Once upon a time, mackerel jellybeans, one had to be so careful what one said. Every word had to be measured before uttered, lest it cause offense. And there were people on the alert for these offenses, so they could point them out to you and cry out to the world that you were unfit for decent society.
Well, no, I didn’t mean last week on the Interwebs. I was talking about a hundred or so years ago.
The dictionary tells me people have worn “pants” since the 1830s, but it wasn’t a word that was supposed to be in wide circulation among the polite. It may have been its assumed derivation from pantaloons, which was derived from the name of a vulgar clown, or it may have been where they were worn and what they were covering. “Breeches” was similarly considered rather low class, and one spoke, if one had to speak of the lower garments at all, of trousers, or even, if one were terribly careful, of “bifurcated garments” (garments which forked into two parts.)
It was not until the 1920s, apparently, that people started to use words like “underpants”, while words like “smartypants” or “fancy-pants” had to wait for the jazzier 1930s.
And yet, people wore them, and they did attract attention. Sporty gentlemen, like the elegantly dressed soul above, mighty wear fancy pants indeed. This was largely discouraged by the refined, except when, say, playing golf. (A hundred years before that, of course, men thought nothing of walking through the streets in skintight butter-colored…maybe THAT’S why “Regency Dancing” is so popular at pop culture conventions.)
More likely to be commented on in the 1910s, and even less often to be seen nowadays, were the patched trousers, something which marked the wearer as someone too poor or too cheap to throw away a torn or worn pair of trousers. Oddly enough, a number of different postcard companies developed lines of repaired pants for sending good wishes to one’s friends.
Here’s a typical example. The patches are always on the seat (I used to wear pants until they fell apart, but they never developed holes in the seat. I don’t know if this placement of patches is a comic stereotype or if I just wore reinforced pants) and the caption is laden with puns. This goes for a trifecta: rent behind could be slow payments on one’s abode or tears in the seat, while a quarter could be a three-month period or a square of cloth. Why you’re wishing someone luck by showing the seat of your pants and complaining about yours is a separate problem.
This is a little heartier. Black and White is a popular whiskey, so a complaint about winter becomes a little joke between drinking buddies.
This artist did the same sort of thing, only with a tartan patch.
Here we are going a little far to make the joke in verse. This comes from the phrase that no matter how good someone’s luck or talent or intellect may be, it isn’t good enough to be a PATCH on yours. (Note also that it seems to be a preference among these jokes to refuse to mention the garment in question at all, allowing you to figure out the joke on your own. Yes, I COULD just have shown these pictures and not explained the text, but that sort of column wouldn’t be a patch on my…okay, okay.)
So of course you got the joke here, from the use of “check” as an obstacle. Vocabulary, however, is not the only joy of this study of vintage bifurcated garments. Have you noticed the different designs of the waistbands, and how most of these patched pants come with a pair of suspenders? What can we learn about our ancestors from this, Horseradish Éclair? Did only gents wear belts? Did men usually hang up their pants with the suspenders still attached (if you had only one pair of each, that makes sense.) Or can we….
Very well, we shall conclude with this card which at least shows how our language has changed. If used on postcards later in the century, this first pun would have had one more meaning.