Combat Canvas:

How Industrial Fabrics Fought in American Wars
Compiled From U.S. Army Sources: by Michael Ravinitzky
With cooperation from

Supplying troops with canvas products has been a major-league headache from winter privation at Valley Forge to the high tech army of today.  Over the years, the military provisioners have dealt with a wide range of important logistical questions.  How can the army purchase one set of products and still allow for the unpredictable?  How do you economize in peacetime, yet prepare for the eventualities and shortages of battle (another form of what Clauzowitz called " the fog of war?") How can the government get goods "made to spec.", have those goods remain able to perform in all conditions without incurring unreasonable costs. How do burdensome specifications fit the equation?

Junius Millard, writing in the Quartermaster Review (Nov-Dec 1950, Page 28) defined a specification according to an irate contractor as:

"…a voluminous and painstakingly dry document designed to harass, hamper and confuse the manufacturer, disturb the digestion and emotional stability of congressmen, gnaw at the very foundation of democracy and provide simultaneous discrimination against both "Big" and "little" business.  It was written as a masterpiece of incoherence by a man who never saw the commodity specified and for the bidders that won't read it anyway  The item detailed bears no relation to reality, as it cannot be produced as specified, and would be worse than worthless if it could.  It is hopelessly incompatible with current production techniques, utilizes materials that are not available, was three years out of date when published, and cost more to write than the items described herein."

IN a time of revolution

"No body ever heard of a Quarter Master in History" wrote Major Nathanael Greene, in response to General Washington's request for him to serve in that capacity.  It was only out of patriotism and personal devotion to the commander-in-chief, General Washington, that Greene agreed to accept the post of Quartermaster General in the Continental Army.  Greene was the third of four men who served in this thankless yet critical task during the revolutionary period.

During the Revolutionary War, most of the Continental Army lived in the field, sheltered in tents during campaigns,  Tentage was always scarce during the war.  Dependent on the importation of duck (cotton, hemp pr linen canvas fabric) for tents.  Washington in 1775 wanted the troops to tale good care of the tents they already had.  As soon as the troops mover into winter quarters, he ordered the tents that had been in use returned to the Quartermaster General.  Thus begun the policy of turning in tents at campaigns end to be washed and repaired by "artifiers", stored and reissued for use in the next campaign under the Quartermasters direction. ("Artifiers" was the name given to canvas product craftsmen and fabricators of that time.)

The Continental Army in 1775 was undisciplined.  Despite repeated orders, Washington found tents "standing uninhabited and in Disgraceful and Ruinous Situation" after some of his men had been "quartered" in houses in January 1776.  The troops did not improve proper storage and maintenance as time passed.  A visitor to Fishkill, N.Y., in December 1776 found tar, tents, and other Continental Stores "wasting to a great degree."  The tents were in a heap, wet and consequently rotting, Deputy Quartermaster James Abeel still later charged that many tents had been lost in the campaign of 1777"owing to their lying wet in the wagons."

With such loss in mind, Abeel asked Quartermaster General Greene at the end of the 1778 campaign to have all tents dried and sent to Morristown, N.J. for repair if the troops were returning to New Jersey. (in those days, the ebb and flow of military campaigns coincided with the seasons, as fighting was not practical in the cold winters.

Two congressional committees, the  "Secret Committee" and the "Committee of Secret Correspondence" were actively engaged in the importing clothing and textiles.  Among the goods to be imported as soon as possible were: 60,000 striped blankets, 20,000 yards of brown and blue broadcloth, 10,000 yards of colored facings, 3,000 pieced of "duffield"*, 3,000 pieced each of raven;s duck and ticklenburg*, 1,500 pieces of osnaburg, 1,000 pieces of vitry* and 4,00 pieces of Hamburg dowlas*

Note: Duffield probably refers to low-quality heavy napped woolen cloth used for blankets and cloaks, which was the forerunner of the duffle bag used by soldiers to hold their possessions.  Duffel was a Belgian town south of Antwerp from which this fabric originally came.

Note: Dowlas was a low prices sheeting or toweling made from linen warp and cotton and linen fill.

Though tents-- belltents, horseman's  tents, wall tents, common tents for soldiers and marquees for officers--were essential items of supply in the field, their availability was dependent upon the importation of duck and canvas by private merchants or the Secret Committee, sent to Europe to garner critical supplies.  As in the case of other needed supplies, the Continental Congress unsuccessfully sought to promote domestic production of hemp, flax and cotton, and it recommended that the various legislatures considered ways and means of introducing the manufacture of duck and sailcloth.

Initially, until the Secret Committee was able to produce textiles abroad, the Quartermaster's Department had to rely on whatever fabrics could be found in the colonies.  The Continental Congress in the summer of 1775 applied to the Committee of Philadelphia for whatever quantity of duck, Rissia Sheeting, tow cloth, osnaberg and ticklenburg that could be produced in that city.  Any suitable fabric was in demand, for it required 21-1/2 square yards of duck to make a common tent for 6 men.  In October 1776, "country linen fit for tents" was selling at three shillings and sixpence a square yard, but prices spiraled upward with demand as the war continued.

Although the fledgling republic moved quickly to marshal the invaluable canvas under its control, textiles in the colonies quickly were depleted.  On August 30, 1776, Congress directed James Mease, then acting as its agent, to procure in Philadelphia any cloth fit for making tents, but the only supply available was a parcal of light sailcloth in the hands of the Marine Committee.  Congress directed the committee to deliver the sailcloth to Mease.  We must assume that this was done reluctantly due to the competing needs of the warships for sailcloth.

The Marine Committee complained, alleging that none of the Continental Vessels could sail if the sailcloth was taken.  It was told, however, that the soldiers would have tents even if "the yards of those Continental Frigates and Cruisers that had sails made up' had to be stripped.  As a result, a Committee of Congress reported "we now have a parcel of fine vessels lying here useless…"

How did the Marine Committee get its textile supply?  One important source was seizure of cargos from British merchant men.  A portion of the cargo's captured by the American Navy became the property, under prize regulations, of the Continental Congress.

At the same time, the Secret Committee was directed to write the Continental Agents in the Eastern States to purchase all the duck and other tent cloth they could procure in their respective states.

The colonies did not produce much cloth.   Colonial woman wove linen in their homes, but wool and woolens and canvas was scarce.  At the beginning of the war, the supply of clothing and blankets were dependent on what could be obtained by canvassing sources of supply within the states, even to the extent of making collections house to house of all articles that could be spared.  Congress supplemented this source by purchasing the importation of private adventurers (i.e., smugglers and privateers) and by utilizing the stocks of textiles found in the cargos of captured vessels.  Though the numbers of such prizes were taken, this source of supply was too precarious to depend upon despite the boldness of colonial privateers.

To meet the deficiency, Congress had to turn abroad and purchase textiles from France on credit.  Even before the Americans had arrived hat in hand, the French Ministry decided to offer secret assistance to the colonies (to divert the attention and resources of the British Navy).  A series of loans and subsidiaries of both from France and Spain provided many needed materials, including tentage.

Canvas was still at a premium.  Throughout the war, awnings and ships sails were utilized to provide tents, which led to a tremendous diversity in shelter among the troops.  The rendered William Emerson, walking among the camps in the Boston area, thought that every shelter represented the tastes of the person encamped in it.  He wrote:

"Some made of broads, some of sailcloth, and some partly of one and the other (…) Some thrown up in a hurry and look as if they could not help it--mere necessity--others are curiously wrought with doors and windows done with wreaths and wishes in the manner of a basket.  Some of your proper tents and marquees, and look like the regular camp of the enemy.  These are the Rhode-islanders, who furnished with tent equipage from among ourselves and everything in the most exact English taste."

By such means, the troops were at least partially equipped with tents at the beginning of the war, losses of tents at Fort Washington, N.Y. and in the evacuation of New York City, however, exacerbated the shortage.  The British raid against Danbury, Conn., in April 1777 caused a loss of 1,700 tents, among other critical stores, and struck a hard blow at the preparations the Quartermaster's Department was making for the 1777 campaign.

Late in May, the Quartermaster General reported that the preparations were complete except in regards to tents.  Washington studied Mifflin's account of the tents he had provided and concluded that some regiments must have drawn more tents than their share.  Subsequently, allowances for tents were established in the General Orders

Because fabric was in short supply, the Quartermaster's Department continued to be hard pressed to supply tents.  While attempting to repair tents during the winter, quartermasters had their artifiers convert the fabrics of tents that could not be made serviceable into wagon covers, forage bags and knapsacks.  Twine and cordage were very much in demand for making these products.  Deputy General Abeel complained that the repair work of his tent makers would come to a complete halt unless he was properly supplied with twine.

Inflated prices increase the difficulty of procuring new tents.  So hampered was the Quartermaster General that estimated American Troops would lack 1,500 tents if Washington's hope for a cooperative effort with Admiral d'Estaing materializes in the fall of 1779.  In consequence, Washington appealed to Massachusetts to furnish that number of tents.  The firm of Otis and Henley, which had been procuring duck and manufacturing tents to the department, extending credit for this purpose, was in dire need of cash to pay its creditors.  Greene promised relief and urged the partners to continue procurement.  So gloomy did the procurement in the following year become that Green proposed to obtain tents by allocating the number required to the seaport towns of the New England States and appealing to designated merchants there to obtain the tents.

In the fall of 1780, a report from the Board of War led Congress to order John Bradford, the order John Bradford, the Continental agent at Boston, to deliver all the duck he had suitable for tents to the QMG.  Pickering planned to order his deputy to receive the duck, make into tents and deliver the tents to Springfield, Mass. But Pickering got no duck, for Bradford said it was all needed for the Navy.

Still searching for duck in 1781, Pickering applied again to the Board of War for help with similar results.  Bradford choose to interpret to order narrowly: the heavy duck he had, he argued, was not proper for tents.  Pickering who expected this duck long ago, appealed again to the Board of War for help.  Apparently the Continental agent intended to sell the duck to raise money for the Navy, but the Quartermaster's Department had no funds to purchase it "We leave it to the determination of Congress, whether the essential article of tents is not of the most consequence to the public" reported the Board of War in late May, 1781.  Bradford had on hand at least 1,000 pieces of duck, enough for at least 3,000 tents, which were essential for the upcoming campaign in view of the uncertainty about state-supplied tents; (the states didn't yet feel obligated to follow the orders of the far-off congress.) Congress ordered delivery of Bradfords duck to the Quartermaster General, instructing him to use the suitable pieces for tents and to exchange the remainder, except what was necessary for other purposes in the department (such as wagon covers and sails for the Hudson River Craft), for light duck or other material fit for tents.

Neither on the eve of the Yorktown Campaign nor at ant time during the war could the Quartermaster's Department provide adequate supply of tents to Washington's Army.

In the second winter of the war (1777), Washington addressed the problem of transportation.  He was convinced that the great losses of 1776 had resulted from a lack of teams (of horses).  Accordingly, he suggested the manufacture of light, strong covered "chaises marine""--two wheeled wagons--to carry artillery and regimental ammunition.  A lack of duck no doubt hindered exploration of early military insight into the value of lightweight mobilization.

Against the Seminoles

As the War Department began to drive out the Seminole Native Americans from their homeland in Florida, they had forgotten the lessons of the Revolutionary War.  When the hostilities began in late in December 1835 the Army was surprised at the resistance to forced emigration and was even more unprepared logistically.  Knapsacks and tents were in short supply.  Only wall and common tent stocks left over from the War of 1812 were available because these items hadn't been purchased in 20 years since.  Articles were purchased in March, 1836, but most of these tents, knapsacks, haversacks, etc. didn't even reach the field in time for the campaign.

Subsequent campaigns against the Seminoles profited from the experience gained in 1836, and benefited from additional time to procure materials.  Thousands of common, hospital and wall tents were supplied from 1836 through 1841, in additional to corresponding quantities of haversacks and knapsacks.

At the beginning of the war, the government disagreed over the best type of wagons for Florida's often swampy interior.  General Thomas Jesup, who began his career in the Quartermaster Corps. Directed the supply of pontons wagons, which were lined with India Rubber Cloth (an early version of "coated fabric") and capable of sustaining heavy loads afloat while crossing rivers.  They were not designed for long term use with heavy loads on land, however, and thus misused, they didn't work as well as expected.

The ponton wagon was one of only a number of items that used India Rubber Cloth.  A ponton bridge was designed by Lieutenant J. F. Lane, who had been conducting India rubber cloth experiments in Boston, and later conducted and tested in Florida.  The Army tested Lane's India rubber pontoon bridge in September 1836 an Woolfork's Ferry on the Chattahoochie River. 200 men of the Regular Army marched in full battle gear over this 290 foot long, 13 foot wide bridge supported by 31 pontoons.

The Mexican War

In the spring if 1846, the U.S. and Mexico drifted into war; the Army called upon to apply logistical (supply) lessons it had learned during the seven years during the Seminole War.  Due to the distance of the conflict in Texas and California, hugh trains of 300 wagons were needed to convey soldiers and supplies.  The Schuylkill Arsenal, which had produced large quantities of clothing and boots, went into full production of tents as well.  By the close of the war, its employees were turning out more than 700 tents per month.  Only one tentmaker was on the payroll--the rest were contractors paid by the piece.  As in the past conflicts, an acute shortage of tents and of duck was immediately evident at the outbreak of war.  In 1846, tents equal to the old stock could not be furnished.  In order to give the troops shelter, Jessup decided to use cotton canvas instead of the imported hemp canvas, which was not available.

Initial happy to receive tents of any description, the recipients of the cotton tents found no shelter from the rain that turned the area around Camargo , Texas into a flooded quagmire.  Criticism was so universal that, in the fall of 1846, Jessup ordered the use of raven duck in the production of tents.  Unfortunately there was none to be found in the Philadelphia market.  Better tents became available only as the canvas duck market improved.

Army evaluated the wider use of India rubber cloth in products like knapsacks and canteens.  While a rubber cloth canteen permitted a quiet approach to the enemy.  The downside was that the drinking water quickly became warm.  Many volunteers threw out their rubber canteens in favor of Mexican gourds which kept the water cool.

Ever since a territorial government had been established in Utah in 1851, the misunderstanding between the Mormons and the Federal officials had led to the withdrawal of all but two of the federal representatives by the spring of 1857.  President Buchanan sent troops with his new civil officers for the territory, to establish Utah as a military department.  This military expedition illustrated the tremendous logistical problems involved in campaigning on the western plains, requiring more than 3 million pounds of supply.

Among the Army purchases during 1857 were 250 Sibley tents, receiving their first field use.  Invented by Major H.H. Sibley, the innovated 18 foot diameter circular tent had been under development since 1855 and was intended to accommodate 13 Calvary or 18 foot soldiers.

The Civil War

When Fort Sumpter was fired upon in April 1861, the level of preparedness for conflict was again at a low point.  Lincoln didn't call Congress into session until July 4, 1861, so no money was available for contracts or most material purchases.  But on April 15 Lincoln called out 75,000 militia for three months of service, and procurement measures had to be initiated immediately.  Oddly enough, the Quartermaster General of the U.S. (Union) Army during the first week of the war was later to lead one of the Confederate Armies!  General Joseph E. Johnston sent the first procurement order of the war, directing the purchase of enough knapsacks, canteens and camping equipage for 75,000 militia.

Though the sewing machine had been invented (by Elias Howe and others) and improved later by Isaac Merrit Singer, it was not used in the production of clothing during the Civil War.  Hand sewn garments were considered to be more durable.  Perhaps they were durable considering the then primitive state of sewing contraptions.  Machine sewing had been tried, but its use had been abandoned for coats, trousers, jackets and shirts.  Machines were used only for sewing caps and chevrons; articles that were not exposed too much wear and tear.  It's unlikely that heavyweight canvas products actually were sewing with machines until many years after the Civil War.

In 1900, 12 sewing machines were being used in the tent department of Building No. 2 of the Philadelphia Arsenal, operated by a 500 volt DC, 2 horsepower motor.

By May 1861, the call went out for clothing and equipage supplies for tens of thousands.  Unfortunately, the mills of the country weren't producing fabric fast enough, nor heavy enough gauge for Army use.  Once more there was a scarcity of Army Textiles of all types.

Blankets were in short supply immediately.  The Quartermasters purchased any blanket, of any color and any weight, so long as it was made from wool, and not cotton jute or grass.  Agents were sent to Canada to buy blankets, and more than 200,000 were bought from England.  Unfortunately, even some of the English blankets were made from old stocking yarns or shoddy materials.  Soldiers, on the first day's march, or in the earliest storm, reported one journalist, found their cloths, overcoats and blankets "scattering to the winds in rags, or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain.

Efforts were made early in the war to introduce the use of waterproof blankets.  In May 1861, the Quartermaster's Department indicated it had no intention of adding that item to supply, but some of the states equipped their troops with India rubber blankets anyway.  Soon other troops began to requisition them, and by September, Major General Montgomery Meigs requested a policy decision from the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, who directed procurement of waterproof blankets for use in camp.  Meigs then directed Colonel Crosman to procure blankets of several kinds of waterproof fabric.  At his orders, all were to be made with a straight slit and flap so they might be used as ponchos, and also with grommet holes at 14-inch intervals around the edge so that by lacing the blankets together they might be used as shelters in place of tents in bivouac.  Both India rubber and "gutta percha" blankets were used during the war,  but the field reports were mixed, so no single standard material was develop by the time the war ended in 1865.

During the Civil War, no textile was in shorter supply than duck needed for the procurement of tents.  The supply of tents on hand at the Philadelphia depot in April 1861 was soon exhausted.  For years the Army had relied on common A or wedge tent, the wall tent, and for winter use, the Sibley tent--the only large tent that had withstood actual service.  There wasn't enough material in the country, however, to provide such tents for all the troops being sent into the field.  Remember that most cotton came from the south--and supplies would not be soon forthcoming.  At the start of the war, however, some troops were supplied liberally with tents.  Except for hospital purposes, the use of large tents wasn't practical in campaigns.  To shelter the troops on active service, the Quartermaster's Department initiated procurement of tents made on the pattern of the d'Abri tent used by the French Army.  Thus the use of the shelter-half, so familiar to every American Soldier since 1861, was introduced to the American Army.

The small size of the shelter-half caused the soldiers to refer to them as dog-sized tents.  It was not unusual for a soldier to stick his head out of the opening and bark like a dog--hence the origin of the term "pup-tent".

In 1851, the first practical sewing machine was invented.  Ten years later, during the early portion of the Civil War, Gordon McKay had improved and pattened a machine for sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers.  The first inspection report of such shoes was unfavorable, but sample shoes tested in the field were so well received that procurement of machine-sewn shoes soon proceeded.  Not only McKay but other shoe manufacturers filled government orders; McKay astutely manufactured additional machines that he leased on a royalty basis to other shoe manufactures.



During the Spanish-American War in 1898, there were shortages of tentage duck once again.  In it, American Troops were sent to fight in Cuba and Puerto Rico.  When news arrived of Commodore Dewey's victory over the Spanish Fleet at Manila, it became necessary to send troops to the Philippines.  The U.S. also annexed the Hawaiian Islands on July 7.  All of these troops and expeditions required outfitting, and the canvas that was scrounged was of lesser quality.

The Quartermaster's Office had been prepared to outfit the Army for three months, but not at an expanded army of 10 or more times the peacetime force.  The logistics officers had been caught off guard.  Running out of kersey and khaki fabric for suits and trousers, the Quartermasters had makeshift canvas suits made from twilled or plain duck.  This material proved too hot for the troops in Cuba, Puerto Rico and other warm climates.  The ongoing problem of thermal regulation for soldiers remains significant for the military today, particularly with the hermetic sealing needed for much of today's chemical and biological protection.

Supplies of twilled and plain duck didn't become available until the fall of Santiago, Chile, in June, 1898.  Between May and August 1898, ten Quartermaster's Department issued 153,170 canvas uniforms, 650,000 tents and 372,000 half-shelter tents.

The demand for tentage increased because many troops in both active campaigns and camps were sick.  Thus, the issue of tents far exceeded regulation allowances and much tentage was required for ordinary hospital purposes.  The peacetime practice of manufacturing all Army tents at the Philadelphia Depot had to be supplemented by procurement under contract.  Tents were manufactured wherever and whenever skilled workmen were availiable.

For example, under special arrangements with the Post Office, the department's mail bag repair shop manufactured some 10,000 common and conical tents from fabric supplied by the Philadelphia Depot.  Government production of tents-- conical, common hospital, wall tents and shelter-halves--was pushed at the Philadelphia Depot, where the introduction of electric sewing machines, operated by women, expedited their manufacture.  Of the tents obtained during the months of the war, the principal purchasing depots procured more than 172,000 and the Philadelphia Depot manufactured more than 199,000.


The development of suitable fabrics for tropical climates began in earnest after the Spanish American War, as troops remained stationed in the Philippines and Cuba.  This was the highest priority for the Quartermaster's Department until the First World War, nearly 20 years later.

The Army needed to develop a domestic khaki.  Since doing so took some time, soldiers wore the white bleached duck clothing left in the depots from the Spanish-American War.

As rifles became more accurate and had greater range, soldiers began to require less conspicuous clothing.  Camouflage became the "stealth" of the era.  From 1900-1902, the Army tested the visibility of different colors, resulting in an olive drab color (better known as "OD") that seemed to work well.  Some veteran soldiers were unhappy to see traditional blue uniforms and equipment fall by the wayside.  Most, however, recognized the need for stealth in infantry combat.

Meanwhile, khaki was needed for summer wear.  Unfortunately, only one company held the secret for dyeing grey cotton to the khaki color and didn't want to disclose it to anyone, much less the competition.  In those days, the Army had no explicit contractual leverage over such matters.  To handle this problem, the Army gave up most of its khaki and went to an olive green ("OG") shade for the tropics and summer uniforms.  Eventually a serviceable lightweight olive drab was applied to summer clothing in the summer of 1912, as khaki disappeared from the inventory.

In 1916, General John "Blackjack" Pershing led U.S. expeditionary forces into Mexico in pursuit of Francisco Villa's (brother of Poncho Villa) band in the wake of the Mexican Revolution.  These actions quickly depleted the stockpiles of supplies on the eave of World War I.  The Quartermaster General was told that no special allocations were needed because the U.S. wasn't going to war--the Presidential Cabinet was sure of it.  Of course, events soon belied that belief.


During World War I, unprecedented quantities of canvas products were shipped to Europe from America.  This transshipment was costly and time consuming.  To repair items near the battlefields, the first Salvage Service depot was opened on January 13, 1918, at St. Pierre-des-Corps, France.  By the end of the war, more than 730 men and 5,300 women were repairing clothing, textiles and equipment.  Huge quantities of tent, harnesses, wagon covers, tarpaulins and haversacks were repaired or salvaged.

In those days, there was much controversy over the merits of per-diem (daily pay) verses piecework.  For example, in 1923, the Army decided to pay $3 per day for sewing machine operators (who were female) and $5.50 per day to tent-makers (male) based on the six months average piece-work rates.

During World War I, the Army expanded production at Pennsylvania's Schuylkill Arsenal.  There, it had more than 2,500 sewing machines, 100 devoted specifically to flag making.  In 1922, a shortage of tents led to the establishment of a tent shop on site.  24 sewing machines were assigned to making tents.  In 1927, the expanding factory took over the entire building, and 32 additional machines were installed.  Among the products made in Philadelphia were sleeping bags, raincoats, helmet camouflage covers, flag cases, emblems and flags.


Military canvas also met more humanitarian needs.  For 1838 onward, the Quartermaster Corps provided tents, cots, blankets, bed sacks and clothing to sufferers of tornadoes, cyclones, hurricanes, yellow fever epidemics, earthquakes, fires and floods.  The Mississippi valley experienced floods almost on an annual basis.  Usually, these "loaned" supplies were written off and "lost". In 1913 and 1927, floods reached disaster proportions.  The earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906 also required significant mobilization support.

Through 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt encouraged Congress to take steps to relieve unemployment.  Congress established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which enrolled 300,000 young men to work on forestry, erosion and flood control.  Where did the tents, cots, clothing and other canvas equipment come from?  Yes, the Quartermaster had large stocks on hand from World War I; any modifications needed were once again assigned to the Philadelphia Depot.

CCC demands required further expansion of the tent factory.  By the spring of 1934, the tent shop had 112 tent sewing machines in operation and could produce 200 pyramidal tents daily.  Another shop was established specifically for tent repairs.  In just four months of 1936, 27,000 pyramidal tents were completed for the CCC.

In 1938, tent manufacture was transferred from Philadelphia to Jeffersonville Depot in Indiana.  According to an Army historian's interview with Frank Euler, former chief of the tent making and repair units, Philadelphia only made prototypes and samples after that point, but kept the tent repair station in operation for several years.

The duties of classification of repair of tents were assigned to the Depot in January 1946, as material overseas began to return to the states.  More than 100 train car loads, per month of tentage was expected to arrive, so planning for this avalanche went into high gear.  Each advance planning, however, didn't prepare the Depot for the onslaught of damaged tents.  By August, there was "tentage alluvia the depot."  According to military reports.  11,000 tents had been classified, 106 carloads were on their way to the Depot.  That's not even counting the 100,000 tents waiting for classification.  And the 202,000 squad tents, 20,000 paulins, 20,000 shelter halves, 25,000 tent flaps, 15,000 miscellaneous pieces and countless thousands of other items en route for repair.

What's even more amazing is that the entire effort was handled by only 33 workers in the tent repair and classification sections.  Each week, 1,500 tents were classified; 400 of those needed repairs.  The repair section actually could handle only 200 each week.

The backlog continued into the beginning of the Korean War.  In the summer of 1950, steps were taken to reduce the backlog.  Repairs of the heaviest tents were let out on contract to commercial operators.  Although additional repairmen were needed, all qualified repairmen were busy repairing and modifying reserve parachutes needed on the Korean battlefront.

Inspection of overseas tents revealed that considerable damage had been done through the use of zinc grommets, which had corroded.  Replacement of the zinc grommets by brass grommets wasn't the answer because brass had corroded; damaging the fabric as much as had the zinc grommets.  Studies on tent storage indicated that the Army's tents would better be stored at a dry, warm site like San Antonio, Texas, rather than Louisville, KY.  Other studies looked at different types of duck, water leakage through the tent seams, permeability to rainfall, replacement of cotton thread in tents by Orlon acrylic, use of nylon fabrics in tents, fabric treated to resist the heat of stovepipes and so on.  The cessation of hostilities in Korea, by June 1953, led to the removal of tents from the Philadelphia Depot.


Again and again, the patterns of military canvas products supply mirror the reality of defense preparation from 1775-1939.  When any war broke out, the Quartermaster General was at once called upon to transport, shelter, clothe, equip and subsist a rapidly mushrooming force.  Congress then loosened the purse strings and placed ample funds at the disposal of the supply bureau, but haste made for waste.  Money could not buy the time required to manufacture and produce the supplies needed.  Therefore substitute articles, usually inferior to the standard items obtained in the past, had to be accepted.  Quartermasters promptly became the targets for criticism, much of which was unmerited, and Congressional committees sought the reason for supply failures.  As war progressed, the initial confusion and shortages were always overcome.  Galvanized into action, the quartermasters often achieved amazing results, supported by the tremendous production efforts of the country.  The costs, however, were high.

With the end of the war, demobilization was quick.  Rented storage facilities were returned to the landlords, which meant surplus supplies were dumped on the market at a fraction of their value.  Rigorous peacetime economies imposed on the Army meant that wartime reserves were used up, leaving matters unprepared for the next conflict.


Flag operations at the Philadelphia depot expanded greatly during World War II.  145 people were engaged in manufacturing flags, brassards, chevrons, guidons and markers.  They also made debarkation markers used in the Normandy landings in 1944.  The markers were six feet by six feet, made from fluorescent cloth with a special color and design for each type of supply.  When spotlights shined on those markers in the darkness, soldiers knew where to place the critical landing materials.  In 1944, those markers were classified "secret"--even the workers in the flag section didn't know their intended use, or where they would be emplaced.  After the war, the number of employees was gradually reduced and by 1953, only 45 people remained.

Parts of flags were cut in the Depot Factory cutting room.  Stripes were cut with a regular cutting machine; one hundred stripes cut in a single operation.  The material for the stars was stamped out with a steel cutting die on a electrically driven stamping machine.  Each time the press descended, 50 stars were stamped.  In one day, 10,000 were made.  These were attached to the blue background by a zig-zag sewing machine.

Flag durability was investigated by the Philadelphia Depot's Research & Development Division, which conducted tests looking for improved wear resistance of flags, more durable fabrics, better color fastness and greater strength.

From 1938 until 1953, the Philadelphia Depot Factory had a Miscellaneous Section that manufactured canvas items not in constant demand, and not requiring a regular shop.  Among the items manufactured were U.S. Treasury bags, duffel bags, barracks bags and two or three different kinds of sleeping bags.


Strategic metals like copper, brass, bronze and steel were precious commodities in the Second World War.  The Quartermaster Corps (QMC) attempted to find serviceable substitutes wherever possible.  Enamel coated iron or steel and zinc were evaluated for a number of items, including grommets, buckles, clips, loops and hindges.  Zinc sheet was used to replace brass in tent grommets, conserving 2 million pounds of brass in only six to eight months.  As a result, a number of other substitutes were made, and brass soon was virtually eliminated from the equipage items.  Through the director of the Military Planning Division was convinced that brass was essential for snap fasteners, the QMC allowed steel snap fasteners on some items.  One exception away from those moves was equipment intended for jungle use.  Here corrosion was too severe a problem and brass was retained.

Due to Japanese control of the rubber producing territories, rubber was under pressure as well.  The QMC had as its objective the elimination of rubber from the materials it procured, and it made surprisingly good progress.  Today's synthetic substitutes weren't available, so oil treated fabrics and synthetic resin coatings had to suffice for raincoats and other goods.  Waxes and other finishes had been found suitable to replace the chlorinated rubber formerly used in the water-replant and fire-resistant treatment of tentage duck.  Again, the need for rubber in jungle equipment was not questioned, and rubber coated fabrics were being used for food bags, boots and other critical items.

Shortages of cordage fibers such as hemp, sisal and jute also came into play.  Jute used for burlap bagging, was available from India, but shipping expense and hazards led to the QM General directing in 1941 that cotton cloth and bagging used in place of jute wherever possible.  The limited supplies of Manila hemp fiber were used for the best ropes, and cotton and jute had to suffice for many purposes.  Nylon was even better for climbing ropes, but it was a new material in critical supply for items such as parachutes.

Due to its origin, silk was perhaps in the shortest supply of all.  Silk thread was eliminated wherever possible, and rayon and cotton were used as substitutes.  Units and organizational banners critical for moral had been manufactured from silk, but June 1942, the QMC had developed rayon banner cloth which was approved for purchase.

From previous experience, the QMC knew that the facilities available for production of cotton duck, used for tentage, tarpaulins and many items of clothing and personnel equipment would be insufficient to meet all the needs in case of a great emergency involving the mobilization of a large army.  This situation had made the study of duck procurement one of the most important aspects of QMC procurement planning.

 But even before limited army expansion in pre-war 1940 forced departures from tentage duck specifications.  By November, officers were "securing practically every fabric that can be considered a possible substitute for the regular 15.5 ounce plied yarn duck". Substitutes, it was directed, were to me marked so as to be identifiable in the field.  Duck was eliminated from clothing.

After Pearl Harbor, the Army's duck requirements doubled.  Every effort was made to extend its production in the U.S. Carpet, plush, tapestry and upholstery industries were converted to its production despite a substantial increase cost to the government.  Efforts were under way to develop substitute material for the type of duck used in shelter tents.  In the face of enormous demands, specifications for numbered and flat duck had to be revised to include the more abundant double- and single-filled flat duck, heavy twill and other substitutes.  Concessions were made in the areas of color, weight and width eliminated differences between commercial and army production where possible.  The War Production Board (WPB) issued an order forbidding in general, the use of duck for civilian purposes, "unless such duck as been rejected as unfit for use by both the Army and the Navy of the United States".

Shortages of furs and "shearling" lambskin due to the establishment of large Army garrisons in Alaska in 1941 led the QMC to research alternatives.  The most promising were "pile" or plush fabrics covered with a closely woven, wind-resistant "windbreaker" shell.   Shortages of down led to experimentation with kapok fiber, milkweed fiber, curled chicken feathers,  kinked acetate and other materials.  Leather also became a critical material early in the war.

Nylon was a new plastic material which found varied applications in the Corps.  Unfortunately, nylon was the only satisfactory substitute available to the Air Forces for the Japanese silk formally used in parachutes: for fabric, lines and webbing.  The supply services had to due without, or make do with rejected parachute materials.  Only in 1944 did production catch up with the insatiable Air Force demand.


The improvements of water-resistant fabrics became a major area of research during the war. Before 1939, American servicemen (like most of the rest of the world) had fought in wool clothing. In 1939 Major General J.K. Parsons was directed to develop a lightweight field jacket.  The Adopted the layering principal: multiple layers of wind-resistant water-repellant cotton fabrics.  In 1934, the QMG learned about a series of fabrics developed at the British Textiles Institute.  These fabrics which incorporated the principle that cotton yarns swell up and close up the fabric pores when wet, were copied for American use.  It was learned later that these dense fabrics had an added benefit of protecting against mosquitoes.  A second layer of defense were new uses of water-repellant finishes, which also had to be launder-proof to survive field laundry conditions.

This research on water-repellency, flame-resistance and other factors like mold resistance was also applied to tents, tarpaulins, packs and other items of equipage.  Special protective clothing and equipment was designed for parachutists, armored and mechanized forces, ski troops and special forces serving in cold climates.

The shelter half was a piece of canvas that could be matched up with another identical piece carried by another soldier and set up as a pup tent.  Each shelter half consisted of a rectangular piece of canvas with a single triangular piece sewn to one end.  When two pieces were buttoned together and assembled, they formed a tent that closed at the rear and opened at the front.  In an effort to keep dry, soldiers hung their raincoats over the front of the pup tent when it rained, but this was still scant protection.  Though troops hated it in 1918, twenty years later in 1938, nothing was done to improve it.  At the beginning of World War II, all shelter halves on hand had been bought during the First World War.  One improvement was to sew a triangular piece on both ends to form a completely enclosed tent.  A shortage of duck didn't allow the production of tents with the new design, which would require additional fabric, until the fall of 1943.

The Quartermaster General looked at the idea of outfitting desert soldiers with a waterproof poncho instead of a shelter half and raincoat.  By 1944, a lightweight coated-nylon poncho was standardized.  This was a versatile item, because it could be used as a raincoat, an individual shelter, a sleeping bag, or when combined together, a tent.  By adding 10 buttonholes along the lower edge, the QMG determined that a set of six shelter halves could be formed into a six-man tent.  Because of the additional labor required to add these buttonholes, the contractors weren't told to start adding them until six months later, early in 1945

Sleeping bags had their own requirements: maximum insulation with a minimum weight and bulk.  The outer shell had to be water-resistant yet still permeable so body vapor could escape and prevent condensation inside the bag.  The bag also had to be easy to get out if, portable and washable.  Several problems with bags resulted in a series of changes.  The final design was standardized as the war ended in 1945.

Since World War I, Army tentage had been made of 15.5-ounce duck, colored to a khaki shade with mineral-based colors and then treated with aluminum acetate, soap and wax for water repellancy.  On the eave of World War II, the QMC adopted standard OD shade number 3 for all personal and organizational equipment that used duck and webbing.  Later to conceal military equipment and material more effectively, dark green OD shade number 7 was adopted because it was less visible from the air.

The Quartermaster Crops also decided to treat army canvas with a fire-resistant finish to protect against incendiary weapons.  The finish known as "746" had been developed during the 1930's through the efforts of private industry, the Agriculture Department and the Corps.  The downside of the finish was that it increased the weight of the fabric by nearly 50 percent.  In response, the QMC substituted a 12.9 ounce duck, making the weight gain more tolerable.

Chlorinated rubber also was common as a fire- and water-proofing agent for fabric.  Since both crude rubber and chlorine were on the list of strategic and critical materials, substitutes had to be found.  By the spring of 1942, waxes and other materials were substituted for the rubber.

Mildew resistance was a relatively new requirement for army tentage.  Before World War II, mildew-proofing was not a major American military problem because there was no extended combat in humid, tropical jungles.  To prevent service loss of men and their equipment and clothing through mold-rot and mildew, the Jefferson Depot began to study potential mildew-resistant compounds in the summer of 1942.  Although commercial fungicides were available, the army needed to evaluate their claims of effectiveness, durability and safety.

Research into the development of water-resistant fabrics was applied to heavier weight canvas used for tents.  From the beginning of 1944, the "high sley oxford" principle of construction (invented by the Textile Institute of Manchester, also referred to as "jo-cloth") proved critical in solving the shortage of cotton duck.  Flat ducks made with this construction were superior in water-repellency to the number ducks equal in weight.  This made possible the use of single yarn material in place of the piled yarn during the duck shortage then facing the QMC.

Development of newly designed tents began in 1942.  At the beginning of the war, the QMC was procuring and utilizing the pyramidal eight-man squad tent of World War I.  In addition, the Army used various other tents--command post, storage, hospital ward, surgical operating, and assembly--as well as a large wall tent, which served for general utility and a smaller one for officer's quarters.

This proliferation of tent types was untenable and the Office of Quartermaster General initiated the development of a 12-man tent to simplify tent purchasing and conserve cotton duck.  Since the Army had adopted the 12-man squad as a tactical unit, the new tent was called a "squadtent".  Twice as large as the pyramidal tent it was intended to replace, it used less material than two pyramidal tents.  The squad tent also was substituted for the storage, hospital ward and large wall tents.  But by the time the new tent became standardized in December 1942, more than one million of the four old-type tents had been manufactured.

The new squad tent didn't include any significant design changes.  Tent construction was still viewed as providing a specific amount of covered floor space by using conventional construction elements and available fabrics.  But early in the war, reports of excessive tent failures were received from the Pacific Theater.  Originally thought to be inadequate in terms of fungal protection, it was soon determined that basic structural weakness existed in Army tents.  Because the entire support of the team was provided by the roof fabric, concentrated stresses at several points led to excessive elongation of the fabric, leakage at the seams and finally, fabric failure.

The University of Louisville contracted to study these problems.  The result of the study suggested certain structural changes in tent design, among which was the use of cotton webbing frames to carry the roof load while the roof fabric was laid on the webbing and stitched to it, but the roof itself carried no loads.  Unfortunately, these valuable improvements weren't applied during the war due to material shortages.

All silk in the US was reserved for government use in mid-September, 1941.  Although silk was a critical war commodity (Finish with material from the Farchild Book)

Many will be surprised to learn that sleeping bags were added to the American soldier's kit in World War II.  The first was a woolen sleeping bag in the spring of 1944.  Next came an arctic sleeping bag, large quantities of which were manufactured after the war.  It wasn't until 1952 that the army started to develop a feather-filled sleeping bag comforter, which had a great weight savings.  The Philadelphia Depot geared up for production, but then the order suddenly came down to cancel the program.

The Army's textile research and development laboratories were established in Philadelphia, Pa. In 1934 and moved to Natick, Massachusetts in the spring of 1954, where they've been ever since.


Supplying Washington's Army, by Erna Risch,  US Army Center of Military History, Washington, DC 1981

Quartermaster Support of the Army, A History of the Corps.,11775-1939 by Erna Risch, US Army Center of Military History Washington DC 1989

Manufacture of Clothing, 1945-1953 by John V. Haggard, QMC Historical Studies, Series2, No. 1, Office of the Quartermaster General, Washington, DC 1956

The Quartermaster Corps: Organization, Supplies and Services. Vol. II by Erna Risch. Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, DC, 1955. (First printed 1953)

The Quartermaster Corps: Organization, Supplies and Services. Vol. II by Erna Risch and Chester L. Kieffer, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, DC, 1955.  (First Printed 1955)

Thread of Victory: The Conversion and Conservation of Textiles, Clothing and Leather for the Worlds Biggest War Program, by Frank L. Walton, Farchild Publishing Co., New York, 1945.

Procurement of Clothing and Textiles, 1945-53 by John V. Haggard, QMC Historical Studies, Series II, No. 3, Office of the Quartermaster General, Washington, DC 1957

Supply by Sky: The QM Airborne Development, 1950-1953 by William H Peifer, QMC Historical Studies, Series II, No. 2, Office of the Quartermaster General, Washington, DC 1957.

updated April 12, 2000