Is there a cultural significance to t-shirts?


In February, John Paglione and I spent a day in the Library of Congress. We toured the building, even signed up for a library card.  Of the many book related, tempting things to buy in the gift shop, I bought a t-shirt.  It was black, with a row of leather bound books, Thomas Jefferson’s Library across the books and beneath that a Jefferson quote, “I can’t live without books.” Jefferson sold his personal library (6487 books) to the Congress for $23,950.  Of course there was fiery debate before the money was appropriated. In 1851, a fire destroyed about 35,000 books in the Library of Congess collection; about 2/3 of Jefferson’s collection. Copies of over 4000 books have been recently located and purchased.  Under 200 remain to be found.  Recently the Library opened an exhibit  showcasing the Jeffererson books.  And created a t-shirt to market.

I recently wrote about having too many books, seems the Jefferson Tee-shirt is a great reminder-symbol of too many for me– – books and T-shirts.  During my Spring clothing purge, I counted over 50.   T-shirts are ubiquitous. They come in all colors, with sayings, slogans, advertisements, photographs.  Some are made for small organizations, even family, or individuals.  They are sold everywhere.  Entire stores are devoted to them.   If you don’t believe T-shirts are a significant

art of the twentieth-first century cultural American landscapes, you may want to read a 1990 Memphis State dissertation, “T-shirts as Wearable Diary: an examination of artifact consumption and garnering related to life’s events.”  If you digest the meaning, let me know, I’m not even sure of the title.


T-shirts fall into several categories.  Some are given as gifts or prizes for participation or donations to a specific cause.  I have several Alex Lemonade Stand shirts given for participation in the Lemon Run– an obvious color is yellow but I have an eye catching orange one from 2011.  Similarly the Four Seasons Cancer Run for CHOP gives T-Shirts to participants.  One year Eli created  a “Team Gusto” shirt for donors to his Alex Lemonade fund.  Along the same line I have a bright orange “Pennsylvanians for Obama” that I got for a specified donation to the campaign. I think New Jersey Best Brews came from a beer festival on the Batlleship NJ (my son in law’s group Cabin Dogs play at the festival).   University of Pennsylvania, Radiation Oncology gave me a shirt on completion of my proton radiation — a reminder of the thousands of dollars insurance paid for the treatment. I have two James Madison Montpelier shirts awarded for participation in an archaeology dig and a slave cabin building project.  Since I had two, one Montpelier is covered in paint, worn when I am house painting.  This adds a personal touch.


I have quite a few Holy Ghost Prep t-shirts.  Most given out for participation.  HGP Homecoming for several years, HGP forensics (actually usually blue polos,  not t-shirts), HGP color day.  I also have a Holy Family University shirt.  T-shirts were created for HGP German Exchange program (2001), a dingy green with uninspired graphics.  Better are Philadelphis High School Partnership, Students United in Service shirts —  there are several years from this University of Penn program.  Ayudanica, the Nicaraguan service project and later non-profit I was involved with for 10 years, created several shirts, I only have one left

Some organizations create t-shirts to sell as a fundraiser.  I have shirts from Friends of the Delaware Canal, Friends of Lake Afton, Yardley Borough -1895-1995, Audubon Ecology Camp, Rockies, Briny Breezes (trailer park community along ocean in Florida where Smiths lived for several winters).  Some businesses sell, or give away shirts as advertising —  they range from  a local CBM (hardware and fuel oil business in Bristol) to Mike’s Bikes in Munich (a fantastic tour). Other businesses I have are the Stone Barn Center (Hudson Valley, NY, organic farm), Cisco Brewery in Nantucket, St. Arnold’s Brewery in Houston, TX (the patron saint of beer and the name of HGP’s Friday afternoon society). I even have a 76ers shirt.

Many t-shirts are sold to vacationers.  I have one from Petrified Forest National Park, Monument Valley, AZ, Hudson River Valley, Granada, Nicaragua and a colorful bird on a white shirt, Nicaragua.  Other purchased shirts include a Sherlock Holmes ( got this at William Gillette’s castle in Connecticuit), a purple Sing For Pete’s Sake (from the Philadelphai Folk Festival), Thomas Eakin’s rower image (Phildelphia Museum of Art), Coppis (DC restaurant) with the Shepard Fairey’s  Obama Hope image on the back, Seremon Como el Che!  (Image of Che Guevera bought on the street in Nicaragua, probably the only amateur screened shirt in my collection).

Some shirts have clear messages, for instance The American Cancer Society’s Great American Smoke out.  And some are just a plain t-shirt — black, gray, green, blue and brown.  I even have a few whites at the bottom of a drawer.  There may be some cultural meaning or significance in all this or it may be I just have too many t-shirts.  Too many books; too many t-shirts.  Im still happy I bought the Thomas Jefferson’s Library t-shirt at the Library of Congress.


2 thoughts on “Is there a cultural significance to t-shirts?

  1. The date on this T-shirt entry shows as “Sticky” instead of the actual posting date. That means it always comes up first, instead of your latest entry, whenever someone goes to the homepage of your blog. It can be changed on the edit screen.

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