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Costumes: Characters

Figure 1.-One of the most popular costumes in America the early 20th century were Native American costumes. They were also popular in Europe. This photograph is unidentified. We believe this is an American boy in the early 20th century. The boy's name is Stanley Paulson. He was 7 years old and photographed in 1915. Also written on the card is Bloomberg, that may have been the city where he lived.

Costumes cover a wide range of characters. They have varied greatly over time among boys as well as among countries. Media have played a major role in popularizing characters. In the early 20th century it was books and magazines that popularized characters. We see costumes for cowboys, indians, policeman, and soldiers offered by Sars and Wards. Indian costumes seem to have been particularly popular. Clowns were another popular costume, but appear to be often homemade. Many of the popular costume cgaracterss seem to be more for boys than girls, at least the ones offered by the mailorder catalogs. Movies and radio began to affect the popularity of characters and even more so television afrer World War II. Hopalong Cassidy was a big hit for a while. The Davy Crokett craze swept America in the mid-1950s because of the Disney program. The Zorro costume here used on an earlier page was another Disney TV phenomenon. The Starwars films created a whole new series of popular costumes.

Circus Performers

Traveling circuses performed all over America in the 19th century. There were a number of small cicuses that reached even small-town america. In the ear before mass media, the coming of the circus were a mjor event and the children were fascinating by what they saw. Children mostly boys began to talk of running away to join the circus. We see children dressing up in circus costumes. One of the earliest costume images archived in HBC was Basil Kite who had his portrait taken in the costume of a circus aerialist.


We do not note clowns to be one of the popular play costumes offered by the mailorder companies. We do note quite a few formal portraits of clowns pr perreots as they were called in Europe. We note these portraits in America, but they seem even more popular in Europe. We are not sure about the gender connotations, but believe that they were popular with boys and girls. I am not sure here but we rather think that clown costumes were not as popular for play costumes as other costumes. We do not them at fancy costume paryoes for affluent children. We also notice them for trick-or-treat on Holloween. This is, however, only a off-hand opinion. We would be interested in reader opinions here.


We see images of cowboys, often brandishing guns, in very early photographic images. We think that these were actual cowboys. We are not sure when Easterners and boys began dressing up as cowboys. We see some 19th century images, but the ones we have found are not dated. We think that some were taken in the 1890s, perhaps earlier. The earliest costumes we see seem to be for adults and older teens and not boys. They seem to be specifically for fun portraits or perhhaps costume parties. Some portrait studios may have had costumes. By the turn of the century we see cowboy costumes for boys. They were a standard for the mail order costumes offerings. For the first half of the 20th century, cowboy togs were a favorite for American boys. Here dome novels and movies and late radio and television were prime factors in popularizing cowboys. I certainly remember by cowboy boots and six-shooters from the 1950s. We notice complete costumes as well as individual garments. Not all boys had complete outfits. But most boys had some items. There were cowgirl outfits, but it was the cowboy outfits for boys that were bu far the most popular.


Individual Characters

Many of the early costumes we have noited for children were at first more generic costumes than individuals. Here we note some exceptions, such as Tom Sawyer and Beck Thatcher, but for the most part we note generic costymes such as cowboys, indians, policemen, and soldiers. Thus changed after World War II when television became increasingly popular. We note individual costumes such as Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Zorro, Davy Crockett and many others.

Native Americans

Indian costumes were some of the costumes offered by the mail order catalogs. Many were also home made. The costume here looks like a h0me made one, but we are not positive (figure 1). Indian costumes seem to have been particularly popular. We note them in America, but they were also popular in Europe. The relative popularity of cowboys and Indians has varied over time in America. In Europe it was aklways the Indian costumes that were the most popular, although we note that cowwboy movie heros were very popular. Ww notice Mative American costumes for a variety of Indian Lore events.


We notice boys (but rarely girls) dressed in occupational costumes. Some of the most common seem bakers and butchers, but this is just an initial impression. Here we are listing a variety of "exciting" occupations (firemen, police, soldiers ect.) that especially appeal to boys separately. Here we have noted more mundane occupations working-class operarions. We don't note a lot of beaureacrat, lawyer and doctor costumes. What is curious here is that these do not seem to be occupations wuth great appeal to boys. I don't recall, for example, a friend ever telling me that he wanted to be a baker. We are guessing here that these occupational costumes reflect a boy following his fatner's occupation.



Uncle Sam

A popular costume in the United States was Uncle Sam. This was a chracter that appeard in America during the mid-19th century. We see quite a number of boys wearing Uncle Same costumes in the early 20th century. A good example is Frances Gloss about 1915. Uncle Sam costumes are a good indicator of patriotic sentiment in the United States.


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Created: 4:15 PM 11/11/2004
Last updated: 7:52 PM 9/27/2008