You Never Know . . .



You never know where research will take you.
My latest exploration into research involved underwear. Yep, underwear.
Specifically underwear in 1876.

More specifically, men’s underwear.

The problem: my hero is shot by my heroine. Oh, she has a good reason. He’s a marshal, and he’s after the man who raised her, the man she considers her godfather. While her ‘godfather’ might not be exactly innocent, he certainly doesn’t deserve to hang. And he’s just barely alive after being ambushed by bounty hunters. She has no option but to stop the marshal by any means possible, and that means a shootout in the street of a ghost town.

She aims for the leg and succeeds because he’s momentarily distracted, but Gideon’s Hope has only a few few residents,  it’s up to her to help save his leg.

Thus the underwear problem. She has to take it – or part of it – off to treat the wound. Now I’ve read a lot about historical underwear but not specifically about 1876 men’s underwear. I put him in a union suit, but then I thought, oh, oh, maybe I’d better check.

Good thing I did. I spent a day wandering about internet “underwear” sites. I found a lot of contradictory information, but then I wandered onto “Vintage Skivvies.” It claimed that the Union Suit was invented by Horace Greeley Johnson, “The Edison of underwear,” in 1910. Or at least, that was when it was patented.

Despite western movies to the contrary, men’s underwear consisted of separate shirt and “drawers” during the 19th century. But they were uncomfortable, according to “Vintage Skivvies.” The double layer of cloth around the wearer’s midsection was bulky and the bottoms drooped. (Oops. We really don’t want droopy underwear on our heroes).

Still, it wasn’t until the 1900 , that clothiers tried to unite the two pieces. A one-piece union (so called for uniting the two pieces) suit seemed to be a solution.

However that too presented problems. As one salesman put it, “Some provision had to be developed so that the seat could be opened when the occasion demanded it.” The trapdoor was tried but the drop seat was hard to unbutton and even harder to rebutton (just think about it). Besides that, during laundering the hand-cranked wringers kept breaking off the buttons (not good). Next came the so-called open crotch type union suit, featuring strategically located button-less flaps. But it was criticized as a “humpty, lumpty, creasy, baggy proposition, chafing and cutting your nethers.”

Okay, now I realize this is probably more than you ever wanted to know about men’s underwear. However, a writer rejoices in these little tidbits, even if we never use them. We have an insatiable curiosity about everything, and it leads us into strange and mysterious places.

So I will continue with the story. Again according to “Vintage Skivvies,” Johnson worked in a clothier business. When his brainstorm struck, the solution was simple. His design featured two knit pieces that formed an overlapped X that could be drawn apart when required. (I keep trying to picture that, but I can’t). He called it the Klosed Krotch Union Suit (I truly love that name.). And it revolutionized the underwear market.

So I couldn’t use the Union Suit shown in many westerns, usually by minor characters  for obvious reasons now.  (I used to think those films were factually correct in such details.   Ah, the disillusionment.)

Back to my problem. What would he be wearing? More research. Well, they were called drawers (I won’t bore you with the history of the name.) Could be long or thigh high, according to another source. And undershirts were separate. I’m not even going to try to guess how they often got bunched up at the middle.

And the material? Workmen usually wore wool. The army issued wool underwear, but in hot weather the soldiers would purchase cotton ones.

Other interesting tidbits found on this underwear discovery journey:

–In the 19th century women’s underwear was usually open between the legs but in the 20th century closed knickers replaced them.

–In 1913, Mary Crosby invented the bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbon. In 1915, lipstick was sold in tubes for the first time.

–Thousands of women died in the 19th century when their hoop skirts caught on fire (this doesn’t have anything to do with anything except trivia games).

— Women began wearing underwear so they wouldn’t expose themselves accidently while wearing hoops. In the 1850’s, when hoops once again came into vogue, they were lighter in weight than previous incarnations. Since women rarely wore any sort of underwear below the waist other than petticoats, a strong wind or clumsy trip could result in embarrassment.

So now you’re armed with a lot of rather bizarre trivia.

I decided to share all this with you because I wasted a whole day researching.    I had to make use of it in some way, and you all are the unfortunate victims.

No telling what you’ll get next time I conduct a search.

Tips about underwear, anyone?




+ posts

17 thoughts on “You Never Know . . .”

  1. Good Morning

    Useless knowledge should be my middle name. It seems to be the only thing I can remember.

    As for your hero just have him go commando that would be a great situation.

  2. Pat, this is an interesting blog. I’ve often wondered exactly what men wore in the 20th century. Like you said, the info on the subject is contradictory. So, I’ve avoided writing scenes where the hero is in his underwear because I didn’t want my readers to call me on it. I think there is much more info on women’s underwear. And we have to take in account which part of the country our book takes place. A lot of times the people in the West didn’t wear the same as people in the East.

    Excellent subject!

  3. I can completely relate to how exciting it is to find these obscure research gems only to later realize that you are getting all thrilled over underwear facts. Ha! Great stuff, though. Finding information on men’s clothing is always much harder than women, so I appreciated the information. I’m going to check out that vintage skivies site.

  4. Great blog, Pat. I’ve made the same search for info on men’t undies with conflicting results. Don’t know how many Western movies I’ve seen with men in long johns, and I’ve probably made the same mistake in my own books.
    I have one of these miniature editions of the 1900 Sears Roebuck Catalog. They do have union suits in there, for both men and women.
    As for going commando, it makes for a sexy story, but can you imagine riding a horse all day with nothing under your jeans?

  5. Hi Pat, great blog. I did manage to look up the union suit thing and use drawstring drawers for my hero. I’m with Elizabeth…going underwearless under your jeans atop a horse? Yikes.

    I didn’t know about the “open between the legs” undies for women, though. Eeeeeeew.

    I totally love researching historic minituae. Too bad I can’t remember how much money I don’t have in my checkbook.

    Thanks for a wonderful blog. oxoxoxox

  6. What fun! I have sewn for a friend who was into muzzeloading and mountain man clubs but never once did I think to do underwear. I did find that according to him, the lack of underwear was the reason for the very long tails on the shirts. I just took his word for it and sewed according to the patterns I found. Now I need to see what I can find for underwear! Thanks for sharing all this interesting information.

  7. I think the X style opening in the back end of union suits is something I remember from long underwear of my youth.


    Well, Pat! I just spend about a half hour reading about underwear online. I mean besides this post.

    Thanks a lot. 🙂

  8. I just watched a remake of Angel and the Badman last night. Lou Diamond Phillips was the hero, and they had him in thigh-length drawers in one scene. I wondered if that was historically accurate.

  9. Thanks for the information! I had to laugh because
    I recall wearing a short sleeved, thigh length
    union suit under my high school drum & bugle corps
    uniform. We had a few (very few!) cold game nights
    and Mother came across this underwear and believe
    me, I certainly appreciated the “coverage.”

    Pat Cochran

  10. Vickie. . .I watched “Badman” too last night, and when the had him in thigh-length drawers, I sat up and cheered. By golly, that was right.

    I think what amazed me the most is that women wore little or no underwear in the 19th century.
    Chemises, yes, but little below that.

    And we must all remember the Scots and their kilts. ‘Tis true they wear nothing beneath.

  11. Pat, I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets lost in research and calls it a blog. I love this info. It’ll make my next book more accurate. Vintage skivvies, huh? Thanks!

  12. I LOVE THIS SITE! I really enjoy history and these little tidbits are such a treat. They are one reason I started reading historicals. When I first started reading medieval historicals, I found several authors that included little details of everyday life. I learned much more about that time period than I ever did in history class. Those little details make history more real and sometimes help to explain people’s actions. Thank you so much for taking the time to make your stories accurate. And yes, underwear is important. Think of that poor cowboy trying to ride the range with lumpy, bumpy overlapping flaps or the poor southern bell mooning her guests come for tea. (Sorry, I got carried away, but it is too funny to imagine.)

  13. Patricia. . . so glad you enjoyed it. Sometimes I think I’m really odd to be so intrigued about the whys and wherefores of everything. Love your examples.

  14. As I said in another post earlier, I lived in the 1830’s to 1850’s timeframe. Not really sure of the exact dates, just what happened. If I could find a hypnotist to help me remember more, it would be a great help, but funds are short. so I do without the help.

    I lived in the high Rockies in Northern Colorado area then, with 27 other ‘adopted’ fathers, also mountainmen like my father, Lone Wolf. They raised me as they would a boy, it’s all they knew. So imagine a girl trying to wear men’s ‘underwear’ then!!! I came up with my own invention, which worked just as well. I had indians around me as well, so I used what they did, deerskin used as a breechcloth. A strip of deerskin between my legs, attached to a belt. No flaps hanging down front or back. It worked better for me, and no, I didn’t get the name Breezey from having an open crotch!!! It was because I traveled around a lot, as the wind blowed. So they named me Breezey. Few used their own names.

    My real name was Catherine, but no one called me that.


Comments are closed.