** United States boys first communion suit : 19th century








United States First Communion Suits: 19th Century


Figure 1.--Catholic immigration to America increased substatially after the Civil War. We begin to see First Communion portraits by the late-19th century. This undated portrait looks to have been taken in the 1880s. It is one of the earlier portaits we have found that is clearly a First Communion portrait. The boys are unidentified, but were from Newark, New Jersey. Both are smartly dressed. The younger boy looks to be wearing a velvet cut-away jacket suit. His older brother has a jacket with more adult styling. Both boys wear knee pants. They both sport boutonnieres and the older boy has a ribbon attached to his coat lapel as well. The younger boy holds what appears to be a candle which is what suggests to us that this is a Catholic confirmation portrait.

Large numbers of Catholics first came to the United States in the aftermath of the potato famine in the 1840s. Even great numbers of Italian began to arrive in the 1880s. With these two groups large numbers of American boys began to have First Communion. I'm not sure, however, what these boys wore for their First Communion at mid-Century. We have few images of First Communions in this period. We believe that there two boys in a Maine family were photograohed in their First Comminion suits in the late 1850s, but we are not sure. We have relatively limited information on First Communion suits during the late 19th century. we note boys from the 1870s through the 1890s wearing knee pants suits for First Communion, especially in the 1890s. We are not sure how common it was or boys to receive new suits for First Communion. The boys who had them always wore long dark stockings. We do not yet have extensive information on First Communion suits, but white suits were not common in the late 19th Century. Nor were white stockings commonly worn. Photography became widely available in the late 19th Century. Many mothers considered their children's First Communion an important event for photography. Irish and Itlalian Americans were generally low-income families, but many could afford a visit to the photography studio for this event. This was especially true by the 1890s as the declining cost of portraits made studio visits more common.

Early 19th Century

We know almost nothing about First Communiins in the earlyv19th century. One factor is that photography had notv yet been invented, thus limiting the number of available images. Another factor was that there were not very many Catholics uin America.

Mid-19th Century

Large numbers of Catholics first came to the United States in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine (1840s). Even great numbers of Italian began to arrive in the 1880s. With these two groups large numbers of American boys began to have First Communion. I'm not sure, however, what these boys wore for their First Communion at mid-Century. We have few images of First Communions in this period. We believe that there two boys in a Maine family were photograohed in their First Comminion suits in the late 1850s, but we are not sure.

The 1870s

We have relatively limited information on First Communion suits during the late 19th century. The 1870s was the first decade in which immigration from Catholic southern Europe began to grow. The numbers were a substantial increase, but just a fraction of what was to come. we note boys from the 1870s through the 1890s wearing kneepants suits for First Communion, especially in the 1890s. We are not sure how common it was or boys to receive new suits for First Communion. The boys who had them always wore long dark stockings. We do not yet have extensive information on First Communion suits.

The 1880s

First Communion is very much tied up with immigration. Europeans by the 1880s were emigrating to America in ever increasing numbers. This included immigrants from southern Europe--regions with substantial Catholic populations. The most important was Italy, but the Austro-Hungarian Empire including (Croats, Poles, Slovakians, and Slovemes) were largely Catholic. Thus America began acquiring a much larger Catholic population. We note a few First Communion portraits in the 1880s, but only a few. The photographic recird suggests that they were not very common. We think two factors were involved here, both at least partially economic in nature. While children did First Communion, buying special outfits and taking portraits were not very common. Given the poverty from which they emerged in Europe, we suspect this was the tradition they brought with them to America. It took time for this to change as well as for them to succeed in America.

The 1890s

Photography became widely available in the late 19th Century. Many mothers considered their children's First Communion an important event for photography and more and nore families could afford it--including the wave of European immigrants following the Civil war. Many of these immigrants were Catholic and this was significantly increasing the Catholic population in America. Irish and Itlalian Americans were generally low-income families, but many by the 1890s were making substantial economic profgess and the cost of a portrait had declined substantially since mid-century. Many could afford a visit to the photography studio for an important event like a boy's First Communion. For the first time we see a substantial number of boys dressing up in new suits for First Communion for the first time. Buying a new suit was no small mstter for a working-class family. We suspect that most could not have affiorded it in Europe. In America, many could. We have not found nearly as many First Communion portraits as we see after the turn-of-the 20th century, but we begin to see examples during the 1890s. We think the primary difference between the 1890s and 1900s was the growing income and success of immigrants. White suits were still not common in the late 19th Century. Nor were white stockings commonly worn. We do see boys wearing fancy Funtleroy outfits in the 90s.








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Created: 4:12 AM 9/23/2004
Last edited: 8:22 PM 8/25/2010