by Hattie Thompson
Last week we noted that whatever your passions or interests, there is a historical topic that covers it. For instance, do you like sports? How about fashion and technology? If you want to make your classmates laugh, tell them you’re writing a research paper on the Underwear Revolution. (It’s not made up, it happened right here in Minnesota.)
Consider sports-it is football season after all. Did you know that before the rules of football instituted the forward pass as a legal play, some people were ready to abolish the game altogether? Football began as a “disjointed hybrid of soccer and rugby and The Hunger Games” (Weinreb). Born as the nation was on the brink of Civil War, tensions were running high, and football was an occasionally fatal expression of charged feelings. (Weinreb) This continued for decades. When President Theodore Roosevelt’s son was a football player at Harvard University in 1905, the president called for reforms to the game. Football had plenty of fans, but having already caused 18 fatalities nationwide that year. It was time to make some changes. A group of 62 colleges met to change rules and make the game of football safer. The biggest change in rules was making the forward pass legal. Imagine watching a football game today without a long, game-winning pass by the quarterback. A team of Native American players from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Morrison) were some of the first to use the forward pass, resulting in several victories for their team. Look up Jim Thorpe for another Native American player breaking barriers in sports.
How about technology? What do you think is one of the most important and influential inventions in the last 200 years? There would be a lot of contenders. How about one that affects you every day when you get dressed in the morning? I’m talking about the sewing machine. For people of the mid 1800’s, the sewing machine was acknowledged as affecting all facets of their lives and culture. Not only did the sewing machine make ready-to-wear clothing available to all people, it mechanized the making of shoes, rugs, sheets, curtains, and basically everything made of fabric. Before the sewing machine became a common household appliance, everything was sewn by hand. If you were a laborer in Victorian England, for example, you had very little time to sew your own clothes, and would likely have purchased pre-owned clothing previously worn by the wealthy, who had tailors to custom make their clothing. This meant that the poorer classes mainly wore clothes that were several years out of fashion, or were one size fits all simply shaped garments (Goodman). Although many inventors preceded him, Isaac Merritt Singer is credited with inventing the first sewing machine that could be mass-produced, and therefore, affordable. Not only did this affect the affordability of clothing and made fashion more attainable, but Singer revolutionized business practices worldwide (Bissell).
Thinking about fashion, and the state of Minnesota, you might want to create a project on George Munsing and the underwear revolution. When George Munsing founded his company in 1886, it would have been considered improper to even hang ladies and men’s underwear on the same clothesline. Ads for underwear would never have shown a lady modeling it, even though Munsing’s first “union suits” covered the wearers neck to ankle. Not only does the underwear revolution represent a change in social mores and freedom of expression, the company was ahead of its time in terms of employing women and helping their immigrant employees to adjust to life in a new land. After a rough review of their labor practices from an undercover reporter of the time, Northwest Knitting, as the company was called, went above and beyond in reforming employee conditions. That represents a lot of societal change, with what started as Munsing’s patent on “itchless underwear”, warm wool underwear for cooler climates, including silk stitching to allow warmth without itchiness (Mnopedia). Another interesting fact? Munsingwear (as the company was later called) was based right here in the Twin Cities!
So, start your research! And let us know at the Plymouth Historical Society how we can help!
Season of Saturdays by Michael Weinreb
Smithsonian.com article by Jim Morrison, “The early history of Football’s Forward Pass”
How to Be a Victorian, by Ruth Goodman
The First Conglomerate, by Don Bissell
In the Mood for Munsingwear, by Susan Marks
Website MNopedia.org, “Munsingwear”, created by Kathryn R. Goetz