The industrialization of America caused by the Civil War resulted in a large amount of unused weapons, supplies, and clothing, beginning the world of Military Surplus in the states. The United States government elected to sell this surplus at auction to regain some of their investment, and a new industry was born. The first person to truly capitalize on this was Francis Bannerman, a young entrepreneur who immigrated to New York from Europe as a child. Recognizing the potentially enormous profit margins on the lots of military surplus, he began buying in bulk and selling to civilians. Civilians relished the opportunity to get quality clothing for cheap, and the surplus was purchased by labor forces, campers, and people who were financially devastated by the war. His business grew quickly, and as more wars started and ended throughout the world he would be there to buy out the leftover material. His business became so large that after the Spanish-American War, Bannerman acquired 90 percent of its available surplus. His storefront took up 40,000 square feet on Broadway, but with his growing number of live rounds (at the peak he had over 30 million cartridges), he began looking for another location to store his wares. He bought Pollepel Island in the Hudson River, a few miles north of the city, and began construction on Bannerman’s Castle, a storage facility modeled after traditional Scottish castle architecture. The facility was never finished, and Bannerman died in 1918 at age 67. After his death, Bannerman’s company began to falter. While many people wanted cheap, quality clothing, the real money-making products were the weaponry. Bannerman was selling rifles, swords, and even cannons and Gatling guns at a time before there was any regulation in this new industry. The sale of these items was made illegal, and suddenly a large chunk of the company’s product was worthless. Furthermore, the clothing was becoming more and more obsolete as World War 1 began, and no one was really buying 19th-century items from a collection standpoint yet.
The next era of American military surplus unsurprisingly was a result of the Arsenal of Democracy, a speech and then operation by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. After remaining neutral as Hitler invaded more and more of Europe, FDR decided that in order to support democracy America would produce military supplies for the Allied powers. Of course, this operation truly went next-level after 1941 when America fully joined the war effort. America went on to devote 74% of its GDP to materials for the war, which would outfit some 16 million combatants sent overseas to fight. When Germany was defeated, the Allied powers took control of their 18 million soldier’s supplies. Some of the equipment from the 6 million Japanese fighters was seized as well. Even after the majority of this material was destroyed, repurposed, or donated, there still remained warehouse upon warehouse of equipment that no longer had a use. By the 1950’s, the American economy was strong, and entrepreneurial civilians were trying to replicate the empire that Francis Bannerman controlled years previously. Military Auctions were incredibly widespread–so widespread that essentially anyone interested in opening a military surplus store would have no problem fully stocking their shelves, as there was so much product available. From this, the iconic army-navy surplus stores of the fifties, sixties, and seventies came about, and for these years military clothing was distributed widely for not just practical purposes, but as a fashion choice. The rugged style added a new flavor to the very traditional clothing of the fifties, and helped transition pop culture into the more relaxed and dynamic clothing of the seventies. In the late eighties, the supply of World War Two surplus clothing was finally dwindling, and prices began to skyrocket as consumers began to view it as collectable.
There was not a consequential amount of surplus from the Vietnam war in comparison to World War Two. Furthermore, American civilians were far less eager to adopt the clothing into their lives as the conflict was far from popular, as opposed to World War Two which both unified the country under patriotism and jump-started the economy. The same can be said today about surplus clothing from the many conflicts in the Middle East such as Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As many Americans disagree with the reasons we fought these wars, the surplus clothing is not as readily adopted by the general public. Early and mid-twentieth century American military surplus remains exceedingly popular as it gets ridiculously expensive and rare in countries like Japan and across Europe. As enthusiasm for American military surplus decreased, collectors expanded their interest overseas. Focus turned to international aesthetics, camos became diverse, cuts became varied, and suddenly the streets were filled with not just American military staples but full-length Balkan trench coats, Yugoslavian flight jackets, and German Army Trainers. As military garments appear both on the runway and the street year after year, it’s clear military surplus will continue to influence the way civilians dress for years to come.