A short history of long johns

Base layers are becoming an apres fashion statement

Melissa Jay and and Jeb Bisset are decked out in quick-dry base layers, moisture-wicking hoodies and performance socks in the Frisco Nordic Center on Jan. 17.
Liz Copan /

People who participate in outdoor activities can often geek out about gear. Before purchasing, they compare dozens of ski models, bindings, tents, sleeping bags, headlamps, climbing harnesses and more.

But while researching the best ski goggles or warmest mittens, picking out a base layer is regularly an afterthought, even though the modest item of clothing has been providing warmth to people for over a century.

The past

Though the history is murky, the invention of the long john (also called thermal underwear or long underwear) is credited to John Smedley in the English town of Matlock in Derbyshire. There, Smedley manufactured the clothing on the premises of his Lea Mills in the late 18th century. The family-run Smedley company still operates in the mills 236 years later and claims to be the oldest manufacturing factory in the world. 

John L. Sullivan in 1882

While John Smedley can lay claim to being one of the first of his name in the textile business, the clothing most likely isn’t an homage to the family legacy. The name supposedly refers to American boxer John L. Sullivan, aka the Boston Strong Boy. Sullivan reigned as the heavyweight champion from 1882-1892 in gloved boxing and was also a bare-knuckle boxing champion.

Another early long john innovator was Canadian company Stanfield’s. Charles E. Stanfield first founded Tryon Woolen Mills in Tryon, Prince Edward Island, in 1856 with his brother-in-law Samuel E. Dawson. He then moved to Nova Scotia and founded Truro Woolen Mills in 1870 after selling his interest to Dawson.

In 1896, Stanfield sold the business to his sons, John and Frank, who transformed the company into what it is today by specializing in knitted goods. The business became the major supplier of “unshrinkable” underwear for prospectors and miners during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897.

Members of the Breckenridge volunteer fire department pose in what appears to be exercise clothing. The men wear shorts over long johns, some with a sash tied around the waist, and others with a neck scarf or hat.
Agnes Miner Collection, Courtesy Dr. Sandra F. Mather Archives, Breckenridge Heritage Alliance

Long johns or union suits?

Long johns are notably two separate pieces of fabric: a top and bottom that evolved from sleepwear. However, a similar type of base layer also originated in the late 19th century made out of one article of clothing. Dubbed the union suit, it has the iconic rear flap or “drop seat.”

The garment design actually started in the women’s dress reform movement of the late Victorian era, which aimed to make clothing that’s more comfortable and practical.

For more

This story previously published in the Spring 2020 edition of Explore Summit magazine.

According to a fashion exhibit at Ohio State University, it was patented in 1868 as an “emancipation union under flannel” that combined shirt and drawers in one. Susan Taylor Converse of Woburn, Massachusetts, created an improved version in 1875 and named it the emancipation suit.

While miners and residents of colder climates frequently wore long underwear due to the lack of heating beyond fireplaces and stoves, the stereotypical image of the old prospector walking around in a ragged union suit isn’t exactly true.

For one, being a base layer, it was highly uncommon for people in Victorian times to be seen in their underwear in public. Therefore, it was just as rare for them to go through the trouble of taking a photo of themselves when they weren’t looking their best.

Secondly, mending garments was a frequent practice of the time since holes in clothing were looked down upon. Rather than throw out an item and buy another expensive article, it would be fixed to prolong its life.

So where did that depiction come from?

“If I were to pin that stereotype to anywhere, I would probably put it on Hollywood movie depictions,” said Myles Gallagher, curator of the National Mining Museum in Leadville. “I believe they were portrayed that way to emphasize that they were working hard, and so they took their top few layers off as they heated up when working.”

Gallagher said that while underground mines are cold, it’s imaginable to work up a sweat when hammering a drill bit into a rock all day, especially in warmer areas like Tombstone, Arizona, or California. Yet just because they weren’t usually seen or pictured, Gallagher doesn’t doubt that they weren’t worn.

“Anyone in the Rocky Mountain region, probably for most of the year, were wearing long underwear regardless of occupation,” Gallagher said.

The present

Like with any item of fashion, technological advancements changed the makeup of thermal underwear throughout the 20th century. One man who has seen many of those shifts is Peter Duke, founder of the Steamboat Springs-based merino wool clothing company Point6 and, before that, Smartwool.

Duke said cotton was common in the 1970s, synthetic materials rose in the ’80s and then wool entered the game in the ’90s. Alongside those fabrics came the addition of features like zippers on thumbholes on sleeves. 

Why the shift from synthetic materials to the natural wool? 

“Because wool performed much better than synthetics,” Duke said. “Synthetics talked about moving moisture away from your body, but it didn’t do anything with it.”

Meanwhile, wool absorbs the moisture when it’s still a vapor, preventing the excess from making the body damp and cold, and stopping the formation of odor-carrying bacteria.

Though merino sheep have been domesticated and raised for their soft wool in Spain since the 12th century, and wool has been regularly used for outerwear for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until recently that manufacturers were able spin finer threads suitable for undergarments. Merino sheep also have proliferated outside Spain to regions including Australia and the U.S.

Duke said threads spun to 19 microns in diameter or larger are usually blended with synthetics to offset wool’s itchiness. Point6’s base layers are 18 microns and more comfortable, he said. Point6 also uses compact spun fibers, meaning centrifugal force separates smaller, itchier fibers from the soft, longer ones that are resistant to pilling.

When picking out a base layer, Duke naturally prefers merino and said to always check the microns since not all wool is created equal. But most important is trying it on to see how the clothing fits. The fabric can’t trap in the heat if the clothing is too loose, but it can be restrictive and uncomfortable if it is too tight.

As for the future, base layers have begun incorporating a mesh weave in areas such as behind the knee and lower back for breathability. Duke said his company is looking into incorporating those types of features. He also sees base layers becoming more of an apres fashion statement with more and more color choices used to express oneself after a day on the slopes.

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