Thursday, January 06, 2011

Traditional Clothing of Chinese Central Pacific Railroad Workers

From: "Hannah Lundberg"

... I am currently working on a History Day project in the perfomance category on Chinese immigration during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. I have looked at pictures, but I still can't tell what type of clothing the Chinese workers and American foremen in charge of them wore. I will need to wear clothing similar to theirs for my performance so if you have any idea I would greatly appreciate it. ...

—Hannah Lundberg


Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker"

Good question, Hannah! I once coordinated living history programs set in the 1860s and 1870sd for California State Railroad Museum volunteers so I can easily help advise you.

The Central Pacific's Chinese construction workers wore their mostly traditional indigo-dyed linen or cotton trousers and matching loose-fitting shirts which somewhat resemble pajamas. The color of the blue was a lot like faded blue jeans but the fabric was much lighter-weight and looser-fitting.

In colder weather or in the higher mountains the Chinese men often put on typical Anglo-American wool jackets like their white bosses wore. The jackets would not likely have been brand new or new-looking. They wore traditional Chinese woven bamboo or straw coolie hats, the low conical kind or the broad low-domed versions. They did not wear work gloves even though their work was extremely rough and hard on hands. They wore traditional mid-19th century leather boots that came mostly up their calves (nearly to the knee) and tucked their pants into the boots.

There are a few photos on the CPRR Museum website showing these hats. California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento has some magnificent and absolutely accurate life-size mannequins of Chinese construction crews at work in the "Sierra Scene" gallery.

The white construction bosses and workmen all wore plain cotton shirts (loose fitting) without collars and usually light yellow or plain white, wool jackets (a lot like a modern sport coat) that were mostly brown or gray and solid-color. Black or blue wool pants were just as common as cotton jeans. All men wore suspenders (called "braces") which were buttoned to the pants (called "trousers") at the waistline front and back; Clip-on suspenders hadn't been invented yet. Like the Chinese tall work boots with pant legs tucked-in was the general rule to protect the lower legs and feet. Every man wore a wool hat, usually a well-worn hat that had seen better days and which had likely once been a "Sunday best" street-clothes hat at one time – broad brimmed, black or brown felt, sweat-stained... Most white men also wore "waistcoats" – what we'd call a vest, with the workmen preferring to wear theirs usually buttoned all the way except for the lower one or two buttons so that they could easily bend at the waist. A construction boss might be a little more properly dressed since he mostly supervised the work. In cold climates or the High country of the Sierra Nevada most white men wore (under their shirts etc.) red "long johns" they called "Union Suits" as underwear and heavy wool socks, too. Once again, take a hard look at the photos on the CPRR Museum website, particularly at the photos taken at Promontory just before and right after the Last Spike was driven. You can see both Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads' work men to get a better idea of their clothing styles. The UP's men more favored the woolen short-billed caps that resemble a woolen seaman's cap while the Central Pacific's men mostly liked the broader brimmed hats I mentioned before.

The better-off white men – mostly the construction supervisors – wore pocket watches with chains and a dangling "fob" which they tucked in the front pockets of their waistcoats, the chain swagging across the front a little loosely, one end of it anchored through a button hole in the waistcoat.

One more thing – every man's pants/trousers button up at the fly – zippers hadn't been invented yet either!

Enjoy your presentation!

—Kevin Bunker

1/07/2011 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin!

Thanks for the informative answer. I just have one question - I am writing a book that takes place during the construction of the railroad, featuring one of the Chinese workers as the protagonist. I have not been able to find in any of my resources if there was any particular name for the loose fitting pants and shirt you describe. Do you know if they would have referred to the articles by a particular name, like "ku zi" for example?

Thank you!

4/20/2011 2:12 PM  

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