American Mail Order Catalogs with Boys Clothings: Wards Stocking Supporters (Fall-Winter 1938-39 Catalog)

Figure 1.-- This page covers three different categories of support garments in 1938--pin-on garters, underwaists, and garter waists. That there are several grades offered in all three categories seems significant to me. Notice also that boy and girl models are equally represented. 1938 was a year in U.S. culture when support garments for long stockings began to be very prominently advertised in both Sears and Wards catalogs.

This page covers three different categories of support garments in 1938--pin-on garters, underwaists, and garter waists. That there are several grades offered in all three categories seems significant to me. Notice also that boy and girl models are equally represented. 1938 was a year in U.S. culture when support garments for long stockings began to be very prominently advertised in both Sears and Wards catalogs. Ads for long stockings were also featured saliently during the same years. This prominence lasted until about 1943-44 and then very quickly died away after the war came to an end.


Although the word "consumerism" has a modern ring, it was personal concern for an early consumer movement, the "National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry," That inspired a young traveling salesman named Aaron Montgomery Ward to start the world's first general merchandise mail-order company in 1872. Aaron Montgomery Ward was born on February 17, 1844, in Chatham, New Jersey, to a family whose forebears had served as officers in the French and Indian Wars as well as in the American Revolution. Looking for something more compatible, Monty left home and followed the river to Lake Michigan and the town of St. Joseph, county seat and market for outlying fruit orchards. Chicago was the center of the wholesale dry goods trade and in the 1860s Ward joined the leading dry goods house, Field Palmer & Leiter. As a retailer, Potter Palmer had previously built a reputation for fair dealing. Ward absorbed these principles while working as a clerk for $5. The Chicago City Directories for 1868 through 1870 listed Ward as a salesman for Wills, Greg & Co. and later for Stetthauers & Wineman, both dry goods houses. In 1870, after canvassing territory in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ward was again footloose. The plan shaping in Ward's mind was to buy goods at low cost for cash. By eliminating intermediaries, with their markups and commissions, and cutting selling costs to the bone, he could offer goods to people, however remote, at appealing prices - for cash. Since its founding in 1872, the company has literally "grown up with America" and has had a major impact on the shopping habits of a nation of consumers. Montgomery Ward & Co. discontinued its catalog operations in 1985 as part of its restructuring effort to change itself into a modern, competitive chain of value-driven specialty stores, a move which for a time saved the company. week.

Long Stockings

We do not know a great deal about boys' hosiery in the early 19th century. This is because boys wore long trousers covering what they wore on their legs. We assume that boys during this period didn't need to wear stockings above the knee (since they wouldn't show), but it is possible that in some cases long stockings were worn anyway for warmth. This is a subject HBC needs to pursue. Even smaller boys before breeching didn't need long stockings because with shorter dresses they often wore pantalettes. Our knowledge of long stockings for boys in the second half of the 19th century is considerably fuller for two reasons: (1) the growth of photography provides better evidence about what boys were actually wearing and (2) the increasing popularity of knee pants (approximately 1870 and later) made the wearing of long stockings almost mandatory, at least for boys older than about six years old. Bare legs and knees were thought immodest and inappropriate for children older than five or six. Elastic hose supporters for women and children were invented about 1875 and became the commonest means of holding up long stockings, although round garters worn on the upper thigh were sometimes substituted. In the later decades of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, boys normally wore underwaists to which the supporters were fastened by buttons or safety pins. Alternatively, boys wore various kinds of suspender waists or skeleton waists consisting, usually, of shoulder straps with belts or waistbands on which the hose supporters were anchored. Boys did not wear tights with their knee pants. After the turn of the 20th century knicker-style trousers became popular for boys, gradually displacing knee pants. But long stockings were still worn with knickers because the knickers tended to be fastened above the knee. By the 1920s it became fashionable to buckle knickers below the knee rather than above, and knee socks often replaced long stockings. In the 1920s, short pants (less formal than knee pants) came into style and were sometimes worn as an alternative to knickers. Knee socks were often worn with the new short pants (as was the common style in Great Britain). But long stockings did not entirely die out during the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s. Some mothers required their sons to wear long stockings with short pants either for warmth or for formal or dress-up occasions such as weddings, funerals, first communions, and the like. And since knee socks were often hard to keep in place (they tended to fall down even when the tops were elasticized or when worn with round garters), some mothers insisted that long stockings with supporters be worn with knickers or shorts for a smoother, neater, and more formal look. Long stockings were almost invariably a single color--black, tan, or beige--and looked more dressy with short pants or with below-the-knee knickers than the sporty, patterned knee socks commonly sold. The stockings also had to be knitted much longer in the 1930s because short pants were being worn shorter and the advertisers made a point of the supporters not showing under the new short clothes. Long stockings worn with short pants, especially for older boys, became much less common in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States, although they were still prominently advertised during this period and were still worn by a minority of boys from conservative families. But by 1945 nearly all American boys had ceased to wear long stockings at any age, and they suddenly disappeared from the clothing catalogs. The style persisted in Canada a few years longer. In Europe, particularly in Germany, Poland, Switzerland, and Scandinavia, long stockings continued to be worn with short pants by schoolboys up until the age of about 14 although knee socks were equally common. Some boys in Germany, in more remote areas, continued to wear long stockings into the 1960s, but they were gradually replaced by tights, which were invented for children at the end of the 1950s. Tights never became popular for boys in the United States.

Stocking Supporters

I am not sure when childrens stocking supporters first appeared but believe regular usage probably began in the 1870s when boys, especially older boys first began wearing kneepants--necesitating stocking supporters. Only some younger boys wore knee pants in the 1860s, but by the 1880s it was very common for boys-- even older boys to wear knee pants. As it wasn't considered proper for boys and girls, especially older ones to appear bare legged, these kneepants were mostly worn with long stockings. This led to a problem. How to hold the stockings up. This was a special problem for active boys. To address this problem, stocking supporterd were developed in both shoulder and waist styles.


This page covers three different categories of support garments in 1938--pin-on garters, underwaists, and garter waists. That there are several grades offered in all three categories seems significant to me. Notice also that boy and girl models are equally represented. 1938 was a year in U.S. culture when support garments for long stockings began to be very prominently advertised in both Sears and Wards catalogs. Ads for long stockings were also featured saliently during the same years. This prominence lasted until about 1943-44 and then very quickly died away after World War II ended.

Fashion Trends

I'm not quite sure how to explain the changing popularity of long stockings during the World War II era. We do know that long stockings were still widely worn with short pants in continental Europe at the time--especially in eastern and northern Europe (Germany and Russia being the chief examples). Our many photographs from Europe confirm this. Were American styles influenced by European customs just before and during the war? The same phenomenon seems to be noticeable also in Canada, although conservatism in Quebec plus the colder climate there could well have had something to do with the style. There was certainly no equivalent in Britain and France, however, countries that continued to dress boys in short pants but that favored knee socks rather than long stockings. This was also the period in America when knickers for boys up to about 16 reached their zenith and then rapidly declined. Both long stockings with short pants and knickers with patterned knee socks (a non-European style) died out at about the same time--by 1945. One point that HBC has already mentioned elsewhere is that elastic products (such as hose supporters) became difficult to come by during the war years. Elastic at the time was made from natural rubber. The Japanese seized control of the vast proportion of the wirl's production of natural rubber when they took Malaya, Singapore, and neigboring areas (1942). This shortage may have had something to do with the decline of long stockings, but it doesn't explain why there seems to have been a brief revival of the style in the late 1930s in America. It may be primarily fashion, but I have a feeling the War Production Board may have been involved. Les material was needed or socks than long stockings and knickers required more material than shorts, although I am not sure about longs. This combined with the shortage of elastic may have been important. Actually many knickers in the late 30s and early 40s were made with elaticised leg hems rather thn buckles. I have never been able to find any write up on the WPB regulations on such matters. I think this is a subject that deserves some wider discussion. Perhaps our HBC readers will have some opinions worth recording.

Ward's Supporters

Wards in 1938-39, the period just before World War II, Wards devoted an entire page of its Fall and Winter catalog to support garments--an indication that long stockings were still being worn by boys and girls between the ages of 2 and 12--and apparently fairly widely worn. The sheer variety of products advertised here is revealing. It could be argued that girls more than boys were wearing long stockings in the late 1930s. Several of the ads for garter waists, for instance, mention that waist buttons provided were for the use of "panties," and yet we see boy models used in the advertisements as frequently as girls. This page displays three different categories of support garments in different styles and grades--(1) pin-on hose supporters, (2) underwaists, and (3) garter waists. Three different grades of detachable garters were on offer, the "thrift" type at only 9 cents a pair, a better grade at 16 cents a pair, and finally the famous Hickory brand (the best and most widely advertised brand name) at 18 cents a pair. It is worth noticing that the two cheaper grades of supporters were availalbe in white only, while the Hickory brand could be had in either white or black. This is a good indication that white supporters had become the standard color in the mid and late 1930s although black was still available. The preference for white hose supporters seems to have paralleled the shift from black to beige or tan long stockings. One feature worth noting here is the claim that the metal fittings of the garters were "rust proof," an indication that they were expected to be washed from time to time in the laundry. We know, however, that supporters and other elastic products that were frequently washed, especially in hot water, lost their elasticity fairly quickly and had to be replaced.


Ward's offered several garters or hose supporters. Because the image we have was cropped, we can not see all of them.

Wards Fine Quality Hose Supporters, 16 cents

The ad copy read, "Hose supporters of sturdy mercerized Lisle elastic. Flat buttons won't show. Pivot type non-elastic pendants. Rust proof metal fittings. White only. Age-Sizes 2-4, 4-6, 6-9, 9-12. State age size. Shipping weight 2 oz. 31 A 2081 Pair, 16 c."

Hickory Brand Supporters, 18 cents

The Ward's ad copy read, "Famous quality Hose Supporters. Firmly sewn, long-wearing Lisle elastic tops. Easily adjustable rustproof metal fittings. Non-elastic pendants. Our very best. Colors: White, black. Age-Sizes 2-4, 4-6, 6-9, 9-12. State age-size, color. Shipping weight 2 oz. 31 A 2082 Pair, 18 c."

Thrift special supporters, 9 cents

The ad copy for this item is unfortunately cropped.


Two kinds of Underwaists are offered here, no doubt juxtaposed to the ads for garters because mothers would often buy the underwaists and the pin-on garters for attachment to them at the same time. The first underwaist is made of cambric, has reinforced straps over the shoulders to support the buttons and garter tabs, and buttons down the back. This garment was designed for boys and girls from 2 to 8. The alternative was a knitted style of Underwaist, also reinforced with tapes over the shoulder, that came equipped with taped-on buttons for outer clothing and metal pinning tubes for attaching supporters. The knitted waist came in age sizes from 2 to 12 but seems to have been favored by older children. It was also warmer for winter wear and served as an additional layer of underwear over the chest.

Cambric Waist, 23 cents; 2 for 45 cents

The Ward's ad copy read, "A fine Cotton Underwaist that's strongly reinforced from the shoulders. Taped-on buttons. Strongly made, comfortably cut. Gathered in front. Button back. Color: White. Even Age-Sizes 2-8. State age size. Shipping weight, each 3 oz.; two 5 oz. 31 A 2042 Each 23 c. Two for 45 c."

Knit Cotton Waist

The Ward's ad copy read, "Fine elastic knit Underwaist, warm and stretchy. Firmly reinforced shoulder straps. Taped-on bone buttons with metal pinning tubes for garters. Color: White. Age-Sizes 2-12. State Age-Size. Shipping weight, each 4 oz.; two, 7 oz. 31 A 2000 23 c."

Garter Waists

Four different styles of garter waist are also advertised for mothers who preferred to purchase a waist with garters already supplied. One of these is a style of shoulder garters with no other function than to support long stockings and comes in sizes to fit both children and "Misses". A boy of about 8 or 9 models it in the illustration. The other three garter waists all feature waistbands with buttons for additional clothing and have detachable hose supporters that fasten onto a waist band by either buttons or safety pins. One of these garter waists, worn in the illustration by a boy of about 10, can be buttoned either in front or in back according to choice. Rather curiously, the boy in the ad wears his waist buttoned in back. One supposes that most boys would have preferred the front opening as much easier to manage. But this waist is shown buttoned in back perhaps only to indicate to the buyer that both options were available to wearers.


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Created: 2:43 AM 9/20/2004
Last updated: 12:03 AM 6/22/2006