Winter Underwear

Figure 1.--.

Winter underwear are virtually unknown to most boys today. Perhaps boys in Canada or American boys on the Northern Plains oe Scandinavian and Russian boys wear them. But for the most part they are no longer common. This is largely because modern homes and schools are so well heated. This was not the case in the 19th and early 20th cebntury. It was then very common for boys and girls to wear long underwear.

Winter Ritual

Generations of Europeamn and Anerican boys grew up wearing long woolen underwear, called long johns, in the winter. It was almost an annual ritual. You knew when winter was approaching when mother brought out the long johns. Then in Spring, you were never quite sure about the end of winter until mother put away the longjohns.

Personal Accounts

HBC contributors have provided the following accounts on winter underwear.

The 1870s

I remember one of my grandmothers telling me about her childhood on a farm in Iowa in the 1870s in which she and her brothers and sisters would be sewn into their heavy knitted woolen underwear in the winter. That era was reputed to have exceptionally cold and long winters, so it may have been a practical thing for farm families that lacked running water and central heat.

The 1930s

My grandmother was a prolific knitter all her life, and knitted heavy woolen sweaters, caps, scarves, mittens, leggings, and one-piece union suits of underwear for me when I was a child. We lived in northern Oklahoma, which had exceptionally cold winters in the 1930s. I was a "delicate child" with many illnesses, and for reasons of health I was required to wear woolen underwear from September until May. I wore the woolen underwear made by my grandmother as well as machine-made woolen underwear that my mother ordered through the Sears Roebuck catalog. The suits of underwear made by by grandmother were much heavier than the Sears underwear, so I would wear the Sears underwear in September and October, and switch to the heavy underwear after the first frost in October, and then wear the heavy underwear until continuous mild spring weather arrived in April. Then I would wear the lighter underwear during the rest of April and in May. The underwear kept me very warm, and presumably contributed to my health. Of course I was not sewn into the underwear.


It appears that one reason that knickers became more popular in the 1910s than kneepants is that knickers covered over the long underwear. Wearing long underwear with kneepants could be rather unsightly.


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Created: December 20, 1999
Last updated: January 26, 2004