Silk in Service

By Chris William

Popular soldier souvenirs for more than 100 years

Becoming popular in the late 19th century, decorated silk objects were popular with soldiers want to send something home that would cast a “softer” side to the realities of military life.

Throughout the years, countless US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines left their families and friends to travel across the globe in order to insure the freedom of their country. As many of these young men and women were away from home for the first time, they corresponded with family and friends and sent home small souvenirs to commemorate the places and events the service members were experiencing. Some of the most colorful (and flamboyant) examples of these curiosities were the silk and other fabric creations hand-made by local crafts people or massed-produced for purchase at or near military bases.

Wall banners, complete with poetry were popular back home, along with handkerchiefs and head scarves.

Silk souvenirs centering around patriotism and military life began in the later 19th century when exotic materials became more readily available. Printing techniques further advanced making it possible to manufacture inexpensive items to meet the wants of young soldiers and sailors. When WWI stormed across Europe, silk was joined by wool, cotton, and other materials in the construction of a myriad of pillow and handkerchief cases, small banners, handkerchiefs, embellished postcards, and many other items that returning doughboys purchased as remembrances of their service. Items could range from cheaply printed commercial pieces to elaborate, one-of-a-kind, hand-sewn creations.

Early silk handkerchiefs, such as this naval piece from the 1890s, became available as materials and techniques improved.

During the Second World War, military bases filled with new recruits training for the battle fields of Europe and Asia. Souvenirs featured patriotism as the main theme on silk, artificial silk, and other fabric pieces, showing colorfully rendered planes, ships, armor, and infantry — most surrounded by fringed edges. These were often sent home in cardboard envelopes or small boxes, printed with places for names, addresses, and postage (if required). In foreign nations, local artisans supplied soldiers with a variety of material art, often as soon as the fighting stopped and their business of making a living could be resumed.

Some of the more elaborate pieces came from the China, Burma, India (CBI) theater, such as this heavily embroidered pillow case with the theatre shield.

The artistic peoples of the China, Burma, and India (“C.B.I.”) theatre of operation produced some of the most colorful and unusual items, incorporating their own flare. Their  brightly decorated souvenirs usually feather exotic, hand-embroidered themes.

After WWII, the production and sale of silk like items continued as the Korean, then the Vietnamese Wars raged in the East. Jets now replaced propeller-driven on the printed pillow cases, table silks, and other bits and pieces of art work. The southeastern Asian culture and art forms were reflected in the jackets and robes, and additional objects now being sent home in the mail or stuffed into G.I. duffel bags.

Common WWI cases featured printed or machine sewn covers either addressed to a soldier’s family member, or his divisional information.

Because of the millions of examples that were produced and sold over the last 100 plus years, fabric souvenirs are fairly common. Generally, they tend to be quite inexpensive. Though shunned by some as being tacky and tasteless by today’s standards, they do represent the youthful interests of our valiant young men and women. These pieces add a colorful and vibrant addition to any historical military display.

Americans weren’t the only ones with silk souvenirs: German sailor Jakob Press, aboard the SS Preussen had this silk photo frame made on his pre-WWI trip to the Orient.

More unusual cloth souvenirs were produced such as this Camp Chaffee Ark., overseas cap for a young boy or girl.

Silk sewn postcards were produced by French and Belgium artists and sold to the Americans.

Not all souvenirs were in the best of taste! This little Belgium boy (“Manneken Pis”— a small statue in Brussels) shows his disdain for the Nazis.

WWI multi-piece covers featured unit designations, such as the 128th Infantry, National Guard-decorated piece.

A favorite souvenir among US Navy personnel during WWI was a silk pillow case imprinted with a sailor’s particular ship, in this example, the USS Louisiana.

The Second World War created an explosion of G.I. souvenirs, such as this 5th Army cover from Italy.

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