Costumes of American Literary Characters: Tom Sawyer

Figure 1.--The adventures of Tom sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are staged by school boys all over the world. Of course boys did wear overalls and jeans in the 1840s, they had not yet been invented.

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer may be the most popular book ever written about the American boy. Tom is for all time the quiesential American boy, despite the period setting. Mark Twain published the book in 1876 and as great as it is now preceived, it was not an instant success. It us wonderful book, but not as deep as Huckleberry Finn, perhaps the greatest American novel with its darker aspects and moral conumdrums. Tom Sawyer presents a lighter view of the American boy with much useful information as to how he dresses in the years before the Civil War.

The Author

Mark Twain or Sammul Clemens American writer, journalist, humorist, is perhaps best known for his humor, but he is was in fact a serious writer and among the most important in the 19th century. His most famous novels are of course The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Hickleberry Finn and other books, along with essays, critical work, and more. Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, of a Virginian family. He was brought up in Hannibal, Missouri. The books are based on the authors observations growing up as a boy on the Mississippi Riverin the 1830s and 40s. This is important for HBC as we have so little information on that period. Many believe that Huck's and Jim's saga is the greatest American novel.

The Book

Tom Sawyer was Mark Twain's first novel. He published The Gilded Age earlier, but it was Charles Dudley Warner. Thus The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was Mark Twain's first novel written by himself. In his life time, Tom Sawyer became an American classic and popular syccess and continues to be the best-loved of all his books among general readers, in part because it does not have the darker aspects and moral conumdrums of Huckleberry Finn When it was publisged in 1876, however, the popular reaction was a great disappoinment to Twain. It was in fact comparatively a failure. Twain was convinced "that Tom shall outsell any previous book of mine." The American Publishing Co., however, sold less than 24,000 copies in the book's first year (compared, for example, to 70,000 for Innocents Abroad in a comparable period). I am not sure why Tom Sawyer did not sell better at first. Certainly pirated copies printed in Canada were on of the problems. Twain did not believe that it was marketed properly by his publisher. Sales gradually mounted up. More importantly, Tom Sawyer would lead inexotably to Hucleberry Finn, arguably the greatest American novel. The moral conumdrums in Hucleberry Finn revolve around slavery, at the time the central issue in American political and spcial life. Race continues to be at the center of many Americam social issues.

Figure 2.--Cerainly one of the most beloved story in "Tom Sawyer" is Tom's ingenuity in gettingbout of white washing Aunt Polly's fence. This is one of True William's original illustrations.

Modern Schools

Tragically some schools ban it because of the use of the "n" word. Twain of course has to be the most influential voice for racial tolerance in the 19th century. Influential of course because many read the books, especially Huckleberry Finn, wihout realizing what Twain was doing. (If they had many would not have read the books or allowed their wives and children to read them.) Twain would be very disappointed to find that many black Americans object to the book because of the language.


There are countless images of Tom Sawyer by a miriad of illustrators. Tom Sawyer is such a popular book that it has been published in many additions. Many of the publishers have commissioned a new set of illustrations or a least a new cover illustration. In addition it is a popular play for school groups to stage with often imaginative attempts at costuming. Schools all over the world stage productions of Tom Sawyer, one example of how American or British boyhood heros dominate in the popular mind.

True Williams

True Williams was the original illustrator of Tom Sawyer. Williams worked on each of Twain's books previously published by the American Publishing Company. He did 160 of Tom Sawyer's 162 illustrations. The book was not a long one and these illustrations and chapter headings did a lot to increase the size of the book to what the public expected. Twain was very pleased with the illustrations which he called "rattling pictures." Twain made no suggestions about the illustrations. They were all conceived by Williams on his own as he read the book.

G. Phittingof

We notice a set of fine illustrations by G. Phittingof for a Soviet edition published in 1958. The illustrations are nicely done. I don't think a reader could tell that they were done by a foreign illustrator, let alone a Soviet illustrator. The clothing illustrated seems quite accurate. One of the few inaccuracies we note are wide-brimmed Western hats that boys woyld have mot worn in 1840s Missouri. We know nothing about the illustrator at this time.

Other illustrators

There are countles images of Tom Sawyer by a miriad of illustrators. Some of these have produced wonderfull drawings of Tom, Huckm and Becky. Much more elaborate than William's drawings. We hope to eventually add a sampling of these drawings here.


Tom is often pictured in dressier clothes than his erstwhile companion Huck. Thus images of Tom give an indication of how boys may have dressed up in the days before the Civil War(1861-65). Tom was also pictured in school and play clothes. Some care has to be given in using modern drawings as an indicator of how American boys dressed in the pre-Civil War period described in both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Almost all of the drawings pick up on the fact that the boys did not like shoes and often went barefoot. The original Williams drawings a probably a more accurate depiction of pre-Civil War boys' clothes than subsequent illustrations. One reason for that was that Williams and Twain were about the same age and both were boys before the Civil War. Mist subsequnt artists grew up after the Civil War. One notable difference is that Williams drew Tom wearing long, often checked pants. Kneepants were worn before the Civil War, mostly by younger city children, but they only became prevalent in America after the Civil War. Thus subsequent illustrators drawing from their post-War childhood commonly drew Tom in kneepants rather than long pants (figure 3). They must have been familiar with Williams' original drawings. Presumably they thought that the public would think boys would look rather strange in long pants. The same phenomenon occurred with some British classics when modern illustrators drew the biys in long rather than short pants.

Figure 3.--Notice that Tom in this 1904 edition of "Tom Sawyer" is wearing kneepants which most boys did at the time--but not in Tom Swyers' days. Notice how the artist has retained the peaked cap and apple from the original Williams drawings, but the planks are now vertical as is the case of virtually all subsequent renditions of this scene. I am not sure yet who the illustrator was.

On-Line Version

Tom Sawyer is available on-line and it can be easily searched for information about clothing or other aspects of unterest to readers.

Period 1840s Photographs

I am not sure if Mark Twain ever tells us just when Tom Sawyer is set. We think that the 1840s is a good apprximation consistent with the descriptions in the text. This would be just the time that photography in the form of the new Daguerreotype process appeared. Thus we cn provide for the first time, photographic images of how children actually dressed in the 1840s. We have collected a number of photographic portraits from the 1840s. School portraits are much more rare as most dags were taken in studios. We thus have only a few school images from the 40s. We are very interested in adding more.

Costume Portraits

We note boys having their portraits taken in what seem to be Tom Sawyer costumes. It is difficulty to be sure in some of the early images without provinance. We begin to see these images in what we believe to be the 1880s. Later images are unmistakingly Tom, but we can not be positive about some of the early imazges. Such costume images are relatively rate ion America. Generally speaking American parents wanted portraits of their children in their best clothes and were less likely to take a light-hearted approsch to portraits. We seem more cosdtumed children inm European portraits.


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of the most widely translated American novel. Foreigners with only a minimal understanding of American literature will usually reconize both Tom and Huck. As a result Tom is perhaps the most widely recognized American boy literary characters and indeed one of the most widely recognized boy character in literature from other countries. We know little about the quality of the translations. One of the interesting aspects of both Twain's the Tom and Huck books is the language from mid-19th century America. That would be hard to replicate in a foreign labguage. Another wuestion we are not sure about the language Black Ameicans find offensive in both books and how translations deal withj that. Another interesting question is how the traslation was handled in countries like the Soviet Union in which ideas were carefully controlled.


Navigate the HBC literary pages' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the main Main literary page]
[Belgium] [England] [France] [Greece] [Netherlands] [United States]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: October 17, 1998
Last updated: 6:34 PM 2/14/2008