A Brief History of the Work Shirt - 1930-1940

1930s america style vintage work shirt workwear

And we're back! 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.

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 help. The 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in the New Deal, and with it agricultural programs, and even the 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 helped to give us so many good examples of workwear in photos. More on those later.

Turning to work shirt makrers, 1930s would be a year of several new designs for Reliance/Big Yank, while many other work shirt makers would keep to the tried and true, opting for straightforward coat style shirts, often of chambray and triple stitched.

Reliance kept trying to push the envelope, though.

Starting off in 1930 exactly, Reliance Mfg Co. of Chicago 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 access to cigarettes without the need to to unbutton. What's more, the pocket is sewn to hang over the front of the shirt, with a gap in between, to help prevent sweat from getting smokes wet. The larger pocket was made extra large to compensate for the smaller right pocket, but also to fit a tin with loose-leaf tobacco and rolling papers, as well as allowing for a pencil slot.

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


That same year, this shirt would get an official name: the Big Yank 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, a comic book style ad from 1937 for this shirt:

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

Here's a Sears take on this from 1937:

And a zipper pullover from another brand tagged as "Jumboshirt" that sold over at Cocky Crew Store:

And while Big Yank offerings were usually more hit than miss, here's one curiosity that didn't catch on; the figure 4 vent hole back:

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; notice the horizontal stitching between the chest pockets and placket:


Like black salt & pepper? Here's a nice one:


Overall, the 1930s saw a sort of stabilization of designs that rendered most shirts quite similar to each other, regardless of brand. 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.

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

Here's a personal favorite, with the 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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  • Bob Rogers on

    I liked your info. I have several salt and pepper chambray shirts, with tags. also jeans work coat, also unworn with tags. Do you purchase?

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