An American Boyhood: Philadelphia in the 1940s

Let me give you some of my recollections of the clothes my brother and I wore in the early and mid 1940's in suburban Philadelphia. My family was mid-middle class, and I presume my experiences are not unique or different than others of my age.

Toddler Years

I can remember from my earliest memories, always being dressed by my mother in nice outfits, from one piece sunsuits and cordouroy overalls and a matching hat when I was very young. I remember seeing pictures of my dad and his family at the beach in the 30's, with the men wearing one piece bathing suits. But I wore a brief style swim suit when I was young, and then a boxer type swim suit as I got older. The only dress I ever wore as a child, was my christening dress, which we have quite a few pictures of.

I remember when I was a tyke wearing a camel hair coat, with matching leggings and hat, which had a little flap on it. I also had a dark blue outer coat with sailor insignia silver buttons, and I believe a matching cap, like a beanie.

The sunsuits I wore as a young boy had button-on pants as part of the whole suit. The blouse and the pants matched, and the pants were buttoned on to the blouse.

Older Boy

When I was older, I and my brother usually wore shirts with shorts, not short short, but above the knee. Actually I don'y recall thinking about clothes a lot as a boy. I wore what mom purchased for me and didn't give to much thought to it. Didn't dislike them, didn't love them. just wore them, as the natural order of things! 2. Do you remember any discussions of clothes with your friends, brother, or parents? No, I don't think I had any discussions. My mother purchased our clothes, and we were content with them.


When I went to school in 1945, for first grade, I would wear a white shirt with a clip on tie (!), shorts, and knee socks. When the weather got colder, I wore knickers with long socks, and also a navy blue beanie cap. I think I didn't wear long pants until maybe the third grade. Some boys in my class in first and second grade wore shorts, some knickers, and some long pants. At First Communion time, in the second grade, we wore white cotton in a choice of these, shorts, knickers, or pants. I wore white shorts, with a white jacket, white shirt and white tie, and white knee socks with white shoes.

Sailor suit portrait

I can remember that I and my brother went to a photographer's studio in a department store, to have our pictures taken in our matching sailor suits. They had white blouses, with a dickey, that attached to the blouse, and short white pants, with white knee socks. I remember the photographer had a palette of paint that she used to color the photos. I was about five or six at this time. Oh yes, I had a pair of saddle shoes that went with this outfit. It was not my only pair, as I can remember wearing saddle shoes until I was much older, maybe eight or nine.

Summer wear

During the summers, we would wear blouses and shorts. No t-shirts of course. I remember we wore athletic t-shirts and white briefs, but I never recall wearing the athletic t-shirt by itself, even when it was hot. Sometimes, we might might go topless, but not too often.

I think looking back now that I remember mostly the different blouses that I wore, that kids today, with their omnipresent sweatshirts, wouldn't wear. They were I imagine cotton, of different patterns and colors, always starched, even in the summertime. Our short pants were somewhere in length between European short shorts and the knee length shorts we wore as we got older, eight or nine or so. In the summer, I remember the shorts were sometimes made of seersucker.

Cub Scouts

I was a Cub Scout for several years. In fact, my mom was our Den Mother, and my Dad was also active in the Cubs. Sometimes we wore short pants, and sometimes long pants. The short pants were longer than short short, but shorter than knee pants. We of course wore the blue shirts with the yellow bandana around our necks, with a holder to keep it in place. We had a patch on our arm to show our Pack Number.


When I was younger I wore sunsuits in summer, with short cotton pants, then when I was older I had a wool suit with short wool pants, and a wool suit with knickers. Then a suit with long pants, but I don't recall when I had my first suit with long pants. I think it was actually a jacket with flannel pants, not an actual suit.

Long pants

I do not remember the time we switched to wearing long pants. But since it was not a big deal, I probably don't recall it. Even when we wore long pants in the winter, we still wore shorts in the summer. We did not wear any">denim jeans until maybe about the time I was eight or nine. Denim then though was rather stiff, not like the soft jeans of today. We would sometimes wear wool plaid shirts with the denims, I imagine to identify with our cowboy heros, Roy Rodgers for me, Hopalong Cassidy for my brother! Complete with cap guns!

Switching to long pants didn't seem to be much of a deal for me, so it is hard for me to remember when I first wore long pants. But there was nothing special about them. Since my brother is two years younger than I, and I and my classmates were probably the last ones to wear shorts and knickers to school, it is possible that he wore long pants at an earlier age than I did. Whether we both switched at the same time, it is possible, but since it was not a big thing, I don't remember if we did at the same time or not.

First communion

I have a photo (or my brother has it, and he can't locate our family photos!) of my confirmation in I believe the third grade, and I was wearing wool knickers in the photo. I also had a nice patterned wool suit with knickers. About the same time. 1947 or so.

I don't recall one iota of conversation along these lines. We wore whatever our mothers bought us. There was a choice to wear either shorts, knickers or pants. I don't recall any feelings among us boys that one was preferable or "older" than the others. I know some of us wore white shorts, while others white knickers, and others long white pants. All with a matching white jacket.

Winter wear

About this time, in the winter, we also wore pea jackets, with cordouroy pants. We were quite fond of our pea jackets, and wore them to school, shopping, ice skating, to building a snowman in the yard!

Jack Preston

Christopher Wagner

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Created: January 12, 1999
Last updated: January 12, 1999