Artifact Corner: Civil War Epaulettes

Hi everyone, and welcome back to another Artifact Corner. Today we will be looking at a pair of epaulettes from the American Civil War. These are a combination of materials, brass, leather, and fabric. There is also a button on the epaulettes with and eagle and crest. Inside the crest there is a capitol letter I. The I signifies that the epaulettes were worn by an officer in the infantry. So, we have a really interesting question, why are they in our collections?! We only had one family member who served in the Civil War, Frank Hall. But, Frank was a chaplain in the war, and he was never issued a military uniform. He wore civilian clothing throughout his time in the NY 16th Volunteers. So, either Frank was gifted or somehow ended up with these epaulettes, or they were donated to the museum at a later time. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of epaulettes.

An epaulette (which in French means little shoulder) is a type of ornamental shoulder piece or decoration used as an insignia of rank by armed forces and other organizations. The origin of our modern epaulettes start in the 17th Century. Military coats were decorated with bunches of ribbons, worn on the shoulders. These ribbons were partially decorative but also helped to prevent should straps from slipping. These ribbons were tied into a knot that left the fringed end free. This established the basic design of the epaulette as it evolved through the 18th and 19th centuries. Throughout the 18th Century and into the 19th Century, flexible metal epaulettes (which were often referred to as shoulder scales) were worn to designate the rank of the officer wearing them.

By 1851, in the United States the epaulettes became universally gold. Both majors and second lieutenants had no specific insignia. A major would have been recognizable as he would have worn a more elaborate epaulette, with the fuller fringes of a senior field officer. Epaulettes are fastened to the shoulder by a shoulder strap or passenten, a small strap parallel to the shoulder seam, and the button near the collar, or by laces on the underside of the epaulette passing through holes in the shoulder of the coat. The placement of the epaulette, its color and the length and diameter of its bullion fringe are used to signify the wearer’s rank. Although originally worn in the field, epaulettes are now normally limited to dress or ceremonial military uniforms. Today large metal epaulettes are not often used by the military. They have been replaced by cloth pieces that can be easily sewn in place and quickly replaced. Epaulettes have also become super popular in fashions today for both men and women. They can be a fantastic shoulder accent that can truly make any garment more chic.

Our epaulettes are in pretty amazing condition. The brass is in near mint condition, and the red leather covering the back of them is in quite good condition. The red silk and red velvet that form the shoulder piece is a bit more worn, which is to be expected as that is the part of the epaulette that would have had the most friction against the wearers uniform. These are in beautiful condition, and we are so lucky to have them in our collections, however they got here. Thanks so much for stopping by!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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