How the Boiled Shirt Became the Frontiersmen’s Apparel

In the Old West, frontiersmen sought apparel that was comfortable and durable, and in warmer climes lightweight, collarless (often called “collar band”) cotton shirts were common. Historically, this type of boiled shirt was among the popular designs of the mid to late 19th century and up into the early 20th century, and it saw lots of use in the West for both work and dress affairs—not just by cowhands, but by men of all occupations. However, many of the shirts worn by the citizens of that bygone era were slightly different than many of today’s replica offerings. Further, the original collarless design stems more from a practical application rather than simply as a mere fashion statement.

Collared & Cuffed

Frontiersmen in boiled shirts, Old West frontiersmen, frontiersmen with gun

This gent’s braid-trimmed “collar band” shirt appears to be made of a linsey-woolsey type of material, a common fabric in the 19th century. From the looks of his heavy clothing, cap and gloves, it looks like he could be taking his 1855 Colt revolving shotgun hunting, possibly in hostile country.

At that time, dress shirts had been made without pockets and collars for generations. Such attire was intended for wear underneath a vest, or “waistcoat,” as vests were often called. It was the vest that provided the needed pockets. Such shirts were made with a separately attached collar for “full dress” affairs. They could sport pleated fronts, fancy ruffles or, more commonly, were left plain. Generally, the narrow collar band (narrower than today’s replicas) was separately sewn and made of white cotton (rather than of a matching color, as with most of today’s replicas). This white collar had buttonholes sewn into it—one at the rear of the neck for attaching a “false collar” and two at the throat—to overlap. These buttonholes were for attaching small metal studs, known as “collar buttons,” in order to button a false collar to the shirt body.

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False collars that matched the shirt were sometimes sold with the shirt, but these separately attachable collars could also be purchased individually in a vast variety of styles. Generally speaking, false collars were made in three distinct styles: fully folded over, known as a “stand and fall” collar; partially folded, such as the wing-tip type with the folded collar points; or fully standing, like those of the clergy. Collars were either given stock numbers or stylish names, such as “Royal,” “Brighton,” “Sterling,” “Ajax,” “Clerical,” or some other impressive-sounding moniker.

Separately attachable cuffs were also available for these shirts to dress them up, or in some cases they were sold with the garment. These “false” cuffs were made to fit over the shirt’s regular buttoned cuff. Attachable collars and cuffs were produced in a trio of materials. Inexpensive models were made of a stiffened cardboard-type paper and were meant to be disposable. By the turn of the century, such accessories only cost a few cents and looked good when new but wore out quickly due to perspiration and other factors of normal wear. Celluloid collars (a form of early plastic) only ran about 10 to 15 cents per copy—highly flammable and hazardous to a smoker—were slightly more expensive but lasted a bit longer—as long as they were kept away from any incendiary. Lastly, washable linen collars were the best, and they were often heavily starched to keep their shape. Although they were a bit more expensive, costing about a dollar or so each, they were worth the investment. If one were going to a formal or dressy affair, then a collar and/or cuffs of some sort were definitely in order—preferably quality goods of starched linen!

Gents’ Furnishings

Frontiersmen in boiled shirts, Old West frontiersmen, cowboy

The cotton shirt itself, which cost anywhere from around 50 cents to about $1.50, according to Bloomingdale’s 1886 catalog and Montgomery Ward’s 1895 catalog, was generally constructed of a lightweight muslin or percale cotton, although more expensive, dressier varieties could be obtained in silk or linen. To give one’s shirt that extra look of class, some formal dress shirts used separately attached studs, rather than buttons, down their fronts, while a number of them actually buttoned in the back of the shirt. Interestingly, in the 1993 movie Tombstone, recognized by Western aficionados for its authentic costuming, Kurt Russell (as Wyatt Earp) wears such apparel while wooing Dana Delany (as Josephine Marcus).

In addition, these dressy shirt fronts might contain a sewn-on placket that fashion dictated should be heavily starched—until it was as “stiff as a board.” Garments of this ilk were sold under the name of “laundered” dress shirts. As these dressy items of clothing eventually wore out and were no longer considered in suitable condition for special occasions, they would often be relegated to the status of work shirts, and would then be used for everyday wear by the laboring class.

Ordinarily these “gents furnishings” tended to be all white, or have a pinstriped or tiny polka dot pattern, although pale colors such as pink or light blue were also offered. In those days before wonder detergents, dry cleaning and all of the other modern laundering wonders, the best way to clean such clothing was to boil it. Thus, the shirt became popularly known as a “boiled” or “fried” shirt. Since townsfolk commonly wore this sort of apparel, the term “city shirt” was also sometimes applied to identify such a garment. Thus, it was only natural that as many of the immigrants who trekked westward to settle in remote regions of the frontier, such apparel was put into service as everyday outdoor work wear, rather than be set aside for those rare dressy occasions.

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Nevertheless, not all of these so-called “city” shirts were of the collarless variety. Work and sporting wear, in what was then retailed in some catalogs as “men’s negligee shirts” or “negligee overshirts” and were also intended for use as “lawn sport,” “tourists’,” “boating” or “cycling” shirts (period terms used to undoubtedly denote a more casual form of upper wear) of the mid to late 19th century were mass-produced by the large Eastern mills. These were normally sold via mail-order catalogs or through a local “dry goods” store. Such manufactured apparel was regularly turned out with small rolled collars, perhaps with a single patch pocket on the breast. While shirts specifically made for work or the outdoors were mostly made of heavier cottons or flannels, the sportier variety could usually be found in cotton and linen—sometimes with silk front plackets—for wear in sporting activities or warmer climates. Furnishings of this nature offered the frontiersman an excellent selection of garments from which to choose. Shirts of the era were generally pullovers and, for work purposes, were favored in darker colors like indigo blue, black or gray, so as not to show the dirt as quickly as would a white or light-colored shirt. These shirts were usually produced with calico patterns or with tiny polka dots, small plaids, pinstripes or checkered designs. The most common shirts I’ve found in museums and private collections of Old West memorabilia are of indigo blue cotton with either tiny white polka dots or thin white pinstriping.

Regardless of style, cowboys would include some lightweight cotton or linen “boiled” shirts in their war bags for warm weather. In fact, it was a common saying among drovers that you could “work in one of these shirts all week long, then boil it clean for Saturday night in town.” Regardless of whether the shirt was of the collar-laden work type or of the “full dress” style, it would normally be worn buttoned to the throat in the proper Victorian manner, without a collar.

Electric Shirts?

Frontiersmen in boiled shirts, Old West frontiersmen, boiled shirt catelogue

In January of 1882, a version of the “electric” shirt was patented with concealed buttons under the laced jacket. This illustration appeared in the Bloomingdale’s 1886 catalog.

Another form of upper wear that attained a fair degree of acceptance in the Old West was a pullover shirt that incorporated a string-laced front placket (much like shoe lacing), rather than buttons, for closure. Possibly because of the flashy, lightning-appearing zig-zag pattern this lacing created, such furnishings were sometimes advertised as “electric” shirts. In January of 1882, a version of this shirt was patented with concealed buttons under the laced placket. This unique fly-front design allowed one to put on and take off the shirt without having to go through the lengthy process of lacing or unlacing the shirt’s string-decorated front. This attire also permitted one to wear the permanently affixed collar outside, in the normal fashion, or turned in, forming a yoke to the shirt, so a white, starched dress collar could be put on. Bloomingdale’s 1886 catalog offers such a garment—with one breast pocket—in an array of colors including “navy blue, electric blue, gray, brown, green, etc.,” for the price of $2.25 per copy!

It wasn’t until the late 1890s that full-button plackets (shirts that button all the way down, rather than a pullover) appeared on the scene, as far as mail-order clothing was concerned. Nonetheless, they did not become very popular with cowboys until around the first decade of the 20th century. By this time, most work shirts were being made of flannel materials rather than muslin cotton.

Photos Don’t Lie

Frontiersmen in boiled shirts, Old West frontiersmen, backwoods hunters

These DeWitt, Iowa, backwoods muzzle-loading hunters have each put on what might be considered a hunting shirt over their regular shirts. The wearing of two shirts, or a loose-fitting overshirt, was a common practice in the 19th century. The rifleman at left wears a homespun gingham-checked collarless shirt under his overshirt, while his pal’s shirt has a small roll collar.

Historically, the lightweight cotton work shirts with collars were probably more often used by cowhands and other outdoorsmen than the collarless shirts made for “dressy” attire. Oftentimes the dressy apparel was so thin it would be impractical and probably wouldn’t last a single day on the open range. Any study of period photographs of working cowboys, miners, hunters and other frontier types bear this out. With this in mind, I would love to see more of these small, roll-collared cotton, linen, flannel or raw silk shirts offered by today’s Old West outfitting suppliers, who currently tend to produce the collarless versions in excess. Besides inspecting period photographs, one can purchase reproductions of catalogs from such firms as Sears and Montgomery Ward and see exactly what was advertised and how it was described. Besides, they’re fun to look at—but don’t expect to buy any at the prices quoted in these vintage publications!

Whether made with or without collars, “boiled” shirts got lots of use during the heyday of the Wild West—both in town and on the open ranges. More than a simple fashion statement, such garments offered comfort, versatility, economy and hard wear—all-important factors to the frontiersman of the American West.

This article originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.