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A Shirt Tale

by Sam Moore

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Sam Moore 

This story is for the women in the audience who occasionally become exasperated with their mates. I have a tattered, bound volume of the monthly farm paper American Agriculturist for the year of 1866. Like most farm papers, each issue of the Agriculturist contained a section devoted to farm wives. In the August issue was a piece titled, All About Men’s Shirts.

The writer begins: “A long time ago I undertook the supervision of a set of shirts, including, of course, their wearer. It was the height of my young ambition that the man should be exactly fitted by his shirts.” Just a month after the marriage, the man began complaining, telling his bride: “There isn’t a single one that fits me.”

The young wife continues: “I flattered myself that the difficulty would be easily remedied. So I ripped here and basted there, pulled up this shoulder and pulled down that, until I thought I had quite got it.” The shirts still didn’t suit her husband, so she enlisted the help of friends and, finally “... employed a tailor to try his skill. Not one whit better. The man was getting – and I was getting – desperate.”

She then took her problem to the local sewing society. After many attempts, the women finally managed to make a shirt, about which, when asked if it fit, her husband exclaimed, “Why, yes, really I can’t suggest any improvements.” The wife was joyful and she and the society made an additional six shirts exactly like the one that fit so well. “‘Capital!’ affirmed our representative of the lordly sex,” after trying on the new shirts. “‘Not a thread amiss. It is the first time in my life that a shirt has exactly fitted me.’”

Not two days went by, before the man told his wife that the shirt collars were, “‘..(probably) from your great desire not to choke me...rather large.’” The long-suffering wife, admitting under her breath, to being “..a little tempted to try (choking him),” replied, “… with great dignity: ‘Tell me precisely how much to cut out.’ ‘Just about an inch.’” the man replied, whereupon the good wife, through “wrathful tears,” cried: “‘I believe the mischief is all in your neck, which dilates and contracts on purpose to torment me.’”

However, she dutifully cut out the inch, temporarily basted the binding, and her husband tried on the shirt again. “‘That is just what I wanted. Practice makes perfect, and this time you hit the nail on the head.’”

She continues her story. “When the change was completed, he once more tried on the shirt, and unequivocally assured me ‘it fitted to a T.’ So I made the same alteration in the other five, and sat down to take a bit of comfort.”

In less than two weeks, he asked her to ride with him. Apparently this was somewhat unusual as she writes: “I was only too happy to accept. How extremely gracious and agreeable he was! I might have suspected something was coming.” He finally brought up the subject of the shirts and said: “‘In your fear of getting them too large, they are now a trifle too small – only a trifle.’”

When they returned home she “… made him measure off on his forefinger exactly how much he wished inserted. I was fortunate enough to discover in my work-basket the very piece I had cut out. And I was malicious enough to exult at its proving the exact measure of the addition wanted. So I sewed it in again, repeating all the while, ‘Oh the crochetyness of man!’”

The good wife concludes her tale by writing: “Will you believe me when I whisper it confidentially, that after all this, for many years, I alternated between cutting out and putting in the self-same piece – the man’s neck invariably playing me false. Of late, however, I have dropped the labor of sewing, having discovered that pinning over one week, and unpinning the next, answers all the purpose. The victim of this perpetual change silently acquiesces in the inevitable arrangement; and what is better, he has learned to do the thing himself.”

In the November issue, the editor wrote that the Men’s Shirts article had “... been the source of no little amusement,” and confessed to getting many letters from women readers who identified with it. He then printed one letter from a wife who may or may not have been serious.

The lady wrote: “I think the fitting of that shirt was the fault neither of the garment, nor of the maker, but simply of the wearer himself.” After a discussion of Adam and Eve and original sin, she goes on: “... although originally woman was equally guilty with man, yet during the lapse of ages, man has gradually gained the ascendancy in wickedness, and the excess of evil in his nature manifests itself especially in animadversions upon his luckless shirts.” (Animadversion implies a motive of deep seated prejudice or ill will and a carping disposition. I had to look it up. –S.M.)

She points out that, “My husband is unselfish; he thinks it equally important that his wife’s bonnet and dress should fit tolerably, as well as his own shirts fit to a T.” The writer ends up by saying: “My husband (I speak not boastingly) has known no hand but mine to make his clothes since I first claimed his name, to say nothing of my own garments. Now where should I find the time for all this, if my whole life had been devoted to fitting and refitting shirts. It is simply a morbid feeling, and a true wife’s duty not to yield to its demands.”

It’s fun to read the letters in these old periodicals from a century or more ago. Today, of course, if a husband’s shirt doesn’t fit, the wife can blame a seamstress in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Times have sure changed.