Imagine it is March 1, 1863. You are sixteen years old and you have just enlisted in the Union Army. After you sign your enlistment papers, you are given an allowance to trade for food to tide you over until you reach your new training assignment. This is the scenario our great great grandfather Thomas Henry Brue Neff found himself in. Being only sixteen and used to the privations of farm life, he took his food allowance and quickly exchanged the entire amount for a lump sum of brown sugar. It must have tasted wonderful for a while. From the stories he told years later, brown sugar can get pretty tiresome if that is all you have to eat.
Thomas Henry Brue Neff, or THB as he was commonly called, was born in 1847 in Rockingham County, Virginia. When Thomas was seven months old, his father Jacob moved the family over the Blue Ridge mountains and settled on land in Upshur County in what would a few years later become West Virginia. Thomas served in the Union Army until June 1865 and participated in the battle of Winchester, Virginia. At the end of the war, he filed a claim for disability. The basis of the claim was that he developed rheumatism in December 1864 while on a raid from Winchester to Gordonsville, Virginia, and that the disease resulted from getting wet while crossing the Rapidan River and sleeping in wet clothing all night. He received a disability pension of $7 a month.
It was hard to stay dry with the fabrics and textiles available during the 1860’s. Only a few fabrics at the time were considered to be waterproof. Wool was frequently used. A good quality, tightly-woven wool fabric tends to be more water-resistant than water-proof. It quickly becomes heavy when wet and the smell is very similar to, well, a wet dog. Not the best way to make a good impression. Leather was also available, but it was expensive and required regular maintenance if it frequently got wet. Rubber was patented by Charles Macintosh in 1823 and used for famous Macintosh rain coats but, like wool, it also tended to be heavy to wear and was not common during the 1860s.
One of the best choices for a water-proof fabric at that time would have been oilcloth. Also known as enameled cloth, it was a tightly woven cotton or linen fabric with a coating of boiled linseed oil to make it waterproof. While oilcloth remained a popular covering for satchels, carriages, and luggage, waxed cotton began to gradually replace oilcloth for use in clothing. Originally developed for the sailing industry, it was made from cotton fibers impregnated with a paraffin based wax and then woven into fabric.
And what of umbrella options, you ask? Parasol patterns that I have seen seem to be made almost exclusively in silk or a fabric called poult-de-soie, which is a kind of silk. A kind of oiled silk was available for use in umbrellas, but parasols were more for sheltering delicate skin from the sun than for offering protection from the rain.
Such were your options when you wanted to stay dry, but what were your options if you intended to get wet? Patterns for bathing caps and costumes from the 1860s that I have studied all seem to be made from cotton flannel. I have to admit, the thought of walking out of a river or the ocean in yards of dripping, soggy flannel paints just about the most unattractive image in my mind that I can possibly imagine. I have absolutely no historical data to back this up, but I am thinking it would have been a whole lot more common and a heck of a lot easier to just go skinny dipping. Is that my ancestors I feel blushing as I type this?
My great great grandfather THB Neff, as he was called, probably never bought a parasol in his life. And swimming could be hazardous in Upshur, West Virginia. His daughter Sarah, our great-grandmother, went swimming in the Buckhannon River there and died of the bloody flux, which would have been some form of dysentery.
While his life had its share of tragedy, as in losing Sarah when she was only 34, THB Neff was also a lucky man. Having served under George Custer in the Civil War, he was anxious to join up again when he heard Custer was recruiting men to go west with him to fight the Indians. THB walked all night to get to the train station in time to meet the train, and was bitterly disappointed when he got there to find that he had just missed it. If he had made that train, rheumatism would have been the least of his problems, no amount of water-proof fabrics would have been able to help him, and his beloved daughter Sarah would never have been born. Life can be cruel, but it can also be kind.