Good Sunday Morning, Uni Watchers, I hope everyone had a pleasant Saturday.
I’m joined again today by Timothy P. Brown, chief architect of Football Archeology, a wonderful blog which I’m also subscribed to via Substack (on a recommendation from Paul!). Tim penned two articles for Uni Watch back in 2022: “The Good Old Days of Sideline Gear” and “College Yearbook Football Art”. Tim is back again today with a new article.
Honoring Letter Sweaters and Jackets
by Timothy P. Brown
Early football uniforms were often plain garments, with a wool or cotton sweater in the school’s dominant color topped off by striped sleeves or a letter representing the school name on the chest. By the early 1890s, a tradition developed, allowing those playing in the big games at the season’s end to keep their jerseys. Those jerseys became prized possessions because so few earned the right to wear them. Of course, athletes in other sports wanted similar recognition and practice spread. However, some schools used distinct monogram designs and sizes by sports so everyone on campus could distinguish those who played football from those battling on the tennis court or golf course.
Initially known as varsity sweaters, they became football, letter, or honor sweaters after the turn of the century. Some schools awarded watch charms and blankets rather than sweaters, but sweaters became dominant, changing only with the whims of fashion. Class numerals were around by at least 1905 when, for example, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. earned one with Harvard’s freshmen football team.
In addition to awarding letter sweaters across sports, they shifted from the heavy wool suitable for playing in a November football game to cardigans and other all-season garments with few tears and repairs. However, the changeover was not a clean break as many sweaters were marketed both for on-the-field use and to impress the sorority gals, the difference often being the weight of the wool. Also, cardigan sweaters with buttons clearly were not meant for the playing field.
Some teams warmed up for games on chilly days wearing team-issued sweaters that buttoned up the front. Still, sweaters targeted for awards increasingly took on off-the-field forms and functions. Pockets, trim, and extensive use of white looked good on the sidewalk but had little value on the sideline.
By the late 1920s, honor sweaters had moved beyond only letters and included mascots or emblems. And while not directly related to varsity sweaters, nothing impressed friends and foes more than fans wearing a class or rooter hats in the stands.
Letter, varsity, or honor sweaters became the norm at the college and high school levels. Some athletic departments and booster clubs paid for these items, even awarding different versions depending on the level of achievement (e.g., number of quarters played during a season), with chevrons or stripes indicating the number of letters earned, and stars designating captaincies and all-conference honors.
Some locations awarded the letter only, making the athlete responsible for buying the appropriate sweater from the school or local sporting goods shop. Although schools tended to have a preferred model worn by all athletes, athletes increasingly had options, and they began exercising them.
The next innovation in letter-related gear came in the early 1930s with the arrival of the letter jacket. First reported at Trinity University in San Antonio, letter jackets remained in Texas and Oklahoma for the next few years before exploding onto the national scene and making their way into the national catalogs.
Just as the range of sweaters expanded over time, so did the options for letter jackets, including the reversible option. Whether the wearer had the letter sewed on the inside, outside, or both is unknown, but they had to look sweet at the sock hop.
Best as I can tell, the letter jacket quickly superseded the letter sweater in popularity, at least in northern climes. The jackets soon had massive emblems sewn on their backs and medals sewn on in quantities making one side sag.
Marching bands and other school groups later adopted them. Regardless of whether they wore a sweater or a jacket, there was nothing like a proud prepster or collegian on the day they wore their new honor garment around town for the first time.
If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to Football Archaeology by clicking here.
Thanks, Tim! Great look at sweaters, letter jackets and other assorted sideline gear. As I mentioned at the top, even though I’d already worked with Tim on two posts prior, I’m now also subscribed to his Football Archaeology Substack (based on Paul’s recommendation). As Tim mentions in his “About” section, Football Archaelogy “digs into gridiron history to examine how football’s evolution shapes today’s game. Period images and a dash of humor help tell each thoroughly researched story.” Over the past month+ that I’ve been subscribed (I have the Free service, but the paid subscriptions are much more in depth), I’ve thoroughly enjoyed receiving a daily story or tid-bit in my inbox, and I give it my highest recommendation! Tim didn’t ask me for this plug — I’m doing it because I’ve really enjoyed the great daily content, and I think you will as well. He’s also written three books, “Hut! Hut! Hike!, How Football Became Football and Fields of Friendly Strife. If you’re interested in finding out about those, and how to enquire about obtaining a copy, click here and scroll down a bit.
The one thing I wish I did when I got my high school letter jacket was to get it oversized. It shortly became too small to wear, even in college, which was unfortunate since my high school and college had the same colors, Cardinal & Gold (yellow).
Although my HS colors are brown and orange, thanks to our original football coach, who chose the colors in 1959 after moving west from Cleveland.
My son should have done that too. His jacket fits *me* now, but since he lettered in chess and I’m… just an OK player, I haven’t worn it out in public. I can always wear it when shoveling the driveway or stacking wood, though.
Thanks for the enjoyable article, Timothy!
Guess the game: Glenn Resch #33 and Brad Marsh #8 of the Philadelphia Flyers skate against Brad Smith #29 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during NHL game action on March 15, 1986 in Maple Leaf Gardens.
Narrowed it down due to the Pelle Lindbergh memorial patch.
You got it(and Get It)!
Last season the Flyers used Eagle as a jersey supplier…Philly local/small time(?).
Chi…err, Glenn Resch only played a handful of games that season, this being one of them.
I love Chico. He was one of my first favorite hockey players. I even have a mini replica of his Islanders mask. Got to chat with him a few years ago at a Devils game. He is the absolute nicest!
Those sweaters and jackets are simply glorious. Tragic how HS lettermen today are steering away from jackets altogether. -C.
All MLB teams need to bring dugout jackets. Infinitely better than sloppy hoodies.
All MLB teams need to bring back dugout jackets. Infinitely better than sloppy hoodies.
More jackets in sports and therefore less hoodies (even though I love to wear them as well). The article was very nice, these jackets look wonderful. The Pirates jacket at the bottom is so cool, especially in combination with the pill box hat.
Was Chuck Tanner’s dugout jacket a Descente design? I remember thinking Pittsburgh needed something that loud to pair up with those crazy uniforms.
It was waaaay better than that. It was awesome.
Does anyone have a good source for similar letters? I’m making fauxback unis for my curling team and want some old wool/chenille letters. Hard to tell online what’s a reputable source and what’s not, and I would like a quality just above your chain craft store.