There's a mention of the Quincy Shirt and Overall Co. in the Annual Report of the Factory Inspectors of Illinois from 1893; all that's given for the company is the address of Fifth and Jersey Streets in Quincy, Ill. It's hard to say, but my hunch is that this trade card dates a bit earlier, maybe to the 1870s, when Quincy was the second largest city in Illinois for a brief period of time. Quincy Shirt and Overall Co.'s use of "Iron Clad" as a trademark is the earliest I've seen, and it almost certainly alludes to the Civil War era USS Monitor, the US Navy's first ironclad ship.
The front of the card uses stock imagery of the sort that's common to many Victorian Era trade cards. I love the modest anthropomorphisation with which the frog doing the heavy lifting is rendered, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with anything but itself. The sad-sack knight on the back is equally amusing, looking pensive, as if his armor makes him more of a target than a protected warrior. I also appreciate that the company lists its products as "Shirts, Pants, Coats, Overalls, Etc.", leaving one's imagination to set the limit of the types of garments they manufactured.
This snapshot is small, measuring 1 3/4" x 2 5/8". The image area itself is only 1 1/2" x 2 5/16", making it so tiny that it's difficult to see without some sort of magnification. Regardless of its size, it is like many of the photographs I collect in that it only came to life for me after it was scanned and enlarged. By enlarging these images, I'm attempting to winkle some tidbit of information from their obscure corners, hoping to see a detail such as a garment label or maker's button more clearly, or maybe read the copy on a manufacturer's sign. The exercise is often a fool's errand, as was the case with this snapshot, but occasionally I find a detail that affects my interpretation of an image. The task is compulsive, and there are moments when I think I might prefer the digital files to the images themselves.
As I was scanning this snapshot a few years ago, I entitled the file 'Father & Sons in Overalls'. I haven't spent much time with the actual photograph since that moment, but last week as I was going through my collection it caught my attention and I set it aside. I think the title I chose exposes a dichotomy regarding the interpretation of anonymous photographs: there's the circumstances of the time in which the image was captured, but then there's how it is understood by us today, after it's been rescued from the dustbin of time. The 'truths' these images hold might not actually matter as our contemporary use of them has less to do with their veracity and more to do with our current circumstances: there's always a subtext to the reason we've chosen to engage with a particular image.
I was carrying my newborn son around in a Baby Björn when I rescued this image from time's dustbin, and that has as much to do with my naming of the snapshot as its implied narrative. There is no way of knowing if the man in this picture is the boy's father, uncle, family friend - I don't even know if the boys are related to each other. Regardless, the image said something to me about fatherhood, and my commitment to my son and family, so until proven otherwise, the snapshot will remain entitled "Father & Sons in Overalls."
Unfortunately it's not legible in the scan, but "We like cows" is written in ink on the bottom of this real photo postcard. The card itself dates from sometime between 1904 and 1918 as it has the four-triangles-up AZO "Place Stamp Here" box. I don't think these guys were cowboys, they look more like dairy farmers to me.
As much as I lament the posting of images without context, I have none for this real photo postcard. This image was taken sometime between 1918 and 1930, but my gut instinct is that it's from the early 1920s. Judging from the way the suspenders attach to the apron, I'd say this woman's overalls were manufactured by a maker from the Northeast; I've only ever seen this style from that region. Her Phrygian cap makes me wonder if she was part of some public protest or political action promoting women's rights. Anyway, it seems an appropriate enough image to post in celebration of International Women's Day.
I don't have much information to offer with regards to Sullivan & Hildreth of Lewiston, Maine. According to the historical record, the first white settler in what became the town of Lewiston was a man named Paul Hildreth in 1770. That was about one hundred years before this card was produced, so perhaps the Hildreth of this partnership was a descendant.
This Hildreth could also be the great overalls maker A.G. Hildreth of Worcester, Massachusetts. Of course, this is purely conjecture, but I wouldn't be surprised to discover that this is actually the case. Many of the pioneers of overalls manufacturing founded more than one company, often moving to regions where the need for overalls was greater than their present location.
The landscape of ephemera is littered with trade cards such as the one posted above. Hundreds of manufacturers were producing overalls and such by the 1880s; it boggles my mind to think of how quickly the industry grew. Chasing down the facts of all these obscure manufacturers would require a lifetime of research, that's certainly more time than I can presently afford. Hopefully one day I'll be able to produce a semi-accurate list of manufacturers from the late 1800s - early 1900s. For now, I'll just keep compiling the information...
You'd pay a king's ransom for this man's Mackinaw these days, unless you got lucky at an estate sale or thrift store (highly unlikely). I'm on my third winter here in Canada and I still haven't bought myself a proper winter coat. Every time I look at this photo I wonder "How long 'til I get lucky?"
Photo: The New York Times
This photograph was taken on April 21, 1920 by a New York Times staff photographer. Newly elected Congressman William D. Upshaw had organized a small group of congressional secretaries to wear men’s overalls as members of his so-called “Congressional Overalls Club”. Upshaw, who was more famous for his ardent commitment to prohibition, had quickly glommed on to the “Overalls Movement” of 1920 and appointed himself president of the club he founded. As reported in the New York Times the next day:
Young Women Secretaries of Representatives Appear in Blue Denim Trousers.
WASHINGTON, April 21.- The staid House office building had a touch of “jazz” today, when six young women secretaries who enrolled in Representative Upshaw’s overalls brigade appeared in blue denim trousers, the bottoms of which were rolled well up above their high heeled pumps. The young women created something of a sensation and had a large following as they tripped along the corridors. The drabness of the uniforms was relieved by multi-colored silk waists and silk stockings.
“It’s a horrifying spectacle,” chorused a dozen Daughters of the American Revolution, as their sight-seeing trip through the big office building was interrupted by the crowds following the young secretaries.
According to editor Darcy Eveliegh of The Lively Morgue, which showcases New York Time photos from the past, the image shown here did not run with the article I’ve cited. It was more likely to have been included in the pictorial pages that the Times ran mid-week. The staff at the Lively Morgue kindly attempted to locate the original print for me, but to no avail. I had wanted to read the text usually included on the back of such photos, but I doubt that information would add anything significant to how or why the photograph intrigues me.
What interests me most is the frequency with which this photograph appears on the internet, popping up here and there, mostly for nostalgic reasons. Although a bit odd, it is not surprising, given the all-too-often unreflective ease of authors’ appropriation of digital source imagery; any image one ‘finds’ is fair game. In many cases, the context from which the image first appeared is meaningless to its appropriator, so long as it illustrates in one way or another his or her contemporary ‘aesthetic paradigm’, as I like to say. In my view, this uninspired methodology is unfortunate when employed by individuals, and manipulative when practiced at the corporate level.
The way this particular image of Upshaw’s secretaries in overalls has been used nostalgically in current blogs, that is without citing its origins, is typical of the way in which many of our contemporaries exploit visual culture from the past. This image has been used by many for its seemingly positive identification with the working class. However, this is actually historically inaccurate. After researching the photograph and the Overalls Movement of 1920, I have found that this movement was fundamentally a middle-class protest against the working-class, whose organization in the early 1900s had improved workplace conditions and increased workers’ average wages. These advances were perceived by the middle-class to have inflated the cost of garments; when in fact the actual cause is a much more complicated story. A lagging post WWI economy, material shortages, and merchant greed all had as much of an effect (if not more) on the high cost of clothing then. Simply put, the logic of the movement seemed to be ‘You want to overcharge us for our suits? Fine! We’ll wear the cheap overalls of the working (or lower) class!’ In my opinion, dressing in the garments associated with the class of people you blame for a problem is a strange sort of protest, one that could be misconstrued as an identification with the working class.
In another example, this image appears in the header of what appears to be a blog written by someone with a feminist point of view. For the life of me, I cannot understand how this photograph of five young women wearing overalls in a kind of propagandistic political performance directed by Upshaw himself signifies anything but a patriarchal and class-based power dynamic. The idea that a woman who wears overalls equals social empowerment, a kind of feminist shorthand inspired by WWII images of Rosie-the-Riveter, is betrayed here by the actual facts.
I’m pointing to how this image has been propagated online in order to illustrate a symptom of a larger condition. Over the past few years, I’ve watched from the sidelines as interest in North American working-class garments has grown into something of a fad on our shores. The trend is riddled with nostalgia and is frankly embarrassing at points. There seems to be a kind of mystique that has developed among participants of the trend; the notion that wearing the garments that laborers once wore somehow makes you the same kind of worker; that dressing in a utilitarian, threadbare manner magically transforms your soul to that of a turn-of the century laborer; that in the face of an increasingly synthetic world these old styles cloak the wearer in some kind of material authenticity. Wearing the glass slipper only makes you feel like a princess after all.
The urge to appropriate images from the past is unstoppable, even somewhat understandable, but the accelerated rate of these appropriations can be mind-numbing. Some ‘workwear’ blogs are virtual fountains of period imagery that lure and seduce; minutes slip into hours as one scrolls through their pages. However, rarely, if ever, is any historical backdrop given for these images and quite often the archival (or non-archival) sources are obscured.
Perhaps such sundry emperors of ‘work clothes knowledge’ have no clothes. What’s the point of appropriating from the past for style or fashion reasons alone? What is the benefit of nostalgically romanticising a period of time that, from what I can ascertain, was absolutely dreadful for the working-class?
I write this as a man who feels ignorant to history himself, but this feeling inspires me to work at understanding the complexity of the past, not just to be seduced by the surface of its imagery. There’s information embedded in practically every scrap of material culture human beings produce. Old work clothes, ephemera from its manufacturers, photographs of the working class - these are all important things to collect and preserve, but we owe it to the people who participated in the manufacturing of this stuff to understand the context from which it came. In my own work, overlaying the historic record with family history and personal narrative offers me a more complex engagement with the past and present than just cherry-picking ephemera to suit my current ‘aesthetic paradigm’.