JAIC 1987, Volume 26, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 121 to 129)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1987, Volume 26, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 121 to 129)


Ann Cordy Deegan


The U.S. Army pre-tested Cowles's process from 1869 to 1871 before investing heavily. Additionally, the Quartermaster's Department required field testing of Cowles's-treated items. Two Quartermaster Boards of Inquiry investigated the efficacy of this process and requested more tests.26 All testing results (from historical records) have been divided into end-use catagories: water, mildew, and mothproofing and side effects.

Waterproofing. Quartermaster's Department tests and field officer responses indicated that Cowles's process caused cotton tents and woolen garments to be water-repellent.27 Civilian users also liked the water-repellency for both cotton and wool. The New York City Metropolitan police treated their overcoats with Cowles's process as did several awning and tent manufacturers in New York City.28 No responses directly related to cotton waterproofing appeared in the field reports.

Mildewproofing. All tests by the Quartermaster's Department involved Cowles's-treated cotton tents both wet and dry, indoors and outdoors for no period exceeding 16 months. These tests indicated that the treatment protected somewhat from mildew.29 The testing was done on very few samples so the results are hard to generalize. Conditions did cover severe testing extremes of soaking wet and hot along with direct dirt contact.30 No negative mildewproofing responses were received from quartermaster field officers. Field reports came from forts both in cool and in humid, warm areas.31 Based on Quartermaster's Department tent tests and officer reports it appears that, for cotton, the Cowles process may have had some mildewproofing virtues.

Mothproofing. This was the most controversial area related to Cowles's process. The Army wanted to safeguard its woolens in storage and had an urgent need to find a safe, cheap, and effective means of doing so. There were numerous Quartermaster's Department tests related to mothproofing and field test reports.

Use of Cowles's process resulted in less moth damage than that on untreated items both in terms of numbers of garments attacked and severity of damage on each garment. The treatment apparently repelled moths and/or slowed their activity. This slowing behavior was noted by a military storekeeper who had seen several thousand Cowles's-treated garments:32

In some instances moths have been found on this clothing, but generally near the edge of the package, and when found seem to be in a torpid or inactive state, and their work upon the material is scarcely perceptible.

Shipping boxes and bales for clothing were lined with petroleum paper (contents unknown) filled with garments, covered with plain wrapping paper and wrapped with burlap and canvas.33 By 1873 two coats of paint were applied on the outside to prevent the entrance of moisture.34 The 1874 Army Board of Inquiry found that “proper” baling appeared to be an effective deterrent to moths.35 However, exposure of opened or broken bales and loose garments in storage revealed that treated items suffered less from moth damage than untreated ones.36

Side Effects. Very few complaints were received about appearance changes in treated items. Those that occurred centered on ease of staining and color change of blue fabric to yellow-brown, dull blue, or dirty blue.37 One officer mentioned that after he had washed the Cowles's-treated garments, the fabric stains spread and then became fixed.38 It is possible that the fabric may have become oleophilic after treatment with Cowles's process due to the olive oil used. Certainly the glue/gelatine used could make the fabric tacky and allow dirt to adhere to the fabric.

Soldiers also commented that Cowles's items sometimes felt stiffened, coarse, and easily creased.39 Cowles pointed out that some of the fabric had been treated by a singeing process after the Cowles treatment (by Army orders and by another company) which he felt might have caused a harsh hand.40 Singeing is the application of flame to the fabric just close enough to the surface to burn off protruding fibers.41 Stiffened fabric could also result from excessive solution retention on the fabric.42

Several officers noted that woolen fabrics were warmer, firmer, thicker, and stronger after Cowles's treatment.43 The Board of 1874 was of the opinion that this was due to the fulling action of the water on fabric in the Cowles processing.44 Fulling is accomplished by taking fabric from the loom and subjecting it to the action of water, pressure, and heat, causing the yarns to swell and shrink towards one another making the fabric thicker and less air permeable (warmer and firmer).45 The Army did not require fabric fulling prior to enlisted men's uniform manufacture during 1869–1876.46 This fulling could be helpful in identifying Cowles's-treated uniforms only if subsequent washing of the garment (after manufacture) or other processing did not also create a fulling effect.

Copyright 1987 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works