Hooray for the internet: the union suit has its own Wikipedia page. Everyone’s favorite one-piece undergarment was invented in the late 1860s, originally marketed toward women as a liberating change from restricting corsets. The ladies did not seize upon the concept with much enthusiasm, and instead the garment ended up worn mostly by men and children. By the mid 20th century the union suit was considered old fashioned, and when Americans needed extra warmth we turned to two-piece “long johns” instead.
But though today the union suit with its rear “fireman’s flap” is considered comical, it had its day in the mainstream, and we have several in our collections. Here are three (well, two suits and a box) from the 1920s-30s, manufactured by the Allen A Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin. At left is a short-sleeved union suit, “50% wool,” worn by Judge Thomas M. Anderson (1902-1980) of Rockville. It was purchased at an estate sale and donated to us by Peg Sante (once our volunteer textile curator); she noted that it was worn by Judge Anderson in the 1930s “when he went hunting.”
This smaller version (below), sized for a toddler, was donated in 1974 by Jayne Greene, and may have been worn by her husband Alexander J. Greene (1923-2010), past Mayor of Rockville, during his childhood in New York. Like Judge Anderson’s suit, this one has an Allen A Spring Needle label.
And here’s an Allen A Underwear box, circa 1925, from Gladys Benson. It’s labeled on the end “Union Suits,” and the original tissue inside adds “Spring Needle Knit – Light Weight and Heavy Knit for Men and Boys.” I suspect that the box was used in later years to store some of the small textiles Miss Benson donated, and no stories about the box’s original use came with the donation. Perhaps the contents were purchased at a Rockville or Washington store for Miss Benson’s father or brother, both of Rockville.
The Allen A Spring Needle name and logo were added in 1920 to the Black Cat Textiles Company’s goods; the box is copyrighted 1920, the name was registered with the Patent Office in 1921, and many ads from the early 1920s emphasize that the Allen A name on your familiar Black Cat stockings should be seen as “the Maker’s personal pledge of responsibility to you. ‘Allen’ – the name of the Makers. And ‘A’ – the standard mark of first and finest grade.” “Maker Allen” was Charles C. Allen, a noted industrialist in Kenosha, who acquired the company in 1912. The Great Depression hit Kenosha’s factories hard, and the Wisconsin factory closed in the late 1930s; it was eventually bought by the Atlas Underwear company. The fact that, let’s say 30% of our union suit collection is made up of Allen A pieces is probably just a coincidence – there were lots of rival companies – but perhaps the stores in Rockville, where two of our pieces were worn, favored this particular brand.
It was harder than usual to find additional images for this week’s post as, unsurprisingly, we have no photos of 1920s-30s county residents in their skivvies. Plus, many of the early Allen A advertisements are too discreet to show their product in use. Here, however, is a 1926 ad (scroll down to the third row) with a confident gentleman sporting his union suit in comfort and, dare I say, style. (He pomaded his hair!) Doesn’t he make you want to enjoy some old-fashioned, warmth-providing underwear this winter?
Both the adult and child sizes (the latter shown above) feature a ‘side opening’ flap, not the standard old-guy-in-a-1930s-cartoon two-button flap… which goes to show that you can’t always judge an antique by its cartoon representation.