18th Century Men’s Checked Shirts

Like check aprons, check shirts like these appear on working-class men in the 18th century; a gentleman would choose a shirt made from a more refined fabric, preferably in white.

Most of these appear on illustrations of sailors, and references from England (such as The Adventures of Roderick Random, An Account of the Loss of His Majesty's Ship Deal Castle, The Life and Adventures of Mr. Bampfylde-Moore Carew, Commonly Called the King of the Beggars, and Medicina Nautica: An Essay on the Diseases of Seamen) also primarily put them on sailors. However, in the American colonies, runaway records put check shirts on (or in the possession of) a variety of servants, apprentices, and enslaved men.

In Voyage from Asia to America for Completing the Discoveries of the West Coast of America (1764), there's an interesting set of instructions for a watch-coat contrived by an officer that starts by cutting up a large checked shirt and applying boiled linseed oil; the result is “a ſort of ſurtout, to preſerve men, in a great meaſure, both from wet and cold.”

Additional notes on making shirts and links to extant shirts are on the 18th century men’s shirts page. See Shopping for Check Linen for links to suppliers who carry fabrics suitable for making 18th century check shirts.

There was a checked shirt sleeve fragment found on the shipwreck of the General Carleton of Whitby (1785). Regarding such shirts, the Babits & Brenckle report on sailor clothing indicates:

Seamen preferred blue and white checks [for shirts] above all else. The 1740 Royal Navy slop list calls for “Shirts of Blue and White Chequered linen, the sleeve 20 inches long, and 8 inches broad, with 4 buttons.” The Continental Marine Committee ordered “8400 Check Shirts” for the Continental Navy in 1779. In 1798, a London newspaper reported that “Bond Street dandies have taken to wearing check shirts and collars to make them look like sailors – our readers may suppose, not of the able-bodied kind!” So common were such shirts among seamen that “a press gang in Shropshire … seized a passing Irish collier just because he had a checked shirt in his pocket” …

The color on the checked shirt sleeve fragment (W-32/633/96) has completely faded, but it is possible to discern the check weave of the fabric. The checks are each 3/16 in. (5 mm) square. The sleeve is very finely gathered to the cuff. The most interesting feature is that the cuff fastened with sleeve buttons (cuff links). There is a 5/8 in. (1.59 cm) long buttonhole on each side of the cuff to accept the buttons.

A note with this check apron notes, “Blue and white checked linen like that used in this apron, which was spun and dyed by Judith Allen Bardwell (1777-1849) of Deerfield, Massachusetts, was a common feature of everyday life in the 18th century Connecticut Valley. Men's everyday shirts made from comparable material were so closely associated with the Connecticut Valley that observers could recognize a man from this New England region by the fabric. The highly serviceable checked cloth was also popular for boy's shirts, bed and window curtains, towels, and women's aprons.” Check fabrics also appear in sample books like Winterthur 07x005 and Met 156.4 T31.


Runaway advertisements mentioning check shirts

Check shirts are fairly commmon in 18th century runaway advertisements. You can find several in these resources: