Monday, February 6, 2012

The Tale of Dad's Shirt Tale

The Tale of Dad's Shirt Tale
written by Norma Shupe Clarkson, born 1905, died 1993.  Written 1975.
Written to her children, about her husband and their father, Joseph Edward Clarkson.
As a young mother, Norma lived in the small community of Carson, New Mexico.

Dad's shirt tail had quite a tale in our younger days.  Could I take a few minutes of your busy life to tell you about it?

First, I'll tell you a little about shirts in the early 1900's.  Shirts were a very necessary article of clothing, not only as a covering for the body, but a protection from sun, wind, and snow, as well as scratches from brush and limbs, bites of animals and snakes, stings of insects, the infections of poison ivy and other poisonous plants.  Only Indians were seen without shirts, in those by gone days.  Dad always wore long sleeved shirts.

The out of door work shirt was usually made of blue chambray.  When nicely ironed it looked quite like the blue chambray shirts we see today (1975) but certainly wasn't perma press.  You can't imagine how it would shrink and wrinkle when washed.  A shirt had to be bought three sizes too large to ever fit after being laundered.  Daddy didn't like blue chambray shirts.  He said that's the kind he had worn ever since he was a little boy when his mother made his shirts.  Some she made were white with a ruffle around the collar.

Dale, June, and Christine.  I doubt if either of these dresses were made from their dad's old shirts,
but Dale's overalls could have been made from an old pair of pants.

With World War I the tan or khaki colored heavy poplin shirt came into use for the soldiers' uniforms.  Later grey, blue and tan poplin was most common for out side work shirts.  (There weren't many "white collar" jobs at that time like there are now.  Most men worked outside.)  For best dress and special occasions, white shirts were worn, some with sewn on collars, but most of them had detachable collars that were stiffly starched, or collars made of celluloid (sort of like our stiff plastic).  This could be wiped clean with soap and water and saved much washing and ironing of the whole shirt, which was a great help, but how uncomfortable to wear. 

Then there was the mediocre type of shirt made of white or light colors with stripes, small prints, or checks or plaids.  This was Dad's type of dress shirt.  He felt too dressed up and uncomfortable in a stiff colored white shirt and long necktie so he liked and was more at ease in the more common shirt just described and a small black bowtie.   This was my favorite kind of shirt, too.  Besides being easier kept looking nice and being more serviceable, it had many uses later on.  I might say here, my father and brothers passed their used shirts on to me so I had plenty to choose from for my sewing.

My early motherhood was during the so called Depression Days of the late 1920's and early 1930's when we had to stretch our dollars to the maximum.  That is, if we had any dollars to stretch.  I made all of my children's clothing as well as my own, except our shoes and stockings, mending and making everything last as long as possible.

I surely tried to get all the wear out of Dad's shirts because they were "ready made" and special.  The first place on them that would wear thin was the fold of the collar. (You know men's necks.)  With the many scrubbings on the old corrugated wash board they wore out along with the knuckles.  The collar then would be carefully ripped off, the good side turned out and with a few pedals of the old treadle sewing machine it was back on and Dad had a good shirt again for a while; but eventually the elbows, and other parts became worn.  These were soft and were torn into squares for many uses--dust rags, wash rags, dishrags and hankies to wipe little noses.  These didn't have to be washed and ironed but just use and toss in the wood stove to burn.  Kleenex or toilet tissue was an unknown household item to us then.  Quite a different world fifty years ago--thats for sure.  We did have a Sears catalog which came in handy.

Well, on with the shirt story.  There was still some good in Dad's shirt.  Have you ever heard of "shirt tail dresses"?  They were quite the "thing" in the good ole days.  Here is how they were made using the part of the shirt that had been protected from wear inside the overalls, and the back which didn't require so much washing and wear thin.  From this we made dresses for little boys as well as girls--shirt tail dresses.

Our family came as follows--all the most special and precious younguns on earth.  There was Bobby June (Barbara June) and Teen (Christine) then two sons Buck (Dale) and Dizzy (Dean), next three more daughters, Sissie Boo (Alice), Doidy (Joyce), and The Baby (for awhile)  (Lynette), then Debbie (Steven) our for sure baby of the family.  Big girls and little girls wore dresses for every day and Sunday best at that time, so they needed many changes as wash day only came around once a week and was an all day job.  This is where the shirts came in handy-- to make more changes without more expense.

The lower part of the shirt was cut to make a little dress either open in the back or the front, making use of the buttons and buttonholes already made, which saved a lot of time, as these had to be done by hand.  Sometimes I used the back yoke of the shirt to make a front yoke on the little dress then finish it off with a Peter Pan collar and sleeves cut from the upper part of the shirt sleeve, and there was a cute dress.  This buttoned in the back.

Another style was made with the button part in the front, a ruffle collar, a wider ruffle at the bottom to make the length.  Now with a slip or underskirt made of a flour sack (flour always came in muslin bags then that were used for many purposes) and black sateen bloomers with inner tube strips for elastic, black or white long stockings, and shoes, my little girls looked like dolls and mother was very proud--new dresses that hadn't cost a cent.

How to keep the long stockings held up neatly was a problem I solved by making a deal I called a "harness".  Yes, made of flour sacks sewn in strips to make straps over the shoulders crossing in the back and attached to a strap or belt thing around the waist.  This finished with elastic supporters salvaged from a discarded corset was fastened to the top of the stocking.  Some children wore elastic garters, but I thought they cut off the circulation.

As the two older girls grew larger the shirt tails were used for blouses to be worn with pleated skirts made of the strong part of a wool skirt or dress handed down from aunts or some one of the family.  They were also made into baby dresses for Buck and Dizzy as they came along.  Believe it or not, baby boys did wear dresses (no cute stretch suits then) and everything had to be ironed.  As they grew a little older I made "shirt tail" shirts for them (no ruffles on these).  They were made like today's sport shirt which buttons in front with turn back collar.  These looked very nice worn with overalls made from the good backs of Dad's Levi's, or pants, after the fronts were worn.  The denim then didn't seem as stiff and heavy as that used in Levi's now-a-days.  It made very good creepers to protect little knees from the floor and bodies from the cold.  (We had no carpets but used woolen Indian blankets for a partial covering of the cold floor.)

These creepers were made of four pieces with a seam in the front, one in back, and a seam on each side.  They had a facing at the top which lapped and buttoned at the shoulder.  (Oh yes, and a pocket or two.  Our little ones did like pockets.)  I sometimes made another style that took more sewing.  These had a bib in front and straps over the shoulders, made of the good part of overalls and men's dress pants.  Good!  No under skirt or stocking holder-uppers needed for boys.

Of course these articles of clothing didn't wear as long as new material would have, but served the purpose and saved the money we didn't have, keeping little bodies cozy and warm those winter days when mercury dropped to from 20 degrees to 40 degrees below zero.  

Here's my thanks to my dear mother who passed many ideas on down to me including "shirt tail dreses".  My father often said of her, "She can stretch a dollar farther than any one I have ever known."  Their motto was "waste not- want not".  Brigham Young gave us many words of wisdom.  One slogan of his was "Eat it up, wear it out, make it do".

For old times' sake I made each of our younger children, Alice, Joyce, Lynette, and Steven at least one dress each and many training panties from Dad's shirt tails.

(Artwork here)

How do you like my art?  At least it shows our little ones didn't look like rag muffins.

To stop off with, here's a story I heard the other day--A politician was asked to explain the difference between inflation, depression, and panic.  "Well," said he,  "Inflation is when you have to tighten your belt.  Depression is when you don't have a belt to tighten, but panic is when you don't have any pants for the belt to hold up."  

(Written by my grandmother in 1975)

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