Costumes of American Literary Characters: Penrod Schofield

Figure 1.--Booth Tarkington's Penrod was a delightfully humerous look at American boyhood in the 1910s. Penrod was about 11 going on 12 and wore knickers buckled just above the knee.

Penrod is today a lesser-known American boy literary hero. But what wonderful Americana the Penrod novels are! The 1914 book, Penrod. was written by Booth Tarkington. It chronicled the travails of an American boy, duely outfitted in knickers--usually buckled above the knee. Penrod is confronted with the normal trials of pre-World War I American boyhood. He has to dress up in an enbarassing pagent costume, attend dancing school, face bullies, and many other problems. Apparently sailor suits by the 1910s were just for little boys and chaps like master Roderick Bitts outfitted by his parents in a crisp white sailor suit were in for trouble when they cross Penrod's path.

The Author

Booth Tarkingtom was an American novelist and dramatist. He was best-known for his humerous, often satirical, and often romanticized pictures of American Midwesterners. Tarkington studied at Indiana's Purdue University and then Princeton--but did not earn any degrees. He was a versatile and prolific writer whi won early recognition with the melodramatic turn-of-the-century novel The Gentleman from Indiana (1899), reflecting his disillusionment with the corruption in the lawmaking process he was to observe firsthand as a member of the Indiana legislature (1902-03). His romance Monsieur Beaucaire (1900) was immensely popular and he later adapted for the stage. Tarkington was one of the most popular American novelists of the early 20th century: from The Two Vanrevels (1902) to Mary's Neck (1932) his novels appeared on annual best-seller lists nine times. Tarkington possessed an informal, charming style and a gift for characterization. His critical vision was obscured by a tendency toward sentimental melodrama, however.His humorous portrayals of boyhood and adolescence, especially in the Penrod series, became young-people's classics. He was equally successful with his portrayals of Midwestern life and character: The Turmoil (1915); The Magnificent Ambersons (1918; filmed 1941 by Orson Welles), and The Midlander (1924), the last two combined as Growth (1927); and The Plutocrat (1927). Alice Adams (1921), a searching character study, is perhaps his most finished novel. He continued his delineations of female character in Claire Ambler (1928), Mirthful Haven (1930), and Presenting Lily Mars (1933) and wrote several domestic novels in his later years. Tarkington also wrote many plays, although they were less successful than his novels.

The Series

Booth Tarkington's Penrod series included: Penrod (1914), Penrod and Sam (1916). Two other adolescent classics include: Seventeen (1917), and Gentle Julia (1922).

The First Book

The first book in the series, Penrod had some interesting passages.

Sir Galahad

Penrod did not like the costume for his part in the school play--Sir Galahad. His mother and grandmother helped make it, but at the time he was not precisely aware of what it was made from. Mothers around the world choose a boys clothes or make costumes with such loving care. But, oh what problems doting mothers, unable to fully famthom the satorail standards of a younf male, create for boys with the clothes and costumes they choose.

Roderick Magsworth

Roderick Magsworth was Penrod's nemesis. Always polite and always emaculately dressed in outfits like crisp white sailor suits--he was everything that parents admired and all-American boys like Penrod derided.

About three o'clock Schofield and Williams were gloomily discussing various unpromising devices for startling the public into a renewal of interest, when another patron unexpectedly appeared and paid a cent for his admission. News of the Big Show and Museum of Curiosities had at last penetrated the far, cold spaces of interstellar niceness, for this new patron consisted of no less than Roderick Magsworth.

Figure 3.--Roderick Magsworth Bitts, Junior, as Tarkington describes it, "escaped in a white "sailor suit" from the Manor during a period of severe maternal and tutorial preoccupation."

He seated himself without parley, and the pufformance was offered for his entertainment with admirable conscientiousness. True to the Lady Clara caste and training, Roderick's pale, fat face expressed nothing except an impervious superiority and, as he sat, cold and unimpressed upon the front bench, like a large, white lump, it must be said that he made a discouraging audience "to play to." He was not, however, unresponsive--far from it. He offered comment very chilling to the warm grandiloquence of the orator.

* * * * *

The four boys gave a fine imitation of the Laocoon group complicated by an extra figure frantic splutterings and chokings, strange cries and stranger words issued from this tangle; hands dipped lavishly into the inexhaustible reservoir of tar, with more and more picturesque results. The caldron had been elevated upon bricks and was not perfectly balanced; and under a heavy impact of the struggling group it lurched and went partly over, pouring forth a Stygian tide which formed a deep pool in the gutter.

It was the fate of Master Roderick Bitts, that exclusive and immaculate person, to make his appearance upon the chaotic scene at this juncture. All in the cool of a white "sailor suit," he turned aside from the path of duty--which led straight to the house of a maiden aunt--and paused to hop with joy upon the sidewalk. A repeated epithet continuously half panted, half squawked, somewhere in the nest of gladiators, caught his ear, and he took it up excitedly, not knowing why.

"Little gentleman!" shouted Roderick, jumping up and down in childish glee. "Little gentleman! Little gentleman! Lit----"

A frightful figure tore itself free from the group, encircled this innocent bystander with a black arm, and hurled him headlong. Full length and flat on his face went Roderick into the Stygian pool. The frightful figure was Penrod.

Instantly, the pack flung themselves upon him again, and, carrying them with him, he went over upon Roderick, who from that instant was as active a belligerent as any there.

Figure 4--The first casualty of the "Great Tar Fight" waas Roderick Magsworth Bitts, Junior and his imagulate white sailor suit.

Thus began the Great Tar Fight, the origin of which proved, afterward, so difficult for parents to trace, owing to the opposing accounts of the combatants. Marjorie said Penrod began it; Penrod said Mitchy-Mitch began it; Sam Williams said Georgie Bassett began it; Georgie and Maurice Levy said Penrod began it; Roderick Bitts, who had not recognized his first assailant, said Sam Williams began it.

Nobody thought of accusing the barber. But the barber did not begin it; it was the fly on the barber's nose that began it--though, of course, something else began the fly. Somehow, we never manage to hang the real offender.

The end came only with the arrival of Penrod's mother, who had been having a painful conversation by telephone with Mrs. Jones, the mother of Marjorie, and came forth to seek an errant son. It is a mystery how she was able to pick out her own, for by the time she got there his voice was too hoarse to be recognizable. Mr. Schofield's version of things was that Penrod was insane. "He's a stark, raving lunatic!" declared the father, descending to the library from a before-dinner interview with the outlaw, that evening. "I'd send him to military school, but I don't believe they'd take him. Do you know WHY he says all that awfulness happened?"

"When Margaret and I were trying to scrub him," responded Mrs. Schofield wearily, "he said `everybody' had been calling him names."

"`Names!'" snorted her husband. "`Little gentleman!' THAT'S the vile epithet they called him! And because of it he wrecks the peace of six homes!"

"SH! Yes; he told us about it," said Mrs. Schofield, moaning. "He told us several hundred times, I should guess, though I didn't count. He's got it fixed in his head, and we couldn't get it out. All we could do was to put him in the closet. He'd have gone out again after those boys if we hadn't. I don't know WHAT to make of him!"

"He's a mystery to ME!" said her husband. "And he refuses to explain why he objects to being called `little gentleman.' Says he'd do the same thing--and worse--if anybody dared to call him that again. He said if the President of the United States called him that he'd try to whip him. How long did you have him locked up in the closet?"

"SH!" said Mrs. Schofield warningly. "About two hours; but I don't think it softened his spirit at all, because when I took him to the barber's to get his hair clipped again, on account of the tar in it, Sammy Williams and Maurice Levy were there for the same reason, and they just WHISPERED `little gentleman,' so low you could hardly hear them--and Penrod began fighting with them right before me, and it was really all the barber and I could do to drag him away from them. The barber was very kind about it, but Penrod----"

Figure 5.--The girls at the birthday party proved to much for poor Penrod to handle. Notice that Penrod in this drawing is wearing above-the-knee knickers.

The Stove

One chapter in the first Penrod novel has our hero pining for a lovely young girl, a summer visitor to their town. His mother interrupts his reverie to send him to collect a used stove she has purchased. Penrod, assisted by a workman, is bringing the stove home, when he encounters the object of his affection. A delightfully funny scene from a true American classic!

Dancing School

Penrod was jubilent at the end of school only to find himself enrolled in dancing school. Now it is difficult to assess who was most disheartened with this outcome--Penrod or the dancing vlass master. For Penrod the dancing school was a daunting prposition. Not only was there all those girls and theirritating dancing master--there was the disgusting Georgie Bassett--by unanimous acclaim, the best boy in town.

The Birthday Party

Another interesting scene is the birthday party.

The Clothes

The clothes most often drawn for Penrod were knickers usually knicker suits. The flat cap was also depicted. There is not a lot of information in the text about clothes--but quite a bit of information can be deduced from the lovely drawings.

Flat Caps

The only cap Perod ever wears is the flat cap with a long peak. It was the most common cap worn by American boys from the 1910-30s.


Penrod ceratinly dressed more formally than the modern boy. What ever the activity, even playong around the house he seems to always wear a norfolk, belted suit.

Eton collars

Penrod occasionally is seen in an Eton collar, but only for very formal events.


Penrod always wears knickers. Interestingly the knickers depicted often differ. Sometimes they are above-the-knee knickers. Sometimes they are below-the-knee knickers. In many drawings it is not clear, but he is never depicted in plus-fours--long baggy knickers. I'm not sure if this is realistic. It seems to be that a boy would have either above-the-knee knickers or below-the-knee knickers, but not both. If so, most boys would only want to wear the below-the-knee pair.

Sailor suits

Penrod woukd himself never wear a sailor suit. Perhaps in his younger years mother may have been able to deck him out in one. But certainly not at his ripe old age of 12 years, which as the author explains is the high-point of boyhood. Of course his nemesis, the Honorable Roderick Magsworth, is always depicted in one--usually a white one.


While not clearly drawn, Penrod appears to mostly wear long stockings with his knickers. He always wears long stockings with his above the knee knickers. In the early 1920s some boys wore kneesocks with above the knickers, but never Penrod. There are, however, quite a few drawings of him wearing kneesocks that had been cuffed at the kneeover his knickers.

There is, at least as I remember it, an illustration in at least one edition of Tarkington's Penrod stories in which Penrod is dressed up for a pageant by his mother and has some kind of support device to hold up his tights which are actually a pair of his father's old red long johns. A HBC contributor notes, "That however was 1910-1920 when mothers really were out of control."


Little information is avialable on Penrod's shoes. He is never seen in sneakers (canvas shoes). There is some mention, however, of his dancing slippers (pumps) that he has to wear to dancing class or parties. Of course Penrod heartily objects to them.

The Illustrator

The illustrator in the initial printing was Gordon Grant. Grant was a painter, printmaker, illustrator and writer. He was born San Francisco, Calif. in 1875. He studied at the Lambeth & Heatherley Art School, London. His Penrod illustrations were wonderfull illustrations, beutifully capturing Penrod and his friends as written. Penrod's face, however, vary greatly from drawing to drawing. Penrod was always drawn wearing knickers. The knickers were drawn as both over- and below-the-knee styles.

Penrod Movies

Warner Brothers produced a 1931 film version starring Leon Janney as Penrod. Six years later, Warners' had two rising boy stars - the Mauch twins from Peoria, Ill. The twin brothers starred in a 1937 film version of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, co-starring Errol Flynn. The twins even had their photo on the cover of an issue of Time magazine; at the time they were just short of their 13th birthday. One brother played the title role in a 1937 film, "Penrod and Sam", and both brothers starred in two sequels, "Penrod's Twin Brother" (1937) and "Penrod's Double Trouble" (1938). I have one photo from Turner Classic Movie Channel's monthly magazine, Now Playing, with the twins in flat caps, the kind you've described, talking with the director of the sequels. There were also two Penrod films made in the 1950s with Billy Gray as Penrod, although he was called Wesley in the films: "On Moonlight Bay" (1951) and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" (1953).

William Brown

Penrod Schofield is a kind of American "Just William". Richard Crompton's William Brown is the one of the two most famous schoolboy in English literature. (The other of course is Jennings--but Jennings went to a private school. It is William that most resembles Penrod. Many of the scrapes Penrod and William get into are very similar. The only basic differece is that Penrod would never, ever wear short pants as William always wears. Penrod would never ever appear in short pants.


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Created: July 12, 2000
Last updated: 6:37 AM 11/22/2007