Word With a Past: Shoddy

In the early nineteenth century  British textile manufacturers began to recycle woolen rags into a an inexpensive woolen cloth.  The rags were shredded into fibers, mixed with new wood, and then spun and woven into the cloth, which was known as “shoddy”–a term that may have come from an old word meaning divide.*  The process was such a success that wool rags for the textile mills were collected all over Britain.  For several decades, shipments of rags even arrived from continental Europe.

Civil war soldier

Civil war soldier

By the mid-nineteenth century, shoddy was exported to North America in large quantities, where it was available in the American Civil War when the need for Army uniforms put wool cloth from the New England textile mills at a premium.  Some clothiers, most notably Brooks Brothers,** used shoddy instead of wool to make uniforms and blankets for the Union Army.  (I assume this was war profiteering rather than sabotage.) Some soldiers complained that the uniforms melted to rags in the rain.

As the war went on, profiteering and graft ran rampant.  Contractors sold the army tins of spoiled meat, boots with soles made from glued together wood chips*** and unserviceable rifles.  The material from which inferior uniforms was made became a description for every piece of second-rate, badly made material that was foisted off on the Army.****  The contractors who made a killing on supplying the war were given the derisive nickname “the shoddy aristocracy.”

Shoddy. adj.  Made of inferior material .Cheap, inferior, shabby, dilapidated.

*An etymology I offer with hesitation, as does the OED.

**I was shocked.

***Try marching in those.

****Probably with the connivance of a quartermaster or steward on the take.  Graft happened at both ends of the supply chain.





  1. Bart Ingraldi on July 13, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    There’s nothing shoddy about this post!

    • pamela on July 16, 2016 at 4:23 pm


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