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Where Do Historical Reenactors Get Their Gear?

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. With all eyes on America’s historic battlegrounds, it’s going to be a big year for sutlers, too.

Sutlers, historically, were civilian merchants who sold supplies to armies in the field and in their camps. They often followed marching soldiers across long distances, selling merchandise out of the back of a wagon. We still have merchants like this today—the defense contractors who supply the military with state-of-the-art equipment.

But there are also a handful of modern sutlers selling the same rifles, ammo and tobacco that they might have sold in the 1860s. Only these days they do it on a website instead of a field camp, and the shots and soldiers aren’t real.

When interest in the Civil War and reenacting bloomed during the war’s centennial in the early 1960s, entrepreneurs saw a need and filled it. Today, there are an estimated 50,000 historical war reenactors in the U.S., and a cottage industry of modern sutlers keep them – Union and Confederacy alike – supplied with the guns, uniforms and other gear they need.

In the American reenactment scene – which you might say was born on the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, when septuagenarian veterans from both the Confederacy and the Union returned to the battlefield to wave their canes at each other in a reenactment of Pickett's Charge – authenticity is a tricky thing.

While some groups and events are more strict about authenticity than others, most will attempt to at least conceal inauthentic items (water bottles, cell phones) from their audience and maintain gear that looks authentic from the distance where the audience usually stands.

No Knockoffs

The hardcore reenactors will only consider items with documented historical use during a given period. That's where the real money is for sutlers. These reenactors have been known to seek out subpar dental care, starve themselves, and soak their uniform buttons in urine in order to look just like Civil War-era infantrymen. They’re willing to pay extra for hand-woven, naturally dyed uniforms, period-accurate rifles, and even vintage pencils for taking notes and writing letters during their downtime at camp.

With a standard Civil War wardrobe and accessory kit retailing for about $1,000 and a rifle going for another grand, sutlers' business should be pretty good this year.

When business is a little slow with the reenactors, historic gear merchants still have other customers to keep the money flowing. Historic sites, museums and movie and television producers often call on them to create replicas of historic items for use and display. Some sutlers, like The Discriminating General — which American Spirit calls one of the big three companies cornering the reenactment gear market in the U.S. — also perform historical research and consulting services to museums, historic sites, and even private collectors and history buffs.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Difference Between Generic and Name Brand Ibuprofen?
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What is the difference between generic ibuprofen vs. name brands?

Yali Friedman:

I just published a paper that answers this question: Are Generic Drugs Less Safe than their Branded Equivalents?

Here’s the tl;dr version:

Generic drugs are versions of drugs made by companies other than the company which originally developed the drug.

To gain FDA approval, a generic drug must:

  • Contain the same active ingredients as the innovator drug (inactive ingredients may vary)
  • Be identical in strength, dosage form, and route of administration
  • Have the same use indications
  • Be bioequivalent
  • Meet the same batch requirements for identity, strength, purity, and quality
  • Be manufactured under the same strict standards of FDA's good manufacturing practice regulations required for innovator products

I hope you found this answer useful. Feel free to reach out at www.thinkbiotech.com. For more on generic drugs, you can see our resources and whitepapers at Pharmaceutical strategic guidance and whitepapers

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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