Looking Back: Long Johns & Union Suits

Jefferson County Historical Society submitted the following article on Long Johns and Union Suits:

Submitted by Carole Briggs


The question is, what did men wear under their outer clothing before the invention of union suits and long johns?

The loincloth goes way back to prehistory. Otzi, the Iceman, discovered in Europe, wore one of leather around 3300BC. King Tut’s was linen. Our Native Americans wore loincloths of tanned deerskin, cloth, or animal fur. Also called a breechcloth, breechclout, skin clout, or glaf, it was a long rectangular piece worn between the legs and tucked over a belt so that flaps fell down in front and back.

During the days of knights and ladies, men wore pull-on underpants, large and baggy linen drawers called “braies.” They were laced or tied around the waist and legs. Eventually, the codpiece was added. However, it didn’t last more than a century or two.

Colonial men wore a long shirt but no shorts as did the early frontiersmen. It served as a nightshirt as well. During the Victorian era (1837-1901) men wore tight-fitting knee-length flannel “drawers” and a snug flannel undershirt.

Singer patented his sewing machine in 1851, and soon factories were producing clothing like uniforms for Civil War soldiers and the union suit. There is debate among historians about how The Union Underwear Company got its name. Was it because of the “union” of the top and bottom of the underwear? Or was it because Union Army soldiers wore the underwear?

Nevertheless, putting on a union suit when cold weather arrived and removing it in the spring made sense. Apparently, there was little need to launder it in between!

When men tired of “dropping their drawers” they turned to the boxing attire worn by John L. Sullivan, long pants of wool that itched and made a man sweat and that were soon nicknamed “Long Johns.”

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