Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Grant Wood, Union Suit Fan
Spencer Hastings, Guest Contributor

Chris, The Springfield Art Museum located in Springfield, Missouri presently has an art exhibit which I believe would be of interest to the followers of your Union Suit blog. The museum has recently obtained two more lithographs by artist, Grant Wood (1891-1942). It now owns all 19 of his works of this art form. Wood is most famous for his iconic painting, American Gothic. As background, Wood was born and reared in the state of Iowa and became world renowned in the mid-1930's for his depiction primarily of mid-western farming life and American values. His paintings and lithographs were termed “regionalism” and became very popular during the Great Depression.

A lithograph is a printing process that uses a flat stone or a metal plate on which image areas are depicted using an oily or greasy substance allowing ink to adhere. The quality is very good and has the advantage of selling more cheaply than original oils. Wood and other lithograph artists sold their works for about $5.00 each in the 1930's as members of the Associated American Artists. Regular folks could purchase these works at a reasonable price and own art by a famous artist of their time. The current Springfield Museum exhibit features themes of this period and examines the role and popularity of American printmaking.

The particular lithograph that may be of interest to your readers is entitled “Midnight Alarm.” This 1939 Lithograph On Paper features a young man, possibly a farmer, carefully descending a flight of stairs in the middle of the night barefoot and wearing only his union suit. His face is a “mask of concern” as his tense feet carefully grope their way downward. The young man holds a hastily lit lantern as he attempts to discern the unfamiliar noise that woke him from a deep sleep. The lamp's bright illumination contrasts masterfully a sense of the young man's alertness and dramatic fear of the unknown. Wood's attention to detail is remarkable right down to the young man's eyebrows and the cuffs and buttons on his union suit.

The man’s facial features point to the use of a model, quite possibly twenty year old John Arthur Mooney. Mooney was a photographer living in Charles City, Iowa at the time. He and Wood were contemporaries who were acquainted with each other. A photograph of young Mooney shows that he had the same eyes, ears, high forehead, cheek bones, and curly hair as the man in the lithograph. These physical traits are so similar as to be more than conjecture. Mooney was an avid art collector as well as a popular photographer. He eventually owned two of Wood’s lithographs, “Honorary Degree” and “Tree Planting Group,” inscribed “To Arthur Mooney” and signed “Grant Wood.” Most certainly at the time both the artist and model wore union suits as a matter of course.

The resemblance is so similar that the model must have been John Mooney. 

Several art critics have examined “Midnight Alarm” as one would expect. One overly simplistic review sees “humor” in his 1939 lithograph. “Wood found amusement with the idea of long underwear. The face of the man descending the stairs seems alert and ready to act as his ominous shadow follows him down the staircase. However, there is a sense of vulnerability about the man as Wood has chosen to comically depict him in his long underwear.”

Vulnerability, yes. Comically, perhaps not so much. The critic's opinion is unmerited if one remembers the time period in which this lithograph was developed. Men typically slept in their long underwear or night shirts. Although union suits today are considered comical to many, in mid-twentieth century America one-piece long underwear was worn by most men and boys especially in rural areas. Farm houses had no central heat, many had no electricity or indoor plumbing. This was the era on which Wood's work was demonstrative. Union suits were an essential part of Americans' wardrobe and not considered humorous.

Few works of art depict long underwear as intimately as Wood's lithograph, "Midnight Alarm." It is noteworthy that he planned another work featuring a union suit. This according to his sister, Nan Wood Graham. The 1939 lithograph has a relationship to a painting Wood considered and had even titled, “The Bath -1880.” This oil was to feature a man clad only in long, red flannel underwear preparing to take a bath. Miss Graham was quoted as saying many years later that “Wood made a considerable effort to locate an authentic pair of red long underwear for the work.” It is not known whether he actually made purchase of that red flannel underwear.

Wood advertised for a subject in Iowa and other mid-west newspapers during this time. He identified a young Cedar Rapids model to pose in the red union suit. However, his name is lost to history. John Mooney was possibly another model considered for “The Bath – 1880.” 

Unfortunately, according to his sister, Wood abandoned the proposed painting. He became angered by local press coverage that suggested the planned work was “a publicity stunt.” Wood may have been even more dismayed of possible newspaper reports, accurately or not, revealing that he had an unusual interest in men’s underwear, an interest unremarkable in today's world.   ... Spencer Hastings.

Spencer, I thank you for this insight into Grant Wood's lithograph, “Midnight Alarm,” and for bringing it to my attention. This lithograph is sure to be of interest to Union Suit Fans. I appreciate you taking the time to share. 

Coincidentally, the same week I heard from you, I received an email featuring additional "Union Suit" art by none other than Grant Wood. Although not as prominent as the farmer descending the stairs in his Long Underwear, it never-the-less depicts a Union Suit. In this instance, President Herbert Hoover's Union Suit hangs from a boyhood farm house clothesline. Not surprising, Hoover was from Iowa as was Wood. No doubt, both men wore one-piece, button-down Long Johns. Perhaps Wood did have an interest in men's underwear, why not?

Joe of New York City emailed, “On display today at the Whitney in downtown Manhattan is a Grant Wood exhibit: Best known for AMERICAN GOTHIC, he also painted the above titled “THE BIRTHPLACE OF HERBERT HOOVER, WEST BRANCH, IOWA. 

And why am I sending this? Well, cropped a bit, look at what is on the President’s clothesline!  Keep ‘em buttoned, Joe.”

Yep, sure enough, there is Hoover's Union Suit. Thanks, Joe! ...Chris

You can read all about the presidential Union Suits of John F. Kennedy and Calvin Coolidge in my posting, “Presidential Underwear,” May 26, 2016. In another posting, “Presidential Underwear, Abe Lincoln's Union Suit?” dated July 27, 2016, I discuss the improbability of Lincoln and his sons wearing Union Suits back in the mid-1800's.

American Gothic 
by Grant Wood, 1930
Art Institute of Chicago

Hey, Fellas:  as you can see by this and other guest contributor postings, I am always encouraging fans of union suits to email me stories, photographs, anecdotes, and life experiences in their one-piece Long Underwear. Let me hear from you today!  Email to:


  1. This note from Josh of St. Joe, MO: "Chris, I visited the Springfield Art Museum about two months ago and was intrigued by Wood's Midnight Alarm. I was wearing my union suit at the time and pointed this out the to the young man working as a docent in that gallery. He pulled up his pant leg to show the thermals he was wearing. We got a good laugh over our similar long underwear to the man in the lithograph. I am disappointed to learn that Wood didn't go ahead with the Bath painting of the guy in his red flannels. A worthwhile trip to the art museum. You should go if you get chance..Josh"

  2. Thought I'd try again. Growing up I saw many union suits hanging out on clotheslines on wash day. It was no secret that the man of the family and quite often his sons were union suit wearers. I grew up in the 50's and 60's and a lot of the houses still did not have central heating. We had a gas on gas kitchen stove and a Moore heater in the living room. The bedrooms were cold. Things change, but some of us still enjoy the comfort of a Union suit, I know I do.

  3. For us union suit fans, wearing those long one-piece button downs are timeless. Thanks for checking in....Chris

  4. Clay of Saranac, NY emails: "Isn't it interesting that the only items hanging from Hoover's clothesline is a bed sheet, a wash cloth, and his union suit. My wife still hangs our family's clothes outside and we have a lot more clothes hanging than those in the painting. BTW: My neighbors love to jazz me about my union suits hanging out to dry!" No matter, I'm warm."

  5. Clay: clothes lines are not much in evidence these days as when I was a kid. Two teenage girls lived next door to us and I remember being quite red-faced when they would point and hoot at my union suits that my mother had hung out to dry. ...Chris

  6. My mom hung my Union suits on the clothes line since she discovered that the dryer shrunk them. I didn’t have neighbors poking fun at them since we lived in the country, but I always hoped no friends would show up when they were hanging out in the back yard.

  7. Union Suit Fans: Did you happen to catch the April 29th edition of CBS Sunday Morning? One segment featured Grant Wood paintings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the very place of which Joe speaks as posted above. The museum had borrowed "American Gothic" to place on display as one of about 150 works. The exhibition is entitled "Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables" and runs from March 2 through June 10, 2018.