Long Johns

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Last week when Alabama broke numerous records for all time lows, silvereagle commented
“Cold here also. 20 right now. Glad I am inside. Wear those longjohns. Wonder where they got that name? Was John really long? What if his name had been Dick? Lol”. So I thought I might find the answer. How did long johns get their name?

Long johns were first introduced into England in the seventeenth century but only become popular as sleepwear in the 18th century. The manufacturing foundations of long johns may lie in Derbyshire, England, at John Smedley’s Lea Mills, located in Matlock. The company has a 225-year heritage and is said to have created the garment, reputedly named after a famous boxer who fought in long underwear.

IMG_0004.JPGThe setting: a smoke-filled room with a boxing ring in Boston, Massachusetts around 1879.

The bell announced round three. Two antagonists rose from opposing corners, carefully calculating their next moves. Big John Sullivan, also called “The Boston Strong Boy,” made the first move: a blazing uppercut blow from the left. His deceived opponent fell hard, eyelids wavering.

Big John swaggered over his fallen victim, bragging, “I can lick anybody, anywhere, anytime.”

Modesty may not have been Big John’s forté, as John became known not only for his fighting style but for the mark he left upon the world of fashion. Unlike other fighters of his time, Big John wore one-piece thermals in the ring, otherwise known as the Union suit.

As his notoriety grew, John’s wardrobe took on the identity of the man, himself. Thus creating “long johns” as the character’s article of choice to wear.

In 2004, Michael Quinion, a British etymologist and writer, first postulated that the “john” in the item of apparel may be a reference to Sullivan, who wore the above mentioned union suit in the ring. This explanation, however, is uncertain and the word’s origin is ultimately unknown.

A less colorful explanation comes from Stanfield’s of Canada. An adjustable two-piece design is credited to Canadian Frank Stanfield, a native of Truro, Nova Scotia, who patented his design on 7 December 1915. In 1898, Stanfield and his brother John had developed a product called Stanfield’s Unshrinkable Underwear for Stanfield’s, their garment manufacturing company. Frank Stanfield may have given it the nickname long johns after his brother.

The most interesting part of my research (to me at least) into the name long johns was that I actually knew who John L. Sullivan was. I used to live less than five miles from the site of Sullivan’s most famous fight. You see, at the corner of Richburg Road and Sullivan-Kilrain Road in rural Mississippi there’s a monument that honors the last bare-knuckle boxing fight, famously known as the Sullivan-Kilrain fight. When I took the back roads to school, which I often did to avoid the worst of traffic, I regularly passed by this monument. The fight is 125-years-old and happened on July 8, 1889. The prize fight was between Jake Kilrain and John L. Sullivan.

On the 125th anniversary, WJTV News in Jackson, Mississippi, did a story about the Sullivan-Kilrain fight. Harold Hartfield, who’s grandfather witnessed the fight said “A lot of the people that was here for the fight actually came on special trains out of New Orleans to witness the fight.” They came from New Orleans on a train track that runs alongside Highway 11 because the governor of Louisiana forbid the fight in his state. However, a large number of influential politicians and businessmen (including, if memory serves me correctly, the mayor of New Orleans) wanted the fight to happen, so they decided to find a new place outside Louisiana’s borders. Bare-knuckled fighting was banned in most southern states, so they had to meet in rural Mississippi at this secret location near the train tracks out of New Orleans.

This being July in South Mississippi, the temperature got up to 106 degrees and the fight went 75 rounds and lasted two hours and 16 minutes. There is no doubt that the heat and humidity were oppressive, especially since the fight took place in late morning as the day began to heat up.

During these fights, a round ended when someone hit the ground and did not depend on a time limit. At the end of the 75 rounds, the assistants for Kilrain took him back to his corner and the doctor said he should not go back in the ring. The doctor feared that Sullivan would kill him if it went on longer. So Kilrain threw in the sponge, which is the same as throwing in the towel.

But since this was a bare-fisted prize fight and was illegal, there was a price to pay to the law. Both fighters left Mississippi for the Northeast but were brought back for trial in the Circuit Court of Marion County, Mississippi. They were both found guilty. Sullivan paid a $500 fine. Kilrain served a two month jail sentence. He served on the farm of Charles Rich where the fight had taken place.

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About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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