Today, if you are a fan of a meme, want to advertise in a specific location like Huntsville, Alabama, or need a cheap uniform, there is a t-shirt for that. You can think up something and have a little bit of extra money, nine times out of ten, a t-shirt can be made, usually in bulk.
But this wasn’t always the case when it comes to clothing and textiles. After all, before the era of the printed tee, fabrics were dyed into different colors, and materials like silk were painted on to.
But, when did this all start? Who invented the concept and what made people jump on the bandwagon? That is what this post is going to cover from here on out.
The Birth of the T-shirt
However, before we delve into the history of the printed t-shirt, we need to investigate the origins of the t-shirt in general. It would be easy to assume that it would be a recent invention. After all, you don’t exactly see portraits of George Washington wearing a t shirt with ‘Murica on it. However, as a concept it is a little older than what most people realized.
The T-shirt was first conceived as early as 1868. To put that in perspective, that time was only a few years after the end of the American Civil War. That’s right, t-shirts were invented in the same decade as the U.S. mail system as well as the same period when slaves were emancipated from their owners.
It was originally conceived as a special underwear for the US navy, around the time of the Spanish American War. It was immediately dubbed a t-shirt because it looked like the capitalized letter. They were essentially top half of long johns with the sleeves cut to make it easy to take on and off in the case of emergencies. Because they were short sleeved and ready to throw into the wash in comparison to the rest of the uniform, they were easy to clean. They were also made of cheap materials like cotton and were easy to produce in bulk. It wouldn’t be long until the t-shirt would be standard issue for the rest of the American military, as well as, the U.S. naval forces.
In the 1920’s, there was a societal shift as a response to workers unionizing across the U.S. as well as a copious amount of new policies that were spearheaded by President Roosevelt. Children were no longer required to nor allowed to work in dangerous conditions to help feed their families thanks to minimum wage and child labor laws. This combined with compulsory education on a national level meant that children not only had spare time on their hands, but they were able to play outside and be kids.
Mothers who were starting to become responsible for mainly laundry and other household tasks soon realized that these shirts were a great way for children (mostly boys) to use as play clothes for when they went outside to play. This was because the cotton t- shirt was , again, made of cheap materials, and they were relatively easy to clean since there wasn’t much material to them compared to formal wear.
Aside: It was also important to note that the word T-shirt was popularized enough by one of the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald that it had gotten an entry in the dictionary around this decade.
During the Great Depression, farmers, field workers, and others who did forms of manual labor wore t-shirts while working, making the trend a little more common than it had been since the prior decade. It did not become a fashion statement, however, until Marlin Brando played his leading role in A Streetcar Named Desire, giving the public an A-OK to use it as pure outerwear during the 1950’s.
The Printed Tee
Now that we have the history of the t-shirt pretty much concluded, we have the ground work to talk about the printed tee. After all, if the story ended there we wouldn’t have Huntsville, Alabama Space and Rocket Center Shirts as one of our major souvenirs today.
Up until the mid-1940’s t-shirts were either a solid color or had simplistic patterns on them if they were dyed that way. There were a couple of earlier examples of a printed tee that existed before the 40’s on Hollywood sets such as the Wizard of Oz, but they were rare and hardly utilized by the public.
That all changed thanks to the Aircorp Gunnery School in 1942. One of the shirts was featured on the front cover of Time magazine, most likely to highlight what the soldiers of WW2 were doing for the war effort. This immediately increased a demand for printed Tees both because it was something new, and because there was a strong sense of nationalistic devotion at this period, mainly from propaganda.
Owners of major companies such as Walt Disney had seen this as a marketing opportunity when the demand started to come into its own, but it didn’t really take off as a form of personal expression until the 1960’s. From there, the counterculture would express how they felt politically or just wear them to show other people what they liked and the places that they had been.
To this day, even if you are just a small business in the Huntsville, Alabama area, you can make what you want, how you want it, and invent new ways to create different fashion motifs. In only 150 years, we have imprinted and modified this garment as a testament to our cultural attitudes and as an outlet for personal expression. Take the time to appreciate how far we come and imagine how far we will go in the near future with something as simple as a t-shirt from cotton and printing produced in places like Huntsville, Alabama.