* United States boys clothes: suits chrnology 19th century 1850s

United States Boys' Suits Chronology: The 1850s

Figure 1.--Here we see a double union and hard plastic case with two Ambrotype 1/6 plate pprtraits. The portraits are undated, but we would say were taken in the late-1850s or very early-60s. It is not possible to date an undated Ambro with any greater percission. The boy wears a collar button suit with dark piping. He has a very small collar. He is pictured with a black spaniel. The younger child looks to be a girl, in part because of her center hair part. She is wearing a plain dress with wide neck opening. Younger boys were also dressed like that at the time. Note the water pail. This was not a beach picture. Was this a prop designed to indicate that the child was a girl? I'm not sure about the colors.

We have a much better idea about boys suits in the 1850s because photography wich appeared in the 1840s has becoming much more common. Many boys do not wear suits. In fact more boys seem to wear blouses and tunic-like tops rather than suit jackets. Economics was probably a factor. The industrial revolution was just beginning to take hold in the northern states. The wealth that would come with industrilization had not yet transformed America. Thus many American families did not yet buy suits for their younger boys. The tops were commonly done in bold plaids and other otterns. Boys also wore jackets. We notice boys wearing a variety of collar buttoning jackets, both collar buttoning and with lapels. There were many styles of collar buttoning jackets. Blue jackes with brass buttons in a military style were popular for younger school-age boys. There were also non-military styles. Collars varied. We see substantial collars in the early 1850s, but by the end of the decade very small collars were more common. We see some Eton-styled outfits, presumably a British influence. Suits by the late-50s were conmmoly worn with small down-turn collars or just a hint of a collar. Most clothes were still hand made and thus styles were still quite varied. Many jackets were decorated with embroidery and piping. It was still common for men and boys to wear jackets and pants that did not match as well as contrating vests. Younger boys might wear suits with bloomer knickers or long knee pants, although they were not yet very common outside of fashionable larger cities. Most boys wore long pants. Long pants suits were by far the most common, but bloomer knickers were worn by youngr boys from fashionable families.


We have a much better idea about boys suits in the 1850s because photography wich appeared in the 1840s has becoming much more common in th 50s. New les expenbsive foirmnats appeared in the 1850s, both the Ambrotype and Ferro-type (tin-type). Less expensive meant more people had more portraits taken. In additiin, the indutrialization of the United Sttws wa beginning, leading to rusing personl incomes g=hicjh also led to more portraits being taken. The CDV appeared in France during the 50s, but was not yet an important format, especially in the United States. Over all the number of images expanded significantly, but even this was limited compared with what was to come in the 60s with the explosive growth in photography as a result with the CDV.


Many boys did not wear suits in the 1850s, even when dressing up. Thiks is the last decade of the century in wjich we do not see many boys wearing suits. We suspect that they did not own suits. If a boy did not wear a suit jacket for a photographic portrait, we believe he probably did not have one. Mothers normally dressed children up in their best oitfits for a portrait. Age was a factor. It is mostly younger boys that we see wearing blouses and tunic-like shirts. Older boys and teens were more likely to have suits. In fact. more younger boys seem to wear blouses and tunic-like tops rather than suit jackets. Economics was probably a factor. Suits were an exoensive item. The industrial revolution was beginning to take hold in the northern sttes, especilly the northeast. The wealth that would come with industrilization had not yet transformed America, but changes were beginning. Thus many American families did not yet buy suits for their younger boys. We do, however, see more jackets than in the 1840s--we believe primarily becuse of the increasing properity resulting from the the early stages of America's economic development. Large numbers of people owned their farms and industrialization was beginning.


We note that yonger boys did not commonly wear suits in the 1850s. Some were not yet beeched and wore dresses or skirts, but this does not seem as common as in subsequent decades. We can not yet explain this. We thought tht boys wearing skirted garments was more common in the early-19th century, but the early photographic record does not bear this out (1840s-50s). It may be tht the increasing econonomic success of the United States and growing affluence was a factor in more boys wearing skirted garments in subsequent decades. This is a topic that we need to pursue. What we see in the 1850s is that most of the younger boys not wearing suitss wear various tops that look like shirts or blouses commonly done in bold plaids and other patterns. Many of these tops were worn like tunics with belts over them. With these tops we mostly see long non-descript long pants. The great bulk of the images we have archived of younger boys show conventiom. It should be rembered thatearly photographs (Dags, Ambros, and tin-types) while a fraction of the cost of a painted portrait, were still fairly expensive. Thus there is a socio-economic bias to early photography. This declines as photographs become less expnsive with the albumen prints (CDVs and cabinet cards). Thus the early photographs (1840s and 50s) picture the most affluent. What is rather surprising is that so many of the images show subjects (children and adults) that do not seem very eleantly dressed. The children here are more elegantly dressed than many early portaits we have noted (figure 1).

Button-on Outfits

We see boys wearing what looks like one-piece suits. The outfit the boy here is wearing is a good example (figure 1). Actually they are two-piece button-on outfits. A waist poece usually cobers the buttons. Dating Dags is complicated, byt we think these outfits appeared in the 1850s, probably the late-50s as they are most commn in the 1860s and 70s. Bloomer knickers were worn with these outfits, mostly by younger boys from fashionable families.

Jacket Suits

Thanks to photography, we know acgreatdeal about the suits boys wore in the 1850s. We see styles popular in the 1840s as well as new styles tht were to become fashion mainstys in the 60s. American boys in the 1850s were wearing suits more commonly than in the 40s. We know this because more boys are wearing suit jackes in the studio portraits being taken. The suits did not come with matching caps, although some of the military-style collar-buttoning jackets were worn with military-syled peaked caps. We also see a variety of different suit jackets, including collar-buttoning jackets, sack suit lapel jackets, early-cut-away styles, and frock suit jackets. Some suits were done with vests. Suits included both the jacket and pants, although as in the 1840s, the pants and trousers often did not match the jacket. Assessing the pants is a little difficult because of the oosing conventions often cut of the pants.


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Created: 11:24 PM 4/5/2008
Last updated: 10:19 AM 12/2/2019