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Why Are They Called Long Johns?

Ready for winter? Don't forget the long johns, that important layer against the cold. But where did they come from and who are they named after? Find out in this short history of long underwear.

Who’s ready for a Polar Coaster winter? For many of you, we recommend you stock up on wool sweaters, fuzzy mittens and, of course, long johns, also known as “thermal underwear” or “long underwear.” Anyone who lives in locations where winters get cold is familiar with how important this layer is in providing extra insulation against bitter temperatures. But where did they come from? And perhaps more interesting, how did they come to be called “long johns?” 

Where Did Long Johns Originate?

During the 19th century, people wore one-piece flannel “union suits” under their clothes to stay warm. These garments were initially designed for women but they soon became popular with working men. While they definitely weren’t the first form of long underwear ever produced, they were considered essential around the time long johns started growing in popularity. 

Advertisement for a union suit from the 1902 Sears-Roebuck catalog. {{PD-US}}

But there are differences between the two: union suits are one-piece, buttoning down the front with a “trapdoor”—often used to comedic effect—in the back. Long johns, on the other hand, are a two-piece garment—leggings and a shirt—made from flannel or wool with a square-weave waffle fabric that helped to wick moisture away from the skin. To some, both the shirt and the bottoms are referred to as “long johns,” but to others, “long johns” are the name for the pants only. 

Who Is the “John” Behind Long Johns?

John L. Sullivan, boxer {{PD-US}}

Some historians claim that British cloth and clothing manufacturer, John Smedley’s Lea Mills, of Derbyshire, England, is responsible for introducing long johns to the public sometime in the 19th century, naming them after a famous heavyweight, bare-knuckle boxer at the time, John L. Sullivan, who always entered the ring wearing only his long underwear.

During Canada’s 19th century Klondike gold rush, another mill, Stanfield’s, of Truro, Nova Scotia, grew rich selling woven wool long underwear to prospectors heading to the frigid Yukon. But this two-piece design wasn’t patented until 1915.

Another unconfirmed story places the invention of long johns back in 17th century England. This tall tale may be one of the most interesting because it says that the name may have been inspired by a famed knife fighter who made a habit of fighting in long underwear.

Some etymologists have also put forth the idea that the term “long johns” may have come about as an approximation of longues jambes, which is French for “long legs.”

No matter where they came from, long johns will always be a toasty staple among winter wardrobes.

Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental and green living topics. Her article on woolly worm caterpillar folklore appears in the 2020 Farmers' Almanac.

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Jeff young

I love this book cant find it

Susan Higgins

Hi Jeff, you can purchase it online from Amazon!

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