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A Brief History of the Work Shirt - 1900-1930

Hey there everyone, I'm back with another blog post, this time after I started writing an email reply about how work shirts have changed over time. Admittedly, this is a bit of a rough sketch attempt I'll make below, but I want to go into some detail to explain how styles changed (and didn't) in various eras.

I suppose I could go way, way back regarding "work shirts" (like, ancient Greece or China, or the Ice Age) but let's stick with the more semi-modern era, starting with the turn of the century. More specifically, let's dive into my favorite work shirts from these eras, which you'll soon find primarily concerns pieces from Reliance Mfg. Co. of Chicago, but not exclusively so by any means.


The 1900s-1910s

The turn of the century is an interesting time for workwear; along with the 1910s, there's actually a great deal we don't know about it. That's because unlike the 1940s, 1930s, and even 1920s, there are precious few vintage pieces that have survived. Instead, most of what we know from this time period is thanks to catalogs, or photographs.

Let's take things back a little to 1897, and Sears Roebuck & Co.:


A selection of shirts from Sears Roebuck in 1902:

And Montgomery Ward, also in 1902:

As you can see, catalogs from this time didn't offer many (or particularly large or detailed) illustrations, but we can glean some info from them and their descriptions, such as the fact that fabrics including chambray, sateen, moleskin, etc. were in use. And of course, Stifel’s indigo-dyed fabrics as well. Shirts were almost always pullovers, and you'd occasionally find esoteric styles and detailing, such as very large front plackets, shield fronts, etc. I won't go into detail with 1800s shirts here as that's not really the thrust of The Rite Stuff. 

Jumping back to the turn of the century, work shirts from this era were pullovers, featured "chinstraps" (a modern term actually, as you'll find below), and were single-needle or double-needle stitched. Labels were almost always cotton and printed (not woven tags), back yokes tended to be very high and thin (or scalloped, as we'll see starting in 1912), and some construction methods could appear quite crude to the modern eye when viewing such items up close by today’s standards.

However, things started to change at some point nearing 1910. In 1910 proper, we find the following pages from that year's Sears Roebuck catalog, including the birth of the mail-order business' now-famous line of Hercules clothing (at this point just a work shirt sub-brand):


Two years later, in the 1912 Sears Roebuck catalog, shirt designs remained similar, except for a curious new entry:



This is the first documented example I can find of a scalloped back yoke and shoulder yokes. In this same year, Reliance Mfg. Co. of Chicago, founded by Milton F. Goodman, would patent a very similar design.

Here it is on an undated box it would have come in; although we don't know the date for this, it carries a patent date of Dec. 24, 1912; this box is likely from the mid to late 1910s:


 Image courtesy of e-Workers

And we find the same images, crudely reproduced, on a newspaper ad clipping from 1914:


And then this 1914 ad from Reliance:

Image courtesy of Yahoo! Auctions
And another ad from 1914, this one from my personal collection of ad clippings:
Another example of the Milton F. Goodman shirt from a 1915 ad:

Then we have this most interesting piece in the 1916 Montgomery Ward catalog:

The front yokes go under the collar, yes, but the back! It's almost a freedom sleeve at first glance, but it's because it's a triple layer of fabric, with the two top layers extending all the way down to the elbow. To repro or not to repro, that is the question.

Finally, we have the Sears Roebuck catalog of 1918:

Note the shawl collar shirt below:


The 1920s

With each passing decade we have more info to glean about work shirts. In the 1920s, the biggest single development is the introduction of the "coat style" shirt. This is what we think of today as a regular, button-front shirt, as opposed to a pullover. Of course, it wasn't a wholesale change overnight, so we still find catalogs that will offer pullovers in this decade, especially early on.

Here's Montgomery Ward in 1920:


Notice how the left-hand shirt still has a cutout in one pocket for a pocket watch. That shirt is labelled as "coat style", whereas the shirt on the right is a pullover.

Montgomery Ward continued down this path again in 1922:

And some other examples from the same catalog, this time with different, unique styling, including another type of vent hole:


Here's an IRL example of a deadstock, 1920s Brave Man chambray shirt, note the yoke:

And another chambray pullover from the 1920s:

Wintertime calls for a heavier shirt, like this wool one from Pendleton that sold over at Cocky Crew Store; here we also see a woven tag, something that was gaining ground in the 1920s:

The following is a mystery shirt in terms of dating; it could be 1910s or 1920s, but the coat style front, and the man's hat, leads me to say 1920s:


Here's another example of the Milton F. Goodman shirt, in black:


At the bottom of the ad, Reliance also mentions its Black Beauty shirt; I have two magazine clipping ads for this shirt in my personal collection, both undated but clearly from the 1920-25 time frame, here they are:




Here's two more glimpses of the MFG shirt again, one from 1922 and the second from an undated ad likely from the 1920s; note that the pocket shape has changed in the second image:



The Milton F. Goodman shirt was made in blue chambray, black and other colors of sateen, and khaki, that we know of.  

Here are some photos of the few existing examples of the MFG shirt, in blue chambray and khaki jean:


Pretty soon we'd see another patent for a ventilated yoke shirt design that was filed in 1928-29 by John W. Champion: 




His reasoning for the back/shoulder yoke vent holes was two-fold: one, to provide ventilation, and two, to provide extra stitching to keep the double layer of fabric better in place (the same would go for the front yokes as well).
I quote:
"A group of ventilating eyelets 17 are preferably placed under the Serial No. 308,936. arm pits and through both thicknesses of the front pieces, and serve not only as ventilating eyelets but as further means of holding the superposed layers of material in place.
The ventilating function of the eyelets provides a comforting coolness to the shoulder of the wearer at the region where the binding strain is the greatest and also at the region where the goods is of double thickness and consequently more inclined to feel hot. It is to be noted also that the eyelets are so placed that while coming substantially in the line of strain, they are placed at positions in the goods where the line of strain runs at a. bias to the straight of the goods. As a result the eyelets are not so easily torn as they would be if they were placed where the strain came along the straight of the goods and the goods could not stretch."
Meanwhile in 1928-29, we can find this triple-stitching, scalloped-yoked no-vent holes work shirt from Montgomery Ward:
And just one more from "Monkey Wards" (as my dad says they used to call it as kids) in '28:
I realize this has been a very brief overview, and it has centered mostly on Reliance Mfg., but I think it's a good starting point to show you where I'm coming from with The Rite Stuff and which pieces have most impressed me.
Next time I'll take a look at the 1930s and beyond!

Click here to read Part 2: A Brief History of the Work Shirt - 1930-1940

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  • Frederick Fung on

    Very interesting info on the workshirt history. Thank you so much for sharing. Love those old magazine ads too.

  • Mohsin Sajid on

    superb post – thanks for sharing

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