The Overalls Club Movement of 1920

Posted by | December 27, 2011

“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.

Overalls Club of Pickens SCSome members of the Overalls Club of Pickens, SC.

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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