Boys' Uniform Garments: Kerchief Inspiration

Figure 1.--

American Scouts note that the Scouts of the American west were the inspiration for the brightly colored kerchief adopted by the Boy Scouts. The inspiration for its use by the Pioneers is less clear. Clearly it was copied from Scouting. Probably it was a convenient splash of red color that could be added to the uniform or worn instead of a uniform--and did not cost much.

Boy Scouts

Mountain men

American Boy Scout officials point to the "Scouts of old" as inspiration for the Scout kerchief. "After all," BSA officials point out, "the Scout of today is the legitimate heir to this bright and distinctive neckerchief which was worn by the scouts of old. The buckskin scout was obliged to dress in sober hues that would blend with the leafy coloring of the woods, the dead leaves and the earth itself. He could not afford several suits of clothes, and a new suit of buckskin was a great event in his life not because of the difficulty in killing deer for the purpose, because that was comparatively easy, but for the trouble it was to make up a suit." The tailor shops so common in the town were not common in the wilderness of the American west. Skilled tailors available on the frontier, nor could frontiersmen afford to hire those in the town. Considerable skill was required to work buckskin into a serviceable garment. It also took a great deal of time. As a result, one suit of clothes had to do a long time.

While frontiersmen might love bright color, the frontiersman was a hunter of animals, or birds, or men, who was in turn hunted by his enemies, and so was obliged to forego this color while in the forest. The Redcoats so famous in the American Revolution soon learned the disadvantages of bright coloful coats in warfare. The less conspicuous the frontiersman's garb, the better the prospects of bagging his quary and the safer his scalp from the Native Americans who were themselves experts in blending into the forests.

When it came time each summer to bring furs into a settlement to sell and seeking a littkle fun, there was no need for restraint in the matter of color. Fronmtiersmen could often not afford city clothes, nor were they has serviceable as his buckskins. So, by means of a crimson scarf to tie his long hair, or a purple or blue sash, he was able to easily and inexpensively brighten his buckskins, satisfying this yearning for bright things.

A brightly colored scarf or kerchief had a variety of advantages for the frontiersman. On those occasions when a frotiersmen returned from the mountains to a settlement wearing his bright scarf, it was quite clear that he was resting from the trail and seeking relaxation; he was wearing his best and was on parade, willing to be reviewed by the finest people in town. On the trail, his scarf or kerchief was easy to carry, taking up little room in his small bag. This was a major consideration for the often itebnerant frontiersman, constantly moving to find the best sites to set his traps. There were, however, many other uses making the scarve a very useful garment. In case of a wound it could help bind it or staunch the bllod flow. It could also be fashioned into a sling.

Settling the plains

Americans by the mid-19th century were moving onto the Great Plains of the American heartland. The Plains Scouts helped to settle the great plains and blaze the trails for the railroad, the telegraph and the trails which were to become the modern highways whicgh criss-cross America. A heardy group of plains scouts came into existence to guide and guard the workers, as well as hunt and trap for them to provide food. These men went down in history and included Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickcock and many others. The horse was the major form of transport on the western frontier. As their horses kicked up the sand and dust of the rough western trails, some of it filled with alkali, it made breathing difficult, so that in defense they wore around their necks a broad kerchief. Whatever the color of their work-a-day kerchiefs, and however drab they might be if Indian wars were under way, even the poorest of them could carry a bright red, blue, green or yellow scarf for dress up occasions. So from this scout too today we inherit the bright neckerchief.

Cowboys and cavalry soldiers of the American west also commonly wore kerchiefs. They wore them for the same reasion as the plains scouts. The kerchiefs worn by the calvary were often yellow. The lees law-abiding cowboys could easily rurn their kerchiefs around and use them as a mask for disguising their identies when holding up stage coaches and banks.

Railroad engineer


One of te most admired figures in the late 19th and early 20th century were railroad engineers. They commanded the imagination of boys impressed with the power of the railroad locomotive. American folklore is populated with the exploits of men like Casey Jones. Among the different items of clothing associated with railroad engineers was a large red kerchief or bandana.

Young Pioneers

The inspiration for its use by the Pioneers is less clear. Clearly it was copied from Scouting. Probably it was a convenient splash of red color that could be added to the uniform or worn instead of a uniform--and did not cost much. Og course the Pioneers no doubt had a more inspiring explanation for the kerchiefs, but HBU has not yet beenable to find the details.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: April 22, 2000
Last updated: April 22, 2000