Every so often, my brother Chris will suggest questions for me to answer in my Wonder Why Wednesday posts. Sometimes his topics make the cut — example here — and other times they do not — like when he asked, “who decided we should only have one lunch per day? Why not 2?”
He recently suggested a topic that at first sounded dumb, but his argument was flawless. Here’s how the conversation went:
Chris: “Wonder this…how old is the t-shirt?”
Me: “Good question. I don’t know, it has probably been around forever.”
Chris: “No way. It can’t be that old. You never see a picture of Ulysses S. Grant in short sleeves.”
I was a little confused as to why he wanted to see Ulysses S. Grant’s elbows, but he did have a point. You don’t see any t-shirts in old photos. Let’s see if we can find out why…
When Was The T-Shirt Invented?
As much as it pains me to say this, my brother was right, the t-shirt is a fairly new invention. Dating back to the early 20th century, it was originally considered underwear and almost never worn in public.
In 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company ran an advertisement for their “bachelor undershirts” with the tagline: “No safety pins — no buttons — no needle — no thread”. They were basically saying, “if you are a single man and can’t take care of yourself…try a t-shirt.”
In 1913, the U.S. Navy began issuing them as undergarments but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the word T-shirt (the name comes from the T shape of the body and sleeves) became part of American English and appeared in the dictionary.
After World War II, veterans began wearing shirts with their uniform trousers as casual clothing. Popularity really took off in the 1940s and 50s when t-shirts made their way into movies. Most notably, Marlon Brando wore one in A Streetcar Named Desire, marking the arrival of the t-shirt as fashionable.
For those of you who are wondering, Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885, so my brother was correct, it is probably impossible to find a picture of him showing off his elbows.