingers and toes in the winter, "chill-blained." Then you're poaching like a fish in the summertime, swatting at mosquitoes as big as a bean! Point to this photo next time someone waxes lyrical about "old-fashioned American hand-made quality". Those windows must rattle with every passing breeze; they leak like sieves, both air and water; they have a broken pane replaced with thin balsaboard or chipboard.

But I love the wavy glass.

Most of all, though, I love the humans. Here is a whole workplace full of craftsman in highly skilled specialties. They all work with and make *things*. They may be wheelwrights, saddlers, ropeturners, carpenters, draftsman, barrel- and hoop-makers, even cobblers and bootmakers.

But they all share a common language of, and reverence for, working with, constructing and repairing objects, material things. They may be artisans, but they are all craftsmen.

They are all at the top of their game. They have been chosen to care for the wagons of the largest standing Army in the world at that time. They are all supporting their families on their earned wages. They are bond in a psychic union of workers, men of strength, technological know-how, self-determination, and practical expertise.

Yes, all white and male. But magnificent nonetheless. Where is the like of this photo to be shot today?

[BTW, I showed this photo to my 18-year-old son, who asked "How did they get that three-D effect back then?"]

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