The Overalls Club Movement of 1920

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 19, 2014

“The revolt against the high cost of living, expressed in the nation-wide formation of old-clothes leagues, overalls clubs, and lunchbasket clubs, is highly significant in that it is the first indication of protest to come from a class which has been a silent and patient sufferer during all the clashes that have taken place between capital and labor in recent years,” said the unsigned op-ed author of the Men & Things column in the April 1920 issue of American Medicine.

Men who joined these clubs pledged to wear overalls, and women to wear gingham, until prices became less prohibitive. They formed overalls clubs, held parades, threw parties, went to church, and even got married in overalls.

Some members of the Overalls Club of Pickens, SC. Photo courtesy William and Anita Newman Library, Baruch College, CUNY

Some members of the Overalls Club of Pickens, SC. Photo courtesy William and Anita Newman Library, Baruch College, CUNY

Cheap blue denim work overalls like farmers or laborers wore were the weapon of choice, but people who couldn’t find those wore various other types of work clothes or whatever old clothes they had to hand.

The movement caught on in Birmingham, Wilmington, Savannah, New Orleans, and other southern cities, then spread to other regions of the country. The employees and officers of various companies showed up at the office outfitted in overalls. The cotton mill owners of New England issued statements denouncing the Southern cities, where the movement had its birth, and alleging that the cotton-growers of the South had launched the movement to increase the price of cotton.

In Washington, Representative William David Upshaw of Atlanta formed an “overall brigade” in the House of Representatives, and secretaries in the Capitol showed up for work in overalls. The Assistant Post Master General sent out a directive to postmasters permitting postal employees to make their rounds in overalls.

The various “overalls clubs” and “old clothes clubs” sent petitions to mayors, governors and diverse other notables protesting high clothing prices. “The movement appears to have lasted from March to June or July of 1920, then faded away as the novelty wore off,” says Paul Eugen Camp, who works in the Special Collections at the University of South Florida library.

“Everybody seems to have had quite a good time protesting in their overalls, but I don’t know if the movement actually had much effect on the cost of clothing.”

Sources: NY Times: April 15, 1920, “Overalls Clubs Spread in South and West; National Organization is Now Started,” Special to The New York Times, Page 15
NY Times: April 15, 1920, “UPSHAW’S OVERALLS STARTLE CONGRESS,” Special to The New York Times, Page 7
American Medicine, April 1920 “Old Clothes and Lunch Baskets,” p. 187
The Argus, [Melbourne, Australia], June 26, 1920, “American Life: Overalls Craze,” pg. 6

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The Animals from the Wild Visit, and Ms. Cat Stays

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 18, 2014

animals at mangerI think it was the ninth night, I was told, that the wild animals came in from the forest, fields and desert. Some had traveled a long way. They came in late at night when everybody was asleep. They didn’t want to scare people.

They came in quietly to see the Son of Heaven, baby Jesus, for already the birds were telling the story of the first Christmas gift. There were wolves, foxes, bears, deer, rabbits, squirrels, crows, owls, eagles and on and on. At least one representative from all the animal and bird clans. Some of the birds who lived by the rivers, lakes and seas, also represented the fish clans and the other animal and insect clans that lived too far away to make the journey. I remember a storyteller saying that, all night, for three nights, the barn was full, as each wild animal took turns to look at the sleeping Christ child, the son of Supreme Being.

The larger animals held the smaller animals up so they could see into the manger. Arturis, a great cave bear, came each night and laid down on one side of the manger, so the small ones could also climb up on his back to see baby Jesus.

Until that first night, even the tabby cats were wild. Ms. Cat came in from the forest, looked around the barn and saw all the barn and house mice and thought, “plenty of food after the temporary, peace-among-the-beasts, truce, but look at all the roaches. This is no place for the son of God or any other human baby, for that matter, and the human houses are not much better than this barn. It looks like these humans need some help to keep their homes clean.”

My cat told me this part. Her ancestor moved in and spread the word and other cats moved into our homes. Cats chose to live with people, they did not become tame first. That’s why cats still have an independent streak, but they do keep our homes and barns free from creepy crawly things.


From “Christmas Stories,” traditional Christmas stories collected between 1962 and 1975 from people in the Southeastern [US] region and adapted for telling by Bluegrass Storyteller, Chuck Larkin

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  • kim says:

    The reference to the dark corner. What does that mean in that the same dark corner lamar jebez curry refers too?

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The Legend of Ruling Days

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 17, 2014

Please welcome Timothy W. Hooker. The Cleveland, TN based author and teacher has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis. He’s taught composition, creative writing, and literature at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, Cleveland State Community College, and Lee University. Hooker has published ‘Duncan Hambeth,’ ‘Looking for a City,’ ‘Rocket Man,’ and ‘Sushi Tuesday,’ and is currently working on his 5th book, entitled ‘The Warrior’s Guide to the Battle of the Sexes.’


You know you are deeply imbedded in a culture when you take for granted things that other people have never heard of.

That’s what I’ve had to learn along the way. And, there’s no better example of it than Ruling Days. You can call it Hillbilly Witchcraft. You can call it White Magic. Or, you may think it’s simply a load of malarkey. But, Ruling Days have been around as long I can remember.

The core idea behind Ruling Days is that certain days are predictors for weather for the upcoming year. More specifically, those days coincide with what others would call Kingdomtide or The Twelve Days of Christmas.

12 drummers drummingHere’s how it works.

According to the legend of Ruling Days, the weather on December 25th will be the predominant weather for the upcoming January. The weather on December 26th will indicate what kind of weather you will have in February. December 27th will forecast the weather for March. And, on it goes, until you get to the forecaster of the next December, which falls on Epiphany, aka January 6.

Trust me. The old folks in my neck of the woods swear by it. And, I, myself, have found it to be uncannily accurate.

I’m not an anthropologist, so I wouldn’t dare attempt to conjure a theory on how Ruling Days developed. I do know Southern Appalachia was settled by folks whom the European feudal system more or less rejected. And, so, some of the original settlers may have still had a bit of orthodoxy in them and they simply adapted it to their purposes.

I don’t know.

But, Ruling Days is a part of our culture. It’s a part that no amount of intellectualism or sophistication can take away. It’s in us, and that’s what makes it real.

2 Responses

  • Jon Parker says:

    The only problem here is that if you start with Dec 25th for January, the January 5th would be the day for December, not the 6th as is stated here.

  • Tom Paine says:

    Like most material presented on this blog, this is fascinating as a cultural relic. But I am bothered by the author’s contention that he has found this particular myth to be “uncannily accurate”. I want to know more. What is the definition of uncannily accurate? What are the parameters? How do you compare early winter weather to summer weather? Obviously, the correlation is not 1:1, but I assume you must have established some parameters. I would like to know more. As an avid amateur weather observer, I would be much interested in conducting my own tests.

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Take it outside Christmas morning and jump on it with both feet

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 16, 2014

Three remaining parts of the hog deserve brief mention. One, the tail, is a most delectable morsel when roasted in an oven or over an open fire.

Two, the hog’s spleen, sometimes called the milt (German), is a tasty delicacy when roasted and sprinkled with salt. Immediately after its removal, along with the viscera en masse, the spleen often was broiled on a hot rock taken from the hog-killing fire. Eating of spleens thus prepared was one of the perquisites of hog-killers.

Finally there was the hog’s bladder. It was a common practice during my youth and in my hillbilly community, for people to inflate hogs’ bladders and hang them up in the attic or smokehouse to dry. A bladder-blowing tube was needed for this. The classic procedure for making a tube was to punch the pith from a section of sassafras bush by means of a piece of hay-baling wire. Some simply used a short length of dead ragweed stalk.

Anyway, the tube, whatever its origin, was introduced into the opening at the neck of the bladder. As much air as it could hold was blown in, and the bladder neck was tied off with a string. Considerable shrinkage would occur as the bladder dried.

However, by warming it over an open fire or stove the contained air would expand and produce a tensely inflated balloon. The conventional thing to do with this used to be to take it out of doors on Christmas morning, after distending it completely by warming, lay it down and jump on it with both feet.

The sound of its popping was quite like that of a firecracker. It was much less expensive than a firecracker and far less dangerous. Incidentally, Christmas and not the Fourth of July was the time for setting off firecrackers in my boyhood community.

Although my home was less than 20 miles from that of the author of the Declaration of Independence, we paid little attention to the Fourth of July except as the day by which we tried to have our growing corn “laid by,” i.e., the deadline for the last cultivation of the corn.

—Herbert Lamont Pugh
born in Batesville VA, 1895
author of “Navy Surgeon,” online at

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Kentucky’s moonlight schools

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 15, 2014

Some would consider her the founder of Adult Literacy Education in the United States. Cora Wilson Stewart (1875-1958) was an elementary school teacher and county school superintendent in eastern Kentucky’s Rowan County who, in the fall of 1911, decided to open the classrooms in her district to adult pupils.

When the Moonlight Schools opened on September 5, 1911, adults were taught at night in the one-room schools in which children were taught by day. They were called “moonlight schools” because classes were held on nights when the moon cast enough light for students to see the footpaths and wagon trails they often followed for miles to reach the school. Teachers volunteered their time to teach at these schools.

Moonlight School, KentuckyOriginal caption reads: “‘Gladys Thompson’s Moonlight School'”; adults and a few children sitting or standing in a room with a potbellied stove, pictures of horses and Abraham Lincoln are hanging on the wall”.

“It was expected that the response would be slow, but more than 1,200 men and women from 18 to 86 years of age were enrolled the first evening,” said Stewart of the initial 50 schools in the program. “They came trooping over the hills and out of the hollows, some to add to the meager education received in the inadequate schools of their childhood, some to receive their first lessons in reading and writing.

“Among them were not alone illiterate farmers and their illiterate wives, sons, and daughters, but also illiterate merchants or storekeepers, illiterate ministers, and illiterate lumbermen. Mothers, bent with age, came that they might learn to read letters from absent sons and daughters, and that they might learn for the first time to write them.”

Stewart later called this first night “the brightest moonlit night the world has ever seen.”

Stewart was convinced that adults should not use the same materials as children to learn to read, so she developed for adult students The Rowan County Messenger, a newspaper with short sentences and lots of word repetition. In teaching writing, she concentrated first on teaching adults to write their own names, believing that this was a vital way of developing what we would today call self-esteem.

In 1912 the enrollment reached nearly 1,600 and the movement had spread to 8 or 10 other counties. Of these 1,600, “300 entered the school utterly unable to read and write at all, 300 were from those who had learned in September, 1911, and 1,000 were men and women of meager education.”

In 1914-15, it was estimated that 40,000 Kentucky adults had learned to read and write in moonlight schools. A Carrollton, KY woman wrote Stewart in 1914: “I wish to thank you for the Moonlight Schools. I have been going six nights and have learned to read and write. I am forty-three years old and have written my first letter to my mother, the next to you . . . Yours, Amanda McKinney.”

In 1915 Stewart published the Country Life Reader: First Book and the next year she published the Country Life Reader: Second Book. Both books featured functional materials from adult’s daily lives:

“This is dirty and ugly. The house needs paint. The porch is falling down. A lazy, shiftless family lives here.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know it from the house. Lazy, shiftless people live in dirty, ugly homes.”
From Country Life Readers by Cora Wilson Stewart (1915)

“Dear Friends,” she wrote on the last page of the first reader. “This little book was written especially for the dear boys and girls of the moonlight schools, not the youngest, perhaps, but the finest school children on earth . . . The preparation of this book has been truly a labor of love. If you have received any benefit from it, the author is fully repaid. “Yours sincerely, Cora Wilson Stewart”

Alabama and Mississippi adopted Stewart’s idea, and by 1916, adults in 18 states had been enrolled.

Cora Wilson StewartCora Wilson Stewart was born in Farmers, KY and attended Morehead Normal School (later Morehead State University) and the University of Kentucky. Stewart began teaching in 1895 at age 20. During World War I she was concerned with Selective Service findings that some 700,000 men were totally illiterate, so she developed The Soldier’s First Book to teach military recruits to read. She was the first woman president of the Kentucky Education Association and in 1926, she was named director of the National Illiteracy Crusade.

From 1929-1933 she was named chairperson of President Hoover’s Commission on Illiteracy. She was active in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs as well. Stewart was also a delegate to the 1920 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, and was nominated for President of the United States.

Stewart’s private life was not as successful as her public one. She spent her last years in a home for the elderly in Tryon, NC, alone, with only enough resources to live. She had been married three times — twice to the same man. Her only child had died in infancy. Glaucoma had left her blind.

She died in December 1958 at age 83.

Sources: Statistics of Land-grant Colleges and Universities, by United States Office of Education, Office of Education, United States Govt. Print. Off., 1913
Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky’s Moonlight Schools, by Yvonne Honeycutt Baldwin, University Press of Kentucky, 2006

appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history Cora+Wilson+Stewart education+in+Appalachia Moonlight+Schools

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