History of the Letter Award Tradition

  To trace the origin of the award jacket, we must first consider the origin of the letter and how the letter and jacket or sweater have come together.

The athletic letter seems to have originated through the start of organized sports. Sports have been around for many years. Take English futballe. This started as a game between towns about 1000 A.D. using an inflated cow bladder. There were no rules other than getting the ball into the center of opposing towns. There was no limits as to the number of players. This was a combination of soccer, vandalism, and modified homicide. In the American colonies, there was another game like baseball called townball. It was a stick and ball game played as a mass-participation sport. All the early sports had few rules and little organization. This changed in 1846 when the New York Knickerbockers started as an organized baseball club. The Knickerbockers, in 1850, added style with the introduction of white flannel shirts, long trousers, and straw hats as a type of uniform. It is unknown if any letter or emblem was added to this early uniform. There may be some proof that emblem or letters were used in this period. There is a frequently published print of Union soldiers during the American civil war participating in a baseball game in the prison compound in Salisbury, NC. The print shows many participants wearing long sleeve shirts and long trousers with some type of letter on the left side of the shirt. During this period, English soccer clubs had been using colors to identify themselves. In the 1860s, badges started to appear on club jerseys. In 1871, the first international rugby team jersey bore a large embroidered rose over the heart (left side).

It seems with the advent of organized sports, there was a need for uniforms. There was an addition need for identifications which was satisfying by the use of emblems or letters. In 1865, the Harvard baseball team added an old English 'H'. The 'H' was embroidered on the gray flannel shirt. The football team started to use the 'H' in 1875. It is interesting to note that for 25 years following the introduction in 1865 of the letter, it was the practice for the team captain to allow certain players who played in the most important games (Yale or Princeton) to keep the 'H' jerseys as an award. If a player did not play in an important game, the player had to return the jersey at the end of the season. Awarding the 'H' jersey may have been the birth of the letter as an award. The sweater was first regulary used by the 1891 "Nine" (baseball) and was black with a small Crimson 'H' on the left breast. It is not known when the letter sweater came to high schools. The earliest example that VLAS has come across is in the 1911 yearbook of Phoenix Union High School, Arizona Territory. Pictured, not in football uniform, wearing a V-net sweater with the letter 'P' on the left side is a student in a group photo.

The sweater seems to home for the award letter from the 1890s until the 1930s. Another award during the 20s and 30s was a stadium style blanket given as an award.

In the 1930s, the letter award started to appear on leather sleeved, wool-bodied jackets. The jackets from the 30s were different in design that today's modern jacket.

VLAS has traced the history of the letter and shown that when organized sports came about, there was a need for uniforms that led to the letter. In future Leather Sleeves, we will trace the origins and the history of the award jacket.

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Last updated: October 10th, 1999
Jamie Richardson
jerichar@fas.harvard.edu
http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~jerichar/sleeves/