** boys first communion suit: United States individual experiences 20th century

U.S. First Communion Suits: Individual Boys--20th Century


Figure 1.--This American cabinet card portrait has no accompamying information. It is a new style cabinent card apoearing around the turn-of-the-century, many of which did not indicate the studio or the location. Thr clothes and the style of the mount suggest that it was taken around 1920. It could be the late-1910s or early-1920s. We would guess the early-20s because the boys are wearing low-cut shoes. It looks like only the girl is doing her First Communion, her older brothers are pictured with her. The children look to be about 6-11 years old.

We begin to see large numbers of First Communion portraits after the turn-pf the century in the early-20th century. We are not sure why we suddenly begin to see these portraits after the turn-of-the century. Several factors were at polay. Incomes were rising amomg bith the middle-class and working class. America has emeged as the most wealthu ciuntry in the world. Certainly as a resilt of massive European emigraton there were more Catholics in America to have these portraits taken. Many were wirking class, but nebefitting by the rapidly expandin American economy. We suspect, however, that more was involved. Perhaps the Catholic Church began to give more emphasis on these celebrations. Perhaps it reflected the growing success of Catholics in America. We just are not cerain at this time. Nefore the massive emifiation from Europe following the Civil War, the only major Catholic groip was the Irish. As part of the wave of immogration, many from southern Eurooe we see many more catholkics, most of who settled in the major cities. We see boys dressing up in suits for these occassions. At fgirst they seem regular suits with fancy sleeve ribbons. After World war I we begin to see boys wearing special outfits for First Communion. Some boys wore fancy blouses. Oher boys wore suits specifically for the event. And after World War IIwe see more and more Catholics entering the prosperoys middle class. By the late 20th centurry we see fewr boys doing the First Communion in suits. The girls, hoever, continued wearing the juniir wedding dresses.

The 1900s

We begin to see large numbers of formal first communion portraits for the first time in the 1900s. The break with the 1890s is quite sharp. We would have expected a more gradual change. We have archived enough 1890s images to know that formal First Communion portraits were not common. Nut we see quite a number in the 1900s. Surely a factor was that Catholic immigrants by the 1900s were beginning to be increasingly successful economically. A new generation of American born-Catholics were rising in America and with edconomic success they could aford to celebrate important family events. Perhaps ssome other factors were involved, but at this tome ecomonic success is the primary factor that occurs to us. The boys mostly wear knee pants suits.

Unidentified Boy (about 1905)

We do not know a great deal about this boy except that he was from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. We have a portrait of him doing his First Comminion. It is undated, but looks to us to have been taken about 1905. He wears a knickers suit. Another portrait shows him a few years later, we think for his confirmation. Note: We have since revised our opinion here. This almost certainly was a portrait taken in the 1910s.

Italian Siblings (about 1905)

Here we have an unidentified portrait of a brother and sister in a First Communion outfits, probably about 1905. We woukd guess that they are an Italian immigrant family. They are picture with their proud mother. The girl looks to be anout 8 years old and wears a veil and junior wedding dress, cut shorter than many we notice at the time. The boy wears a knee pants suit. He seems too old to be doing his first communion. He looks to be about 13 years old. Sometimes mothers had children of different ages do their First Communions together, but here the age difference seems too wide. Perhaps he was doing his confirmation. We are not sure what the bottinaire affair on his lapel is all about. Our dating is largely based on his knee pants suit. Boys in the 1910s mostly wore knickers suit. We see some boys in the 10s wearing blouses and knee pnats, but not knee pants suits like the boy here is wearing.

Unidentified Chicago Boy (1907)

This cabinet portrait was taken in 1907. The boy wears a double-breasted suit knee psnts suit with long stockings. The suit was almost certainly purchased fir the occassion. This of course speaks to a certain level of affluence. He wears gloves for formality and holds a rosary. This is one of the earlier formal American First Communion portraits that we have found. We note very few in the 1880s. The boy is unidentified, bit looks to be about 0 years old, a little older than the modern age for First Communion. We are not sure about vage conventions at the time. We are guessing the boy was a First Generation Polish American. Many bPoles settled in the industrisal cities of the Midwest of ehich Chicsgo was the largest. The portrait was taken by the Kosciuszo Photo Art Studio of Chicago.

Hispanic Boys (1908)

Here we have two Hispanic boys. All we know for sure is that the portrait was taken in 1908. We do not know where the portrait was taken, but you might expect California. The boys wear dark knicker suits with long black stockings, the standard outfit at the time. We are a little confused by the portrait. Since they are photographed together and wear virtually identical outfits, you might assume that they are brothers, but we do not understand why different age brothers would have their First Communion on the same day. It is interesting hat these formal First Communion portaits appear aftter the turn of the 20th century. We see very few such portraits in the 1890s. We are not sure why such an observeable change occurred at this time.

Agnes and Clarence Rogers (late 1900s)

Here we have a First Communion portrait of Agnes and Clarence Rogers. They did their First Communion at St. Mary's Church in Coon Creek, Kansas. We know nothing about the family. The portrait is undated. We would guess it was taken in the late 1900s or early 1910s. This is in part because knickers were more common in the 1910s than the 1900s, especially the early 1910s. And these plain, longish cut jackets declined in popularity during the 1910s. Agnes wears the white junior bridal dress that was common for the girls. Clarence wears a double breasted knickers suit with long stockings. These conservative suits were very commonly worn for First Communion. Note the stiff, rounded collar and white necktie.

The 1910s

We see very large numbers of formal First Communion portraits in the 1910s. This surely is a reflection of Catholic immigrant families moving increasingly into the American mainstream. Having a portrait taken in their First Communion outfits became an established tradition. We see most boys wearing suits. Norfolk suits were vertt commom. Some boys just wore blouses, but most wore suits. Some of the boys wearimg blouses wore them with white long stockings. And while the suits were mostly worn with jnickers, some of the boys wear=ting just blisescwire them with knee oants. WNorfolk jacket suits were very popular. Most of the suits were done with knickers. Most were dark suits, but we notice a few white suits including some worn with white long stockings. Neckwear varied. We still some floppy bows, most in the early-10s. Most boys wore knicker suits with black long stockings. Suits were dine with knee pants in the 1900s (until about 1908), But in thev1910s we mostly see knickers suits. Girls wore juniir wedding drsses with headwear and veils. Mostly the boys wore high-top shoes. We see a few boys weaingbstrap shies, mostly the bouswearing blouses and white long stockings. .

The 1920s

We see American boys in the 1920s wearing all kinds of different outfits for their First Communion. Many of the boys like the 1910s wore suits, modtly dark suits. We also see boys wrearing blouses and tieds with both bows and ties. Ties and shirts were becoming more common, but a number of boys wore blouses, especially in the early years of the decade. We note boys wearing either short pants and knickers. Knickers were also common in the 1910s, but short pants were an innovation. We do not see many boys wearing either knee pants or long pants. Boys commonly wore long stockings which were considered more forman than knee socks. High-top shoes were still common, but by the end of the decade we begin to see more low-cut shoes.

The 1930s

We note quite a variety of First Communion outfits worn in the 1930s. Most boys seem to have suits for the event. Gicen the Depression, some may not have been new. We note both dark anbd white suits, but the darkl suits were more common. They were both short pants and knicker suits worn with long stockings and kjnee soicks. Some mothers thought long sockings appropriate fr formality, but we also see many boys wearing knee soicks. We occasioinaslly see abkle socks, but this was noit very common. We also see boys wearing white shirts rather than suits. This was a more casual and less expensive option. Suits seem the most common. Girls wore white wedding dresses in various styles.

The 1940s

Charles Smith: Pennsylvania (about 1940)

Here we see Joseph Smith in a knicker suit, probably the suit that he wore to his German school. Click on the image to see Joseph with his brother Charles. They are dressed in new knicker suits, probably blue. Charles is wearing his suit for his First Communion. Knickers at the time were rapidly going out of style.

Iowa Boy (1941)

Here is an Iowa boy dressed up in his First Communion suit for a formal studio porrait. He was photographed on the front page of his grand parents home (Grandpa Ben and Grandma Anna along with his sister Pat who was 10 years old and holds a school slate. Jude is presumably about 7 years old. The snapshot was taken June 15, 1941. It looks to be a warm day. Neither Jude or his Grandpa are wearing their suit jaackets. Juse wears a white shirt and checked tie.

D'Amici, Robert (1947)

Robert D'Amicio did his First Communion on April 13, 1947. The portrait shows him in his white short pants suit which would have been purchased judst for the occassion. He has a white floppy bow rather than a necktie. This was one of the last times we have noted boys wearing floppy bows rather than a necktie. He also had a First Communion sleeve bow. His suit has knee-length shorts and short socks worn with white shoes. Robert is holding a prayer book and rosary beeds. I am not sure where he is from, but he may have lived in Massachsuettes.

Three Unidentified Boys (1948)

Here we see three unidentified boys wearing identical whote short pants suits fot their First Communion. The snapshot is taken in front of one of the boys' homes. They could not be brothers because they are all about the same age. They are dressed identically in all white with the exception of one boy wearing black shoees. The boys all wear ankle socks. Knee socks for boys were going out of style in America at the time. The identical outfits suggests the boys went to a Cathoic school. The house looks rather suburban, but we do not know where the boys were from.

The 1950s

Unknown Boy (Early 1950s)

We believe that the image here is an American portrait (figure 1), although we have no confirmation of this. Some of our European reades think that it is French or Italian. The boy is clearly a Roman Catholic becuse of the religious statute and the sleeve ribbon shows that he is taking his First Communion. The image is physically located in America and that suggests that it is American--although of course this i not a fool-proof indicator. We believe that the portrait was probably taken in the late 1950s, in part because both farther and son are wearing single breasted suits and the lapels and ties are rather narrow. Much wider (and louder) ties were common in the early 1950s as well as the lapels. There is one aspect about this images which rather confuses us. American children genrally did their First Communion at about age 7. This boy looks quit a bit older, perhaps 11 or 12 years old or so--although the short pants make him look younger. We note that some European boys do their First Communion at a later age. We would be interested in any insights reader might be able to add. We are increasinly coming to the view that this is a Confirmation rather than a First Cmmunion portrait.

Unidentified Boy (1952)

This American boydid his First Communion in 1952. Unfortunately that is all we know about him. Dad took his photograph outside their home, presumably before driving to church for the ceremony. He wears a white floppy bow. This had been cimmon earlier, but we rarely see it after the early 50s. Boys were more likely to wear bow ties or neckties. The boy wears a long pants suit as was becoming common in America.

New Jersey Boy (1950s)

I grew up during 1950s in New Jersey. I had quite a few suits, so there were different colors, but mom seemed to favor dark suits with shorts that matched the jacket. I do remember one different suit. I don't know whether you are familiar with the Catholic ceremony of First Communion, but at age seven, boys and girls go through it. There is studying, and a final ceromony at church, where all the boys and girls attend a Mass, dressed all in white. The girls wore white laced dresses with white knee socks, and the boys were also dressed the same, in all white suits with short pants, white knee socks, and white shoes. I have a picture of me and my classmates and we looked adorable if I do say so. I don't remember exactly how I felt about it. The other boys also had short pants suits and my other suits were all short pants suits. Last week my brother brought my nephew Matthew by. He will have his First Communion in a couple months. I showed him my picture. It isn't to different than the suit he will wear, except the short pants and white knee socks that you can't see in the picture. When I told him I wore shorts, he could hardly believe it. No way!, he said that he would ever wear white short pants and knee socks!!

The 1960s

California Boy (1960)

An American who attended Catholic parochial schools in the 1950s and 60s tell us about his school uniform and his First Communion and Confirmation suits. I noted the several Holy Communion photos on the HBC site. In one American image, the man standing by the this boy is his sponsor and such photos were very typically to commemorate the event here in the United States. First Communion is normally done in the Second Grade at a Catholic school. White was the color for the Holy Communion kids and we boys had a long sleeve shirt with a white bow-tie and white short pants like our uniform length: fingertip length when standing straight with knee socks and white dress shoes.


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Created: 10:07 PM 3/8/2020
Last edited: 10:07 PM 3/8/2020