Winter Underwear and Union Suits

1.16.2022 [archived ~ previously published 1.8.2015]

1908 Sear & Roebuck Company Catalogue

The January 2, 1913, edition of the Bigfork Settler features an article titled “Winter Underwear – How to Make it Last”. Of course, the first thing that came to mind was long underwear. I consulted my 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue for additional information about longies, as we called them growing up, and discovered there wasn’t a category for long underwear. I soon found out why. All of the underwear, men’s, women’s and children’s was long (from the waist to at least the knee) so there was no need for a distinction!  I also learned that the selection was divided into summer underwear and winter underwear.

The summer underwear for men were made of cotton and sold in two pieces. The top was a long sleeved pullover undershirt with four buttons. The ankle length drawers (so called because they were ‘drawn on’) had three buttons at the fly. The colors available were blue, white and tan.

Ladies summer underwear was of white or ecru cotton and these too were sold separately. The top, called a vest looked like a modern tank top with ribbon and the drawers were lace trimmed in either knee or ankle length.

There was also winter underwear for both men and ladies which was made of cotton and lined with wool or cotton fleece. Again, they were two pieces, but the women’s vest was long sleeved and buttoned up the front like a man’s though it might have a bit of lace or ribbon at the neck.

The catalogue also advertised union suits for women, children and misses. Although I have worn long underwear during our coldest months most of my life, union suits were not a part of my wardrobe. I was surprised to see both summer and winter union suits.

The ladies summer union suits were short sleeved and knee length, with a low neck and of course, a drop seat. Some styles buttoned part way and most were in white, ecru or grey. Winter union suits were wool and fleece lined cotton and had as many as twelve buttons down the front. But there were no union suits for men!

Further research revealed that the union suit was patented in 1868 and was sold as a garment for women only. It is believed that ‘union’ referred to the uniting of the top and bottom pieces of underwear. Union suits were most likely always store-bought as the construction was somewhat cumbersome. They were initially made of flannel, and although not cited, it is believed they were red. While warm and cozy, flannel is a tight woven cloth and therefore had very little give to it. With the changes in manufacturing, cotton knit fabric was developed which had some stretch and was more practical for a one piece garment. As noted in the catalogue, the color red was not even listed as a choice.

So, when did men start wearing union suits and what were the color choices?  I referred to my other old Sears book dated 1908 and again found no mention of union suits for men. Based on the absence of them in 1908 and the newspaper advertisement that caught my eye in 1919, we can narrow it down to the intervening years.

I think we have all watched western movies and TV shows like “Little House of the Prairie” that depicted men in union suits – probably red – getting ready for a swim, a bath, or running from a catastrophe of some sort at an inopportune moment. The history detective in me wants to go back through the newspapers from 1908-1919 for the emergence of union suits for men; and determine if the classic programs appropriately dressed their characters for the time.

With the theme of winter underclothing I wanted to share a few amusing anecdotes I have saved for just this occasion. The first comes from Taito’s Stories – A history of Taito Mattila’s family in Deer River.(Compiled by the Mattila family in 2000 and is available for review at the Itasca County Historical Society.)  Taito relayed to his son an incident he recalled about an elderly Finnish neighbor, Andrew Niemela:

 The old smoke sauna Andrew had was pretty dark inside. Once in the wintertime, Andrew came in from there and told his wife there is something wrong with my underwear. They just don’t feel right. She said, well, let’s see what’s wrong. Here he had put his feet through the sleeves.”

The second anecdote is an epitaph for Peter Daniels from a 1915 issue of The Country Gentleman:                                                                                            

“Beneath this stone, a lump of clay

Lies Uncle Peter Daniels

Too early in the month of May,

He took off his flannels.”

Back to the article about mending winter underwear…it was very detailed in describing how to use an embroidery hoop to secure the damaged area, and carefully darn it using a small crochet hook. I would be happy to share it with anyone inclined to mend their long underwear or union suit.

And whether we call them long johns, longies, flannels, union suits and long underwear, it is essential that we keep a pair around, just in case it gets really cold this year. It is said that many people wore them from Halloween to Memorial Day. Some even say they wore the same pair…But I for one would not be doing any mending on them! 

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