Tag Archives: work clothing

Fashion Moments – Overalls

Fashion Moments by Deborah SweeneyWelcome to my weekly fashion blog post. Each week I will discuss a female garment, fashion trend or influencer from the age of photography (1840s through the 20th century). My goal is to educate family researchers and genealogists about the clothing worn by our ancestors. Dating photographs is an issue we all struggle with as family archivists. Additionally, anyone who writes about their family’s history should be aware of the environment in which their ancestors lived. Period clothing is an important part of that environment from how it affects a person’s movement to their overall lifestyle. This week I introduce you to the humble overalls.


One of the most ubiquitous articles of clothing may be overalls. It could be argued that this garment is the single most important piece of clothing in the working class wardrobe for the past few centuries. The consensus of research shows that the modern overalls evolved from an earlier garment called “slops.” However, “slops” were more like trousers than actual overalls. During the 1700s, only working class people wore long pants; a gentleman wore breeches. [1]

Carl Morris mural, 1942

Carl Morris mural, 1942-1943, Eugene (Oregon) Post Office. Commissioned by the WPA Federal Works Project

By the first part of the 19th century, the garment was beginning its evolution into what we would currently recognize as overalls. Up until the 1850s, overalls were homemade, sewn to fit the individual needs of the worker. Originally, the garment was a coverall, worn over another set of clothing for protection. Eventually, it became the worn-alone, bib fronted garment we identify as overalls today. U.S. patents from the late 19th century show a variety of “overalls” from specific occupations. For example, the illustration below shows a pair of overalls patented by Eli F. Stacy and John H. Stacy from Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1872. They were developed for fisherman, in an effort to “secure a smooth front, free of buckles, buttons, or straps where the cloth comes in contact with the rail of a vessel.”

Overalls patent, 1872 (fishermen)

Overall patent, 1872, for use by fishermen

Many patents advertised themselves as improvements to the overall. Two years later in 1874, Alfred Rosenburg of Bridgeport, Connecticut, patented a series of hooks and eyelets which made overalls adjustable “to fit persons of varying sizes.”

Overalls, patent 1874

Rosenburg’s 1874 patent

The exact date of the mass production of overalls is unclear, but many companies, such as Levi, Lee, Carhartt, and Oshkosh, began marketing overalls around 1900, although they may have been manufacturing them for several years or decades previously. [2] Overalls are unique in many ways because they have been marketed to men, women and children. They have been used as a patriotic tool in both world wars, as a symbol of everyone laboring for the common cause.

War Gardens for Victory

We like to think of our ancestors as dressing up for those rare photographic moments. For many of our ancestors, overalls were a wardrobe staple, a tool of their trade, their daily uniform. Below are a few examples of my ancestors being photographed around the farm as cameras became more accessible.

John H. Yegerlehner, wearing overalls on his farm, during the 1910s

Ralph and Raymond Yegerlehner on the farm in 1915

McCammon, Lydia & Jesse with Minerva Metcalf

Jesse & Lydia McCammon with Minerva Metcalf, haying in the 1910s

Further Reading

The History of Overalls from the Blair Mountain Reenactment Society

The Development and Use of Bib Overalls in the United States, 1856-1945, a masters thesis by Ann Revenaugh Hemken, Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa), 1993. This paper is amazing! I highly recommend it if you are interested in learning more about the history of overalls. 

Bib Overalls: From Farmwear to Fashion Icon

Documentary Connecting the Threads: Overalls to Art at the H.W. Carter Sons Factory. This 40 minute film tells the story of Henry Wood Carter of New Hampshire. He started as a traveling peddler, and later started an overall factory in Lebanon, New Hampshire. The old factory building is now an art center. There is some great history of the evolution of overalls at the beginning of the film.

A Detroit company, W.M. Finck & Co. produced overalls for the first half of the 20th century. The online encyclopedia of Detroit has a brief history of the company on their website.


[1] “The History of Overalls,” Blair Mountain Reenactment Society, 10 May 2011 (https://blairmountainreenactment.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/the-history-of-overalls/).

[2] Ann Revenaugh Hemken, “The Development and Use of Bib Overalls in the United States, 1856-1945,” 42-45.


Carl Morris mural (1942-3) at the Eugene Post Office. WPA Federal Works Project competition winner, posted on the Oregon Secretary of State website.

Overall patent illustrations are from Ancestry.com‘s database “U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Patents, 1790-1909.”

War Gardens for Victory. 1939-1945. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction no: LC-USZC4-4436

The photographs from the Yegerlehner farm courtesy of Karen Kline Brand. The photograph of Jesse and Lydia (Foster) McCammon with Minerva Metcalf courtesy of Geraldine McCarroll.

©2015 Deborah Sweeney
Post originally found: https://genealogylady.net/2015/11/08/fashion-moments-overalls/