Did Brigham hate your 501′s?

September 28, 2006 | 38 comments
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Here’s the lead from an article in today’s New York Times: “IN the 1830’s, when men’s pants were first tailored with buttons visible down the front of the fly, the Mormon leader Brigham Young discouraged the population from wearing them, calling them ‘fornication pants.’”

I’ve heard statements like this before, and Google shows that it is repeated fairly frequently. Often Brigham is quoted as calling out jeans in general, not just button fly trousers, though as far as I know jeans weren’t really around until the 1850s. Whatever the supposed quote, there is never a source cited, and Google, at least from my cursory review, doesn’t show the quote appearing in any Mormon sources. Does anyone know where this comes from? What exactly did Brigham say, and when did he say it?

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38 Responses to Did Brigham hate your 501′s?

  1. Clark on September 28, 2006 at 3:07 pm

    Wow. I thought it was ZZ Top who talked about such things. (Yeah, I’m a child of the 80′s – so sue me)

  2. mami on September 28, 2006 at 3:22 pm

    We actually studied the whole Levi thing in Utah state history in school when I was in 8th grade. We were taught that the problem went something like this:
    Everyone in Zion was supposed to live as equals, all things in common. People were sent out of SLC, and came in with ordered products, etc. One time someone came back and had bought himself a pair of Levi’s. Everyone wanted a pair. They said everyone could have some, but they had to wait until everyone could have a pair. Gradually, a few other guys got some–all hell broke loose. Levis led to vanity and inequality and were a big problem, so Brigham hated them.
    At least that’s how I remember the story, it was 20 years ago though.

  3. DHofmann on September 28, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    The source most often sited on the Internet for the “fornication pants quote” appears to be Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon, by James Sullivan (Gotham, 2006). He in turn got the quote from the book Let There Be Clothes: 40,000 Years of Fashion by Lynn Schnurnberger (Workman, 1991). Border’s didn’t have it in stock, but Amazon lists some used copies for sale starting at $3.97 + shipping.

  4. MW* on September 28, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    Mormons weren’t in Utah in the 1830s. I think this 1830s date may be wrong, as I thought jeans were invented in california during the gold rush…

  5. Kaimi Wenger on September 28, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    Does anyone else think it would be a little weird that Brigham Young would be making statements, in a role as a Mormon leader, in the 1830′s?

    Sure, he was first ordained an apostle in 1835. But through the 1830′s, much (most?) of the real church leadership was found in other people.

  6. manaen on September 28, 2006 at 4:20 pm

    Times & seasons indeed: now a line like that would make him a hot new talent on Madison Ave.

    FWIW, I haven’t purchased anything from Levi, Strauss, et al for some 20 years, since they began their donations boycott of the Boy Scouts.

  7. Greg Call on September 28, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    Kaimi points out the problem with the 1830′s date, and MW* points out the problem with the Zion explanation. Where are you Justin Butterfield?

  8. Greg Call on September 28, 2006 at 4:29 pm

    Notice, also, that the Times reporter does not quote BY as saying anything about jeans, only about button-fly trousers. So it could be that BY said something about button-fly trousers decades before Levis appeared on the scene. But the 1830s does sound early for such a statement.

  9. Eric Russell on September 28, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a wide spread quote was falsely attributed to Brigham Young. Ever hear the one about menaces to society? Brigham never said anything like it.

  10. Julie M. Smith on September 28, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    “Ever hear the one about menaces to society? Brigham never said anything like it.”

    Awww . . . you ruined my day. I love that quote. In fact, when I was in college, some card stoes had these little computers where you could design and print your own cards. When a single male friend of mine turned 25, I put the quote on the front of the card and on the inside, simply, “Congratulations.”

  11. Kevin Barney on September 28, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    Most of the online attributions are to James Sullivan, _Jeans: A Cultural History_. The quoted snippets are either to a quote from 1830 (surely wrong–Brigham wasn’t even baptized until 1832) or 1830s (seems unlikely for the reasons Kaimi gives). The quote appears to have been regarding “front-buckled trousers” as a style of dress, so probably predates actual jeans.

    Without an actual source, this all seems too garbled to be able to draw much from it, even if it is authentic.

  12. Kaimi Wenger on September 28, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    Okay, now we definitely have to turn this one over to the experts. (Kevin, J., Justin.) I’m sure I’ve seen a BY quote somewhere that is held up as the “source” of the “menace to society” quote. It’s not a real source, as I recall — it talks about the harm to society from having _groups_ of unmarried men, and it truly is a stretch to suggest that any particular individual becomes a menace at age 25. Still, it’s something.

    Am I hallucinating, or is there a (real) quote of this sort somewhere?

  13. J. Stapley on September 28, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    I believe the referance is to a discourse by Heber C. Kimball on December 27, 1857 in the Tabernacle. Speaking to the sisters:

    I am opposed to your nasty fashions and everything you wear for the sake of fashion. Did you ever see me with hermaphrodite pantaloons on? [Voice: "Fornication pantaloons."] Our boys are weakening their backs and their kidneys by girting themselves up as they do; they are destroying the strength of their loins and taking a course to injure their posterity.

    Now, just look at me. I have no hips projecting out; they are straight down with my sides. I am serious myself, although I can smile and laugh when I am serious; but these ridiculous fashions I despise, and God knows I despise anything that will tend to destroy the lives of my sisters. What is your existence worth to you? It is worth everything to your posterity; and you ought to consider their interest as well as your own.

    There is not a woman in this congregation but would be as straight as I am, if she did not destroy her shape.Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, p.191

    The legend I heard was that Orderville was broken by Levis.

  14. mami on September 28, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    Maybe it was Orderville. That does sound right.

  15. DKL on September 28, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    Learning how vociferously hated blue jeans wounds me. I feel like a second class Mormon now. Wearing jeans makes me feel good, and I hope other Mormons won’t force me to make a choice between Mormonism and jeans. I just don’t know what I’d choose.

  16. Greg Call on September 28, 2006 at 6:19 pm

    DKL: There is no room for divided allegiance here.

    J.: That’s a pretty darn good candidate! Well done. I presume you’ll be writing a letter to the editor of the Times demanding a correction.

  17. mami on September 28, 2006 at 6:20 pm

    Wikkipedia says that Levi’s were not marketed until the 1870′s–and the Gold Rush thing was just and ad campaign.

  18. Kaimi Wenger on September 28, 2006 at 6:20 pm

    According to this newspaper, it was actually George Q. Cannon on menaces to society (the group aspect was right):

    Actually, Brigham Young never said that. The closest thing is something George Q. Cannon, a church apostle, said in 1878: “I am firmly of the opinion that a large number of unmarried men, over the age of 24 years, is a dangerous element in any community.…�

  19. J. Stapley on September 28, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    Earnest Wilkonson at the Commencement Exercises or May 31, 1963 stated:

    Of the men graduating tonight, 62 per cent are married; 38 per cent unmarried. Of the 472 women graduating, 23 per cent are married; 77 per cent single. As to the single men, I need merely to repeat the admonition attributed to Brigham Young, “Every man not married and over twenty-five is a menace to the community.” I asked Dr. Lyman Tyler yesterday if he would document this for me, but he said he had been trying to document it for years; he had given up, so you will have to accept it either on faith, or as apocryphal.

    Kaimi, I think that you are correct that that quote is the one attributed to Brigham. The full quote is:

    Our boys, when they arrive at years of maturity and can take earn of a wife, should get married, and there should not be a lot of young men growing up in our midst who ought to be, but are not married. While I do not make the remark to apply to individual cases, I am firmly of the opinion that a large number of unmarried men, over the age of twenty-four years, is a dangerous element in any community, and an element upon which society should look with a jealous eye. For every man knowing himself, knows how his fellow-man is constituted; and if men do not marry, they are too apt to do something worse. Then, brethren, encourage our young men to marry, and see that they are furnished employment, so that they can marry. (Journal of Discourses, vol. 20, p.7)

  20. a random John on September 28, 2006 at 6:27 pm

    I’ve heard that it was Orderville that was undone by an enterprising young man that collected scraps of wool in order to buy pants which caused a cascade of events that ended in abandoning the UO.

  21. Starfoxy on September 28, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    J. Stapley- (#13) What is Bro. Kimball even saying in that quote? I’ve read it several times and the best I can make out is that pants constrict men’s hips and make them straight- meaning that if women wore pants they would be rendered hipless? And that straight hips are unhealthy and cause kidney damage and men are foolishly sacrificing their health for the sake of fashion, and that women would be sacrificing their posterity if they wore the hip-straightening pants? Is he talking about regular pants, women’s pantaloons/underwear or some trend that was popular at the time that I’ve never heard of?

    I’ve also heard the Orderville Levi’s story.

  22. J. Stapley on September 28, 2006 at 6:59 pm

    I really have no clue.

  23. Mark B. on September 28, 2006 at 7:01 pm

    My hunch is that it’s the tightness of the trousers that Bro. Kimball was complaining of. Overalls, or trousers held up by suspenders, can be loose and will hang straight without showing the curve of the hips, whether worn by J.Lo or Twiggy or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

  24. Starfoxy on September 28, 2006 at 8:04 pm

    Darn. I was hoping you would know. I think, perhaps, that the whole thing would make much more sense if the last sentence in the first paragraph read: “Our girls are weakening their backs and their kidneys by girting themselves up as they do; they are destroying the strength of their loins and taking a course to injure their posterity.” If it read like that then I could see it being mostly about corseting, in which case most of it would make sense. However that gets us no closer to what ‘Hermaphrodite Pantaloons’ might mean.

  25. Kevin Barney on September 28, 2006 at 8:05 pm

    There was a very good article about the phenomenon of bachelors in 19th century Utah a few years back in one of the journals, but I can’t remember which one. Does that ring a bell with anyone?

  26. WillF on September 28, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    The only time I have ever heard this quote was while listening to the Not My Job segment of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” about a month ago when Rita Rudner was the guest, and it came up as a question during the game (multiple choice: Did B.Y. call them A. dishonorable dungerees, B. Two-legged tickets to Hades, or C. fornication pants).
    Come to think of it, when Alan Alda was the guest a couple of weeks ago, one of the questions was about what the notoriously uncouth Standford marching band did for a half time show when they played BYU. It turns out the dance team walked onto the field all dressed in wedding gowns, and then made a predictable poligamy joke.
    Does this call for a boycott? (I hope not, the podcast of this show makes my one hour commute fly by once a week — of course I know probably should be listening to audio scriptures instead).

  27. YL on September 28, 2006 at 8:16 pm

    Actually criticisms and jokes about single men go back at least to the colonial days. The colonies had lots of land and relatively few people, so single men were frowned upon. Benjamin Franklin said a single man was like a broken pair of scissors with only one cutting edge: useless.

  28. claire on September 28, 2006 at 10:08 pm

    I heard about a trend in the mid 1800s for men to wear corsets… I think it was on CSI? Perhaps that would shed some light. It was a strange concept.

  29. maria on September 28, 2006 at 10:33 pm

    The Levi story is most definitely from Orderville…in fact, the Levi-wearing rabble-rouser was my ancestor. The whole United Order crumbled after that…

  30. Julie M. Smith on September 28, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    “that gets us no closer to what ‘Hermaphrodite Pantaloons’ might mean”

    Nope, but as Dave Barry would say, that would be an excellent name for a rock band.

  31. Kevin Barney on September 28, 2006 at 11:10 pm

    I’m guessing that “hermaphrodite” was a precursor to our more modern complaints of unisexism.

  32. grego on September 28, 2006 at 11:38 pm

    “Then, brethren, encourage our young men to marry, and SEE THAT THEY ARE FURNISHED EMPLOYMENT, so that they can marry.”

    No wonder so many leave BYU single. :(

  33. dangermom on September 29, 2006 at 2:16 am

    I have heard the Orderville/lambtails story, but have never heard the problem attributed to Levis, simply to a new style of pants. However, I have here a copy of “Building the City of God,” by Arrington, Fox, and May, and in reading the chapter on Orderville, I see that while the desire for new and more stylish clothing seems to have played a part in Orderville’s demise, it was in fact a much more complex situation than that. In the long run, Orderville was not an advantageous system, though it was very successful as a short-term strategy. Eventually, it was not flexible enough to compete economically with its neighbors, for several reasons.

    I am hereby putting “hermaphrodite pantaloons” on my list of favorite phrases, right under “heckalopter.”

  34. John Mansfield on September 29, 2006 at 9:18 am

    Henry Eyring, then first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, outlined the Orderville pants story in his conference talk “Remembrance and Gratitude

  35. Adam Greenwood on October 3, 2006 at 12:13 am

    Rock band? Pshaw.

    HERMAPHRODITE PANTALOONS would be the best name for a bloggernacle blog ever, making all us T&S and M*’s and, heaven forbid, BCC’s feel like the insipid little dishwater parvenu milksops that we are. Maybe I’ll adopt it as my second moniker, the way Aaron Brown did with ‘DKL.’

  36. Joel Hinckley on October 3, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    Como? is that you?

  37. Katya on October 4, 2006 at 6:22 pm

    Re: #3

    \”The source most often sited on the Internet for the “fornication pants quoteâ€? appears to be Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon, by James Sullivan (Gotham, 2006). He in turn got the quote from the book Let There Be Clothes: 40,000 Years of Fashion by Lynn Schnurnberger (Workman, 1991). Border’s didn’t have it in stock, but Amazon lists some used copies for sale starting at $3.97 + shipping.\”

    Sorry I\’m coming to this so late; it took a while to track down the book through inter-library loan. Here is the quote, in its entirety:

    \”The 1830s bring on an innovation that spells relief – that\’s when men\’s trousers button down the front for the first time (The silk band that runs down the sides of tuxedo pants recalls the old tradition of side buttoning.) One of the few opposed to the new style is Mormon leader Brigham Young. Appalled, he dubs them \’fornication pants.\’ \” (p. 267)

    There is no citation, and there are no notes or bibliographical references to suggest where she might have gotten the quote. (Also, there is no index. It took me forever to find the quote by flipping through the pages!)

  38. Greg Call on October 26, 2006 at 7:42 pm

    Yep, it’s me Joel. My kids have questions for you about the window.

    And thanks for your research, Katya. At least we now know it was someone upstream of Sullivan that took some off-stage banter at a Heber C. Kimball address and turned it into a Brigham Young quote.