Tee Season

You cool kids are all wearing those zany slogan T-shirts? How quaint.

"Boys and girls neglected their lessons in comparing qualities, quantities, and styles of badges," the Eagle reported amid a crackdown on badges by Hoboken educator Edward Russ. "Mr. Russ examined some of the mottoes and concluded that such inscriptions as 'Set 'Em Up Again,' 'You Make Me Tired,' 'I'm Somewhat of a Liar Myself,' 'If You Love Me Grin,' and 'I'm Out For a Good Time' were not the best things in the world for school children to think about." The following week a Catholic school in Brooklyn joined the attack on "immoral" badges. The craze gave the media plenty of grist: Newspapers gleefully reported how one boy stabbed another in a fight over a button and how a tyke swallowed a cigarette pin-back and got it lodged in his large intestine.

Amid the inevitable back-lash came the equally inevitable attempt to commandeer buttons as a force for good by embossing them with Sunday-school sentiments. "Let Us All Be Friends," pleaded one—a pleasant thought, though hopelessly outgunned by rivals like "Get Off the Earth, Your Time Is Up." Even as the Eagle thundered against school yard badge pushers "supplying children with vulgar, yes, indecent motto buttons," they found newer and smuttier buttons appearing among "the idle and the vicious, the young men who loaf in Fifth Avenue." These cunningly appropriated that year's campaign buttons by featuring McKinley or Bryant on one side and "a vile epithet or viler picture" on the other.

Nefarious cigarette badges became legion. One website maintained by pin-back enthusiast Randall Whitaker has tracked down hundreds of early slogans, from the snappy "Put an Egg in Your Shoe and Beat It" to the intriguing come-on "I Make My Own Ice." By the time you get to "Quick Watson, the Needle," it's pretty easy to see how Victorian parents were driven up the wall by these things.

All hail the new Victorians!
All hail the new Victorians!

photo: Paul Collins
Not much has changed. Every year brings its own share of fretting over T-shirts, the latest student sent home for fashion crimes. The slogan T-shirt comes and goes and comes back again, as do the T-shirts and the slogans themselves. Click over to everythingaustralian.com.au, and you can still find this curiously familiar-sounding T-shirt: "There Are No Flies on Me, Mate." It may be an Australian shirt in the 21st century, but it's the direct living all-cotton descendant of that first slogan shirt from Chicago. They're a permanent part of modern life, and one could do worse than to simply follow the advice on one Victorian pin-back that I keep at my desk:

Paul Collins's new book is The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (Bloomsbury USA).
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