Knickerbockers
during the Civil War


by Michael Fuller and Neathery Batsell Fuller

Created May 1, 2001
Updated May 2, 2001
Not yet ready for publication but someday....


The Knickerbocker

What is a knickerbocker? It is a loose-fitting pair of pants gathered in at the knee according to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989: 490) The term is derived from the fictional name of Diedrich Knickerbocker that Washington Irving used in 1809 in his book entitled History of New York. He described a distinctive style of pant worn by the descendants of the Dutch settlers of New York. That distinctive style of pant became nicknamed as a knickerbocker.

Were knickerbocker pants worn by boys in the USA during the American Civil War? This question was asked of Joan Severa, a noted authority, at the Carthage (MO) reenactment during a public lecture. Nancy Herndon, a Civil War reenactor and President of the Ladies Union Aid Society, has reported (by email and verbally to me) that Joan Severa said "we have no evidence that little boys of the period wore knickers". I was not at Carthage and can't confirm that this was her response but hey, lets look at the evidence.

Evidence takes several forms:
1) References to Knickerbockers in period publications
2) Photographs of Knickerbockers
3) Secondary References to Knickerbockers

Period References to Knickerbockers

Of course, American literary references would be better for considering the Civil War era, but the evidence seems clear from the Oxford English Dictionary that the term "knickerbocker" is used in England as early as 1859 for a specific style of boy's pants. Here are the summaries:

1859 Times discusses nickerbockers on May 23rd
1859 Kingsley in Life describes knickerbockers
1860 Thackeray describes children in knickerbockers
1861 Times talks about a knickerbocker company on July 12th
1862 Mrs. Freshfield talks about crinoline and knickerbockers
1864 Miss Yonge talks about a little knickerbocker boy

It will take time (days?) to isolate the word in the New York Times, Godey's Lady's Book, Arthur's Home Magazine, Petersons Magazine, and other American publications. I promise to update this webpage as I discover those references. Here is at least one

1861 "The Knickerbocker Suit" is an article by Emily H. May in Peterson's Magazine of 1861. This is reprinted by Shep and Salibury (1994:156-157); it is not in the issues from January to June 1861, so it must be in the issues July to December, 1861.


Photographs of Knickerbockers

The second variety of evidence consists of period photographs. One very famous photograph taken at City Point, VA during 1864 shows Gen. Grant, Julia Dent Grant and Jesse Root Grant. Yes, Jesse is wearing knickerbocker pants with a matching upper tunic. Jesse was born in 1858 (J. Grant 1975:29) and was six years old when he was photographed wearing knickerbockers. Some writers attribute the photograph to Mathew Brady or one of his assistant, while other writers (such as Davis 1991:Figure IV-1) attribute the image to an "Unknown Photographer." The Albumen silver print is a stereoview that was published by E. and H. T. Anthony in approximately 1872 or l873. The image was used in 1911 by Frederick Dent Grant in his essay entitled "Introduction by General F. D. Grant" that was incorporated in Volume 3 of The Photographic History of the Civil War. The photograph was used by Ward (1990: 280) in the volume that accompanied the Civil War television series that Ken Burns produced and the image was used by Lossing (1870:7) in an earlier study of the Civil War. The image of Jesse wearing knickerbockers appears in a children's book (Fitz-Gerald 1998:46). Jesse Grant is misidentified as Frederick Grant by Horan (1955:image 354).

A more mundane example is illustrated in Severa's own book, Dressed for the Photographer. Severa (1995:255) shows a tintype of a young boy (approximately age 5) wearing knickerbocker-style trousers that she dates from 1864-1868. Other published examples include "Charlie" who was 4 years old when photographed in August of 1867 in Liverpool (Lansdell 1985:figure 33). Another image from England, dated to 1871, shows a small boy (4 years old) wearing a velvet knickerbocker suit (Lansdell 1985:figure 55).

There certainly are more published images and I will add them to this webpage (with each discovery). What about those elusive CDV and ambro images in private collections? Well, I took time to examine "The Fuller" collection that numbers over a 1000 CDV images from the 1860s. Here is a catalog of some interesting images of knickerbockers. Yes, I may scan and add them to the webpage, eventually...

1. Jan. 1864 CDV of Geo. P. Jardin (sp?) taken in January, 1864 by the Whipple Studio, 96 Washington Street, Boston. George is wearing a suit of matching material. He is seated at a table and is reading a small book. His physical features and the book would suggest an age of 6 to 10 years. His right leg is crossed over his left. He wears knickbockers with buttons along the leg edge. His socks have a banded design.

2. Pre-1864 CDV of brother and sister taken by C. Olsen of Shreveport (LA). The "simple imprint" style of the backmark is dated by Darrah (1981:389) from 1862 to 1864. The quality of the image is of poor and this probably relates to the problems of getting fresh paper and chemicals in the South during the Civil. There is a good chance that this is a Confederate image. The image is negative number 3399. The unnamed boy wears a light colored shirt and dark colored knickberbockers. He appears to be approximately 4 years old. His sister rests her hand on his knee. She wear dark clothing and may be dressed in mourning. Her age appears to be 12 to 14 years old.

3. Pre-1864 CDV of father, mother and child that was copied by a CDV photographer in the 1870s. The Pre-1864 date can be assumed by the distance of the family from the camera. Father is standing with his right hand on Mother's left shoulder. She hold a small boy (2 years old?) in her lap. Focus is poor but he seems to be wearing a one piece knickerbocker suit.

4. Two cent, orange colored Internal Revenue tax stamp (September 1864 to August 1866) CDV of a seated Father with his right arm steadying a young boy (3 years old?) who wears a one piece knickerbocker suit. The legs are open as if unbuttoned. A pencil cancel of the revenue stamp gives two lines of which the second is clearly "Ma" and might be an abbreviation for the State of Massachusetts.

5. Two cent, orange colored Internal Revenue tax stamp (September 1864 to August 1866) CDV of a seated boy that appears to be approximately 6 years old. The photorapher was J. A. Leach of Indianola, Iowa. The boy's knickerbocker pants are checked and do not match his tunic. He was a very wide belt that appears to be restraining him in the chair! He wears white socks.

6. Pre-1865 CDV with vignette back imprint of the style dated by Darrah (1981: figure 392) to 1863 - 1864. A young boy (age 4?) leans against the arm of fainting coach. He wears a single piece kickerbocker suit. Photographer is J. B. Gardner, 395 6th Ave., sw corner of 19th st., New York.

7. CDV with ornate groundwork on back of style dated by Darrah (1981: figure 398) from 1864 to 1870. Small boy (age 3?) stands and holds onto a Gothic style wooden chair. He wears a light colored tunic and slightly darker colored knickerbockers. The photographer is S. S. Johnston of Polo, Illinois.

8. More...

9. More...

The big question is how commonly did children wear knickerbockers? My estimate is that the knickerbockers make up less than 15% of the Civil War Period images of boys in the Fuller collection. The other 85% is made up of straight leg and the loose sack outfits.

Secondary Sources for knickerbockers

Secondary sources, which include Dressed for the Photographer (Severa 1995:211), notes that knickerbockers were occasionally worn in the 1860s. I assume tehat Severa mis-spoke during the public lecture at Carthage. She probably meant to say that they were uncommon.

Anne Buck (1984: 210) writing in Victorian Costume notes that knickerbocker suits replaced trousers for boys 3 to 10 during the 1860s. She defines the term knickerbocker to include the straight/ungathered pants as well as the gathered variety.

The definition of knickerbockers used by Anne Buck agrees with the definition given by Karen Baclawski (1995:137). She dates the style from 1859.

Other writers, such as Clare Rose (1989:Figure 71) distinguish between knickerbocker pants and long shorts (which would not be gathered). She notes that knickerbocker suits were worn by older boys in the 1860s and 1870s and relates this to the beginning of formal schooling where knickerbockers were part of the official uniform at formal schools. This may have been true of England, but seems less the case in USA.

Elizabeth Ewing (1977:89) sees the surge of knickerbockers during the 1860s in England and notes that its "origin lay in the early years of the century." Indeed, some aspects of the knickerbocker trace back to the Medieval Period in Europe and they can be seen as something of a revival.

Selected Bibliography

Baclawski, Karen
1995 The Guide of Historic Costume. Drama Book Publishers, New York.

Buck, Anne
1984 Victorian Costume and Costume Accessories. Second Edition. Costume and Fashion Press, New York.

Darrah, William C.
1981 Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography. Gettysburg, PA.

Davis, Keith F.
1991 A Terrible Distinctiveness - Photography of the Civil War Era. in Photography in Nineteenth Century America. Pages 131-179. Edited by Martha A. Sandweiss. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.

Ewing, Elizabeth
1977 History of Children's Costume. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

Fitz-Gerald, Christine A.
1998 Julia Dent Grant. Children's Press, Danbury, Ct.

Grant, Frederick Dent
1911 Introduction by Frederick Dent Grant, Major-General, U. S. A. in The Photographic History of the Civil War. Volume 3. Edited by Francis Trevelyan Miller. The Review of Reviews, New York.

Grant, Julia Dent
1975 The Peronal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant. Edited by John Y. Simon. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.

Horan, James D.
1955 Mathew Brady: Historian with a Camera. Bonanza Books, New York.

Landsdell, Avril
1985 Fashion a la Carte, 1860-1900. Shire Publications Ltd., Buckinghamshire (UK).

Lossing, Benson J.
1870 Mathew Brady's Illustrated History of the Civil War. Random House, New Jersey.
[Reprinted in 1996]

Mace, O. Henry
1990 Collector's Guide to Early Photographs. Wallace-Homestead Book Co., Radnor, Pennsylvania.
[2 cents for images that acost less than 25 cents; 3 cents for images that cost 25 to 50 cents. Blue 2 cent "playing cards" stamps used specifically during the summer of 1866!]

Rose, Clare
1989 Children's Clothes. B. T. Batsford Limited, London.

Severa, Joan
1995 Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashions, 1840 - 1900. Kent State University Press, Kent - Ohio.

Shep, R. L. and W. S. Salisbury
1994 Civil War Gentlement: 1860s Apparel Arts & Uniforms. R. L. Shep, Mendocino.

Simpson, J. A. and E. S. C. Weiner (Editors)
1989 The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. 8. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Ward, Geoffrey C.
1990 The Civil War: an illustrated history. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.