Lighter Side
April 12th, 1999

Excerpt from: From a Wooden Canoe

Published by St. Martin Press
by Jerry Dennis

All Hail the Union Suit

According To Legend, Old-Time Prospectors, Cowboys, and Lumberjacks wore the same pair of long underwear from autumn until spring because of an aversion to bathwater. I know better. After wearing a red union suit during a wet and unseasonably cold October in the Upper Peninsula, I'm convinced there's another reason: because they're warm, comfortable, and comforting, like the one-piece bunny pajamas or Dr. Denton's you wore when you were three.

I've been a fan of red union suits since a night many years ago in Yellowstone Park when my wife and I heard a sudden racket of shouting and banging pots and pans from the campsite next to ours. We turned a spotlight in that direction and watched a large black bear insert its claws into the door of our neighbor's pickup camper, rip it off its hingers, and climb inside. After a pause of exquisite duration - about anough time to draw a long breath - a man dived headfirst out the tiny side window of the camper. He landed rolling, came up running, and headed straight for our camp in impressive bounding strides. He was wearing nothing but a red union suit, and I remember thinking I had to get one just like it.

The one-piece construction of a union suit seals in body heat and prevents those back-chilling gaps that occur when you bend over while wearing two-piece underwear. The idea's been around at least since the cowboy days of the nineteenth century, though the origin of the name "union suit" remains veiled in mystery. It might refer to the unifying of a top with a bottom, or perhaps to the labor unions that organized the textile industry in the late nineteenth century. A garment similar to our "long johns"was worn in the ring by John L. Sullivan, the bare-knuckles boxer of the 1880s and 1890s, but the name goes back further, to 1840, when a German exercise guru named Friederich Ludwig Jahn became the father of modern gymnastics by inventing horizontal and parallel bars, balance beams, and side horses. Jahn also designed a full-body workout costume that became the rage of gymnasts all over the world. It didn't take long for "long Jahns" to become "long johns."

With Duofold's patenting in 1906 of two-layer insulated underwear, the traditional wool union suit was transformed forever. Wool has long been a favorite choice of fabrics for people who spend much time outside in cold weather, but if you've ever worn a scratchy wool shirt against bare skin you can sympathize with old-timers who were reluctant to put on a fresh one. The Duofold system worked so well it's still around. The union suit I wore those cold nights in October has an outer layer of 40 percent wool, 50 percent cotton, and 10 percent nylon, covering an inner layer of 100 percent cotton. The combination is warm and easy on the skin, and still contains enough wool to qualify as a classic and to insulate in the event of a soaking.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as I am. Critics of one-piece long underwear note that they're inconvenient to wash, are a haven for ticks and fleas, and if you get your legs wet wading a stream, they force you to strip from head to toe to dry. A less delicate matter involves bodily functions. It requires an adventurous spirit to negotiate a union suits's famous buttoned seat while squatting against a tree. And there's also the real possibility that the efficient insulation of a union suit will make it too warm for many outdoor activities.

Personally, I'm willing to accept the disadvantages. If I expect to work up a sweat I wear polypropylene underwear. But if the weather's cold and I plan mostly sedate activities like trolling in Lake Michigan, drifting slowly downstream in a canoe, or hunting in a blind, I prefer the union suit. Red, of course - the color of emergencies. I don't look for trouble, but if trouble should come lumbering after me some night when I'm half-dressed I plan to land running, with the same style and grace as that guy in Yellowstone. ~ Jerry Dennis


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