A Coat Tale of Two Cities

A collection of reminiscences, short stories and essays
by Larry Maloney

Copyright © 1998 by Larry Maloney.
Illustrations: Copyright © 1998 Carole Best.
All rights reserved.
Published by Muzmo Communication Inc., 1998

Life Before Blue Jeans

Was there life before Kleenex, before Cake Mixes and Panty Hose, and before Electric Guitars; was there, truly, life before Blue Jeans?

Those of us who were born in the Twenties have seen a remarkable number and the wide variety of changes in our lifetime and I’m sure many younger people wonder, now, how we ever managed before the effects of so many great inventions and discoveries, slowly and steadily crept into our lives.

People of my age were around before plastics, detergents, polio shots, radar, throw-away razors, contact lenses, and sulfa drugs. We didn’t know about television, air conditioning, micro-wave ovens, and organ transplants. Could we have had a life without space ships, Valium, computers, and atomic energy?

We saw how these remarkable breakthroughs brought about drastic changes, in technology, medicine and creature comforts. In addition, we were also to experience extreme changes in cultural and social habits and values, brought about as a result of a great depression, and a great war and then in their aftermath, a great acceleration of the social evolution of western society.

We were to watch young people as they created their own styles of clothing and grooming; devised their own music; adopted new attitudes towards religions and minorities; and relaxed standards dealing with sex and drugs.

But before all of that we managed, and we did not know about two-car families or suburbia; had not heard of Elvis or Frankie; had never seen a credit card, a MacDonald’s or a supermarket. How could we know, then, that the future would produce so much?

How could we know that a pair of “waist-high overalls,” made in San Francisco, back in 1853, would evolve into Levi’s Blue Jeans and become such a representative trademark of the modern world? Blue jeans became the uniform of the “Electronic-Pepsi-Generation,” throwing off men’s blue serge image, declaring women’s equality and symbolizing freedom and change for all young people throughout the world. How could we know about this social revolution? We were from a world where the pace was slower, our customs were fixed and our needs were simpler.

When I was young, boys wore breeches, with knee high stockings; and girls and women wore dresses, skirts and blouses. Long pants, of any sort, were for grown-up men.

The usual garb of the day for men was a suit, worn with shirt, tie, and suspenders (called braces). For sports and leisure, most men merely doffed their coat and maybe their vests, rolled up their shirtsleeves, unfastened collar button and stud, removed collar and tie and were then prepared for the ball game or whatever. There were rough work clothes, of course, but there were no special leisure clothes as we have today and “waist-high overalls” were really not an “accepted” garment for normal wear. It was only after W.W.11, that men finally changed their starched shirt image when they adopted the fatigue type clothing of the armed servicemen.

Our pace was slower because we were the children of the “Twenties.” It was, on the one hand, the era of the Flappers, of Speakeasies, of the Charleston, of Lindbergh’s famous flight and of the Stock Market Crash. But while events, of world importance, were happening around us, it was also a wonderful time to be a child. Family life was stable and uncluttered by comparison to today’s frantic schedules. We spent and enjoyed time at home around the piano or phonograph or at the kitchen table, playing cards and talking, unafflicted by TV addiction. There were frequent unplanned gatherings, with grandparents and other relatives, who would drop by from down the street. Corporations hadn’t yet implemented their devious scheme of breaking up families by transfers to other cities, so children had the benefit and security of warm associations with several generations of family.

We often think about ‘those olden days’, as my granddaughter calls them, or ‘pre-jeans days’, as I call them. We lived with many old customs and conventions that were steeped in tradition, all of which tended to provide for a rather stable society.

We remember when common-law living wasn’t common at all; when abortion was a whispered word; when Sundays were slow and Fridays were fast; when you could also distinguish boys from girls by the length of their hair and by the clothes they wore; when school teachers and policemen were as old as your parents and were treated with as much respect; when parents still knew how to say no. We remember, too, when high schools didn’t need parking lots; when the term baby sitter had not been coined and day care centers were unnecessary because that’s what Grandmas were for, at least until Florida was invented. We remember when a million was a lot of money, when a snort was the sound of derision and when rock music was the lullaby sung to a baby.

We remember that the horse and wagon, only starting to give way to Henry’s Model Ts, was still used for most home deliveries. The major department stores, which were all located downtown, delivered free of charge, by horse and wagon, even into the suburbs. There were no suburban malls in those days. Who needed them?

If you were to ask what did we watch before Televison, we’d say we watched radio. When we “watched” Lux Radio Theater, OrsonWelles’ War of the Worlds, or a football game, we didn’t need a video screen because our mental pictures were exciting enough.

There was life in the Twenties, a good life, but not always an easy life. Fathers worked long hours through a six-day week and mothers managed a household and did the family wash by hand. Keep in mind there were no washers and dryers in the home; no launderette on the corner; no diaper rental services, or disposables; no wash and wear materials; and no Kleenex to help you through a head cold (so there was always lots of handkerchiefs).

But did we have a life at all in the 1920’s, before Blue Jeans? Sure we did. Before zippers, we had our buttons. Before ballpoint pens, we had fountain pens, remember them? Remember inkwells, and blotters? What did we use before tranquilizers, sulfa and penicillin? Take two aspirins and get a good night’s sleep. Fast food? That’s what we ate during lent.

We did not know or care about cholesterol, did not count calories and were blissfully unaware that so many foods were bad for us and many people enjoyed tobacco without feeling guilty about it.

Of course there were many things we did without, back then in those pre-jeans, olden days. But remember we did not know about Camcorders; Word Processors; Seven Up; Cellular Phones; VCRs and K Marts; we had never tasted Pizza; could never, in our wildest dreams, have imagined The Pill, so you can perhaps understand, we had no sense of being deprived.

There was life before the advent of Blue Jeans and all they represent. It was a good life, simple and uncomplicated, and not always easy. Above all it was a quiet life, because it was a life before Ghetto Blasters, Boom Boxes, T. V. Commercials and the sound of Robin Leech.


The Story of Blue Jeans

In its information booklet, Levi Strauss and Co. states, “The modern day mystique, with the irresistible aura of romance and adventure, that surrounds Levi’s jeans, began in the mid-’30s, when Easterners saw them worn at Western dude ranches and in cowboy movies. Pop culture, of the ‘50s, fanned the Levi’s jeans craze, when James Dean and Marlon Brando wore jeans in two powerful motion pictures — “Rebel Without Cause” and “The Wild Ones.”

The booklet also states “that Levi’s blue jeans are guaranteed to shrink, wrinkle and fade.” These characteristics were built in, over the years to further enhance the popularity and charm of “waist-high overalls” that have been worn by prospectors, cowboys and presidents and by movie heroes, hippies and socialites.

It all started when, “a 24 year old, German immigrant, Levi Strauss, made pants out of left-over, heavyweight brown canvas tent material, to fill a need that the California gold miners had for sturdy trousers. He then switched to a lighter but strong fabric made in Nimes, France, called “serge de Nimes,” later shortened to “denim.” This material was coloured the familiar deep blue by development of an indigo dye. The term “jeans” was derived from the cotton trousers worn by ancient-day sailors from Genoa, Italy, which the French called Genes.

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