A Brief History of the Work Shirt, Part 2 - 1930-1940

1930s america style vintage work shirt workwear

Sears Hercules work shirts in the 1930s which I’ve reproduced as the Heracles work shirt.

And we're back! (Did you miss Part 1? Read it here.) But wait, you're probably thinking, "What, just one decade this time?" I know, I know, but there are two reasons for that. First, the 1930s was a pretty eventful decade (Great Depression, Dust Bowl, beginning of the war effort) with lots of photographs taken of everyday folks. Second, my interest in most workwear, and especially work shirts, tapers off starting with 1940. Although sterling pieces of workwear were created in the 1940s and 1950s, the focus of The Rite Stuff will remain almost entirely on the 1900-1939 time frame for the foreseeable future. 

The 1930s

What can I say about the 1930s that hasn't been said umpteen times elsewhere? For a lot of people it was tough times starting with the Stock Market Crash of 1929. What's less known is that the American farmer's Great Depression began back in the 1920s and the 1930s was a continuation of that, with the Great Depression, and even the Dust Bowl, heaped on top.

Men in the 1930s wearing workwear. Note the ‘chinstrap’ work shirt, flap pocket denim work pants, wool coats, boots and flat/newsboy caps. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Great Depression and Dust Bowl changed America in many ways. Thousands of families from the Dust Bowl regions traveled to California for a new life, where they were not necessarily welcome in the slightest, but many settled anyway. The American farmer had a spotlight shone on him like never before, and was in many ways the protagonist of the decade. As the situation went from bad to worse after the Stock Market crash of 1929, farmers looked to the government for help, but President Herbert Hoover was in no rush to bail them out. The 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt however brought with it the ushering in of the New Deal, and with it agricultural programs, including the now-famous 1937 establishment of the Farm Security Administration, among a whole host of word salad organizations, as they were called then.

The FSA helped provide an unprecedented number of photographs of American workers, farmers, ranchers and more, which has given us so many good examples of workwear in photos. More on those later.

Turning to work shirt makers, the 1930s would be a decade of several new designs for Reliance Mfg. Co. of Chicago, makers of the well-known Big Yank shirt brand, while many other work shirt makers would keep to the tried and true, opting for straightforward coat style shirts, usually of chambray and triple stitched.

Reliance kept trying to push the envelope, though.

Starting off in 1930 exactly, they released the Big Yank cigarette pocket work shirt; this is a newspaper clipping advertisement for it (an original one of which sits framed on my office wall):


I have occasionally seen some confusion about this type of shirt, and even uncertainty about what to call it ("asymmetrical pocket shirt?") but this ad should clear up any doubt. The smaller pocket holds cigarettes and allows for some access to them without the need to to unbutton the pocket. What's more, the pocket is sewn to have an emoth space between it and the chest to help prevent sweat from getting smokes wet. The larger pocket was made extra large to compensate for the smaller right pocket, aand also to fit a tin or bag with loose-leaf tobacco and rolling papers, as well as allowing for a pencil/pen slot.

Here's a patent from the one and only J.W. Champion to better illustrate this in detail:


That same year, this shirt would get an official name: the Flyer:

Here's slightly simplified version from 1931 that's more affordable thanks to the lack of ventilation holes and front shoulder yokes, which add to the cost of making per shirt:

And five years later, in 1937, a comic book style ad for this shirt:

Here’s an example of this shirt in the wild from the 1930s:

And another:

Also at the beginning of the decade, Reliance introduced the Zipper Ace shirt with a similar pocket setup but as a pullover with a zipper front:

Here’s a real-life Zipper Ace:

And another:

Here's a Sears take on the zipper-front pullover from 1937:

An eagle-eyed reader noticed that that there’s even a zipper-front pullover plaid work shirt being worn by the main subject in Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom of Speech”:

Below is a zipper pullover in salt and pepper, or covert, from another brand tagged as "Jumboshirt" that sold over at Cocky Crew Store; note the thin, long ‘chinstrap’ that is actually more reminiscent of one on a 1910s shirt:

It looks similar to the zipper-front Sturdy Oak below:

Black salt and pepper cloth was very popular in the 1930s and beyond. We reproduced it in this version of the Atlas shirt:

The Rite Stuff black charcoal salt and pepper covert chinstrap made in Japan work shirt 1930s style

As well as in light grey:

And while Big Yank offerings were usually more hit than miss, here's one curiosity that didn't catch on; the figure-four vent hole back:

Another unusual back yoke vent configuration, from 1934:

Speaking of Atlas shirts and Big Yank, they share something else in common: their one-piece, fold-over cuff design: 

These fold-over cuffs were patented by Reliance Mfg. Co. for its Big Yank shirts in 1937 and are a one-piece cuff marketed as “elbow action” sleeves and cuffs. The idea was to provide more room at the elbow for greater ease of movement and to eliminate the cuff placket to help prevent the sleeve from being caught or torn. 

This deadstock 1930s Big Yank posted by Foremost Vintage shows the sticker used to market it:

Every shirt we’ve seen so far has been a long sleeve, but what about in summer? Men would usually literally roll their sleeves up, but they would sometimes also crop the sleeves down to short sleeves:

1930s shirt sleeve chambray work shirt

1930s shirt sleeve chambray work shirt

1930s shirt sleeve chambray work shirt

I recreated that with the short-sleeve Bantam work shirt:

Bantam chambray 1930s style chinstrap work shirt made in Japan by The Rite Stuff

As worn by yours truly:

Bantam chambray 1930s style chinstrap work shirt made in Japan by The Rite Stuff

Here's an interesting piece from Montgomery Ward in the 1934-35 Montgomery Ward Fall/Winter catalog, courtesy of eBay:

Notice that the top half of the shirt is double layered; check the horizontal stitching between the chest pockets and placket.

The above shirt was marketed as the Pioneer by Wards, and the Cast Iron shirt by Sears. Both would occasionally feature double shoulder patches as well:

And here’s a real-life example from an FSA photo taken in Texas in the 1930s:

And a vintage Wards Pioneer version sold by As Is Vintage:

Speaking of unique designs, below is a patent from 1936 for a double pocket, one smaller one ostensibly for cigarettes on top of a larger open top pocket, that would eventually find it’s way into Uncle Sam shirts:

Here’s a vintage 1940s Uncle Sam shirt from my personal collection:

As worn by me:

And here’s a box for a half-dozen Uncle Sam shirts from my personal collection: 

And an Uncle Sam in a catalog that predated the 1936-37 patented cigarette pocket:

Here’s something you don’t see much of anymore; ‘Fancy Tupelo’ chambray shirting fabric:

Here’s one in a Montgomery Ward 1930-31 catalog:

Here’s a different version from M.W. Savage in 1934:

And here are some of the very few photos I’ve ever seen of someone wearing a Tupelo chambray shirt, on the right:

And another clearer shot:

And one more, courtesy of the Lora Webb Nichols Photography Archive:

You can read more about Tupelo madras work shirts in a separate blog post I made dedicated solely to their origin and history.

The Sears Hercules and other work shirts had some nice catalog illustrations in the ‘30s too:


The above is the direct inspiration for the Atlas shirt, along with the Big Yank 1920s standard chambray shirt.

I reproduced the former as the Heracles shirt:

And the latter as the Atlas shirt:

How about epaulets to keep your suspenders in place?

A good concept but it didn’t catch on for obvious reasons.

Regular, tall, and stout sizes were occasionally offered for standard shirts in both the ‘20s and ‘30s, like so:

One-wash/pre-shrunk is definitely the way to go with work shirts:

A two-page selection from the Montgomery Ward fall/winter 1930-31 catalog:

Some Hercules variations:


Overall, the 1930s saw a sort of stabilization of designs that rendered most shirts quite similar to each other, regardless of brand or store. Makers had mostly hit on what they liked and kept things to a standard, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. However, towards the end of the decade, chinstraps began to disappear. High, thin back yokes mostly gave way to the back yoke dimensions we're familiar with today, the big exception being USN chambray shirts worn into the '40s. As the decades went on, other details would change or be left out; for example, chest pockets would get higher and higher. Up until this point chest pockets either lined up with the third button if the chest placket or fell below it; in some cases halfway down between the third and fourth buttons. Evebtually these pockets would go higher and higher. Most modern work shirts have them nearly at the front placket’s second button!

The following is a selection of some more photographic examples of '30s work shirts.

Here's a personal favorite, with a man wearing a flat cap, a chambray shirt with a high, thin back yoke, and trousers with button-down front pocket flaps:

A nice blue chambray and denim work pants, colorized:

Chin strap and pencil pocket chambray (right); black, likely wool, flannel, or moleskin, and large, possibly Mother of Pearl buttons (left):

This appears to be one of Big Yank's standard shirts; it also happens to be a big inspiration for the Atlas shirt:

A nice chambray from 1938, courtesy of Buler on Denimbro, at the Fort Worth Exposition:

Black salt & pepper (colorized):


Chinstrap, high back yoke shirt, and a wealth of other workwear pieces here:


Black salt & pepper shirt, and either matching or denim trousers:

Triple-stitched chinstrap chambray; photo appears to be reversed:

Nice smooth chambray with big buttons:

Two miners at the same camp wearing chinstrap triple-stitch chambrays:

Similar shirt:

Black salt and pepper; note the lack of a chinstrap:

Chinstrap chambray with bellows expandable front pockets:

It's similar to this Head Light shirt like this one that Rivet Head (aka Matthew Strickland) found for sale on eBay (sans flaps):

Perhaps it was a 5 Brothers shirt, like this one that sold over at Cocky Crew Store:

Missing top button held together with a safety pin on this triple-stitch chinstrap chambray:

Chambray for both husband and wife; it appears she's possibly wearing one of his old shirts:

Hard to tell if this is a salt and pepper or regular chambray: 

This is definitely black salt and pepper:

Finally, the 1930s ended as World War II began, and soon the US would be involved in the war. Workwear would evolve some in the 1940s, but not as dramatically as before. Perhaps the most interesting developments were in militaria, from officer chinos to N-1 deck jackets, M-43 roughout boots to frogskin camo and OD herringbone twill utility pants. But who knows, I like a good pair of 1940s engineer boots and chinos as much as the next guy, so let's see what happens.

Until then, here's some examples of early and mid-1940s styling:

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  • Ivan Horvath on

    Astonishing background!

  • Bryan Shettig on

    Hi Robin, it can hold a cigarette pack but I think most guys were rolling their own in the mid-to-late 1930s, so the front pocket would hold loose cigarettes.

  • Robin Anthony Pounder on

    Did that cigarette pocket actually work. Can see it working when a full pack was in place, but when you got past the last 10 it would be difficult to extract them without damage. Maybe I’m just being negative, but it would be nice to know.

  • Janne on

    Lots of old work shirts can be seen in the film Dust Be My Destiny (1939). It can be watched in Youtube: https://youtu.be/05oPB9d2UbA .

  • Colin Probasco on

    I’d love to draw the picture of the African American worker taking a break playing cards. He looks like a hard strong worker who enjoys his break when one is deserved. A good subject for pen and ink and charcoal. I enjoyed all photos. My great grandpop was a Spanish American War Vet. Thanks. Would like a reply if you can.

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