By  on August 12, 2011

What lies beneath? Well, if you’re talking about clothes during the late 19th century, in the days before the widespread use of central heating, the answer may have been a union suit. And underwear has always been a bit racy, a touch risqué.

The Northwestern Knitting Company, which became the classic American company Munsingwear after World War I, claimed to be the first firm in the world to show a photograph of someone in their underwear in their advertisements. That’s right — before their 1907 ad featuring a little girl in a union suit, underwear ads depicted such things as a woman shopping for lingerie or simply a freestanding corset. The Northwestern ad also revealed that its reader could send away for a booklet showing styles “photographed on living models,” which was regarded as very cutting edge at the time.

Susan Marks, who has written “In the Mood for Munsingwear: Minnesota’s Claim to Underwear Fame” (Minnesota Historical Society Press), reveals these facts and many more.

“When you’re talking about underpants, you can’t get too serious,” said Marks, noting that, with her previous book, “Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food,” much of the humor was edited out. That isn’t the case here. “In the Mood” is playful, full of reproductions of amusing ads from the company, which was a pioneer in everything from silk-plated woolen underwear (avoiding the itch factor of wool), invented by founder George Munsing in 1886, to colorful printed lingerie in the early Sixties. When the firm closed its 650,000-square-foot Minneapolis factory, which took up an entire city block, in the early Eighties, its vast archive of underwear, including 3,500 garments, salesmen’s samples, company papers and photos, was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society. In 1955, the company had introduced its Original Penguin golf shirts, which were revived as part of an Original Penguin by Munsingwear collection in 2003.

Digging into the archives, Marks learned that the company had been a target of an undercover investigation by an early investigative reporter, Eva McDonald Valesh, who wrote under the pseudonym Eva Gay. In 1888, an anonymous informant had told Valesh that she should take a look at the Northwestern plant. What the reporter found was a forewoman who was in the habit of taking exactly what she wanted from her employees’ lunches without permission. The young women also “weren’t allowed to talk, sing, laugh or eat while working. Their male overseer, rumored to be a former slave driver from the Antebellum South, threatened to paint over the windows if he caught them gazing outside during work hours.” But the worst problem was that the employees were paid by the piece, not the hour, so that they often had to sit around for long periods waiting to be given something to work on without getting remunerated.

After the labor organizing and strikes in the needle trades in the early 1900s, and the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, the owners of the firm decided to change conditions on their own, hoping to lower turnover and avoid walk-offs. “Munsingwear offered everything from insurance to subsidized lunches and volunteer activities, a literacy program and also an Americanization school,” Marks said. There were softball and basketball teams, too, along with theatrical productions, a company newspaper and even an orchestra that played at lunch on Thursdays.

That same year, however, the company also hired a detective from the William J. Burns International Detective Agency to expose a ring of employees who were stealing and selling underwear. All of Operative #71’s observations and information — including broken boxes that had held the underwear being smuggled out, and the detective’s expense reports, which included meals, drinks and theater tickets — were all in the archive. He also added information about inefficient work flow, employee loafing and union organizing.

But the biggest revelations of the book are the many photographs and drawings, with pictures of a 1917 set of paper dolls in Munsingwear “Beyond compare” union suits and photos featuring somewhat chubby models in the firm’s underwear in the early Twenties, when more fashionable styles had replaced the union suits. Many of the illustrations of men’s underwear in the Thirties and Forties show men together in situations that to the modern eye look distinctly homoerotic. In a strange series of photos from the Forties, two men are shown in underwear, wrestling (with the tag line, “Let’s get down to business”) or arguing about their choice of style of Munsingwear skivvies in shots showing an unmade double bed.

“One thing that my husband pointed out to me is that wrestling in particular was so much more of a popular sport,” Marks said. “It became more fashionable during World War II, and, after World War II, there was a trend in advertising that would show men in buddy situations. That was not unheard of at all.” But in these ads, she asked, “Is it a sort of innocent Ernie-and-Bert situation? I think not. I don’t think [the Muppets] shared a bed.”

As Marks writes, according to advertising historian Bruce H. Joffe, “Homosexuality may have been a taboo topic in our not-so-distant history, but allusions to homosexuality in advertising were pervasive and an effective advertising tool for companies intending to reach a broader market.”

Joffe notes that double entendres and buddy-bonding themes also appeared in ads for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Van Heusen shirts, Cannon towels, Schlitz beer and BVDs. He writes, as quoted in “In the Mood,” “Wink-wink went Munsingwear’s ads throughout the 1940s, deliberately cranking up the bawdy and risqué with humorous headlines, dialogue, and photos of men in close quarters cracking jokes about their naked cover-ups. Half-dressed, bare-chested men taking liberties in these ads made asses out of themselves — literally and figuratively — in and out of their underwear.”

The publication of the book coincided with an exhibit at the Historical Society called “Underwear: A Brief History,” which opened there as part of its annual Retrorama series in May and is still on view. Marks’ next project will be a film about the dollhouse crime scenes in Baltimore, which were used for decades to train detectives. “They’ve been around since the Thirties and Forties,” she said. “It’s about the pursuit of justice and our fascination with death and forensics. John Waters is our narrator.”

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