Most of the stockings hanging from the Colket family’s suburban Philadelphia mantle this Christmas are what you would expect in 21st century America. They are decorated with seasonal images in festive red, green and white. To make room for gifts, they have unusually wide calves and wide, stocky feet. Few people are their size and, given their thick seams, shoes are even rarer. Christmas stockings are symbolic gift containers, not tights.
But one of the Colket bottoms is different. It’s long and skinny, with a diamond-shaped check pattern knitted in cream and brown and picked up with scattered pieces of bright red yarn. âIt was a men’s stocking that my grandfather wore when he played golf and wore his plus-four,â says Andrew Colket, who received his father’s stocking as a child and passed it down. last year for her son’s first Christmas.
“All the Christmas stockings were real Christmas stockings. These were the same knitted socks that their owners wore every day.“
Using a real sock isn’t a Colket family quirk. All the Christmas stockings were real Christmas stockings. They were not made of velor or felt or embroidered with the owner’s name. They did not feature appliquÃ©s, embroidery or sequins; no reindeer, snowflakes or trees. These were the same knitted socks that their owners wore every day. Stockings made ideal gift containers because everyone had them, and the knitted fabric could stretch to accommodate oddly shaped items. Special socks just for receiving Christmas presents would have been an extremely impractical extravaganza.
In âThe Christmas Stocking Song,â an 1880s children’s poem, a boy wakes up in the middle of the night before Christmas to find the stockings dangling from their hooks and celebrating their holiday break:
All day long we wear toes,
Tonight we are carrying candy;
Christmas comes once a year
Very pretty and practicalâ¦.
Boots and little tired shoes,
We launch them with joy;
It’s fun to hang up here
And Santa Claus to see.
In most countries, children wear shoes for the local version of Santa Claus, not socks. Christmas stockings are an Anglo-American tradition, which is no coincidence: it was England that made stockings one of the first mass consumer goods. Originally an Italian luxury in silk, knitted stockings became everyday clothing in the 16th century, when the English began to knit them from wool. By the end of the 17th century, English manufacturers were exporting 1.75 million pairs per year and supplying an additional 10 million pairs to the domestic market. Most were made by hand knitters using a “staking” system. Manufacturers provided knitters with working capital in the form of yarn and paid for them in pairs.
Others were sewn from knitted fabric made on a machine called a stocking frame, which could knit a row in one pass. Invented in 1589, the bottom frame has gradually improved over time. Although foot-powered, it was a complex device: each stocking frame required over 2,000 components, including fine needles that defied the art of the blacksmith. In the middle of the 18th century, Great Britain had about 14,000 lower cadres.
In France, the government has restricted storage frames, called trades, to protect production by hand. Their wares nonetheless have spread to customers of all income levels. “The storage industry could only meet new consumer demand because the illegal production and marketing networks were there to serve the lower class consumer,” writes historian Cissie Fairchilds. Looking at real estate inventories of middle and lower class Parisians, she found that 97% owned stockings in 1785, up from 64% in 1725.
Even before the Industrial Revolution, stockings were no longer status symbols imitating aristocratic styles, but popular clothing, a daily necessity. Bas announced what economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has dubbed the Great Get Rich. They embody the technological innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and cultural attitudes that enabled the centuries-old economic take-off that raised global standards of living to previously unthinkable levels.
The original stocking frames produced only plain fabric, using the knit stitch. In 1758, Jedediah Strutt of the English town of Derby invented a way to incorporate the contrasting stitch inside out and produce ribbed stockings. Flattering new styles have increased the appeal of machine-made hoses.
The patented “Derby rib” machine proved to be very profitable and indirectly played its own role in the industrial revolution: Strutt and his partner financed the first spinning mills built by Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water frame, the fundamental advance that has transformed the spinning mill from a low-level artisanal productivity to a truly industrial product. Before Arkwright’s machines, it would have taken a British spinner about five hours to make enough woolen yarn to knit a pair of knee socks. The new machines could do it in a matter of minutes; today it takes a few seconds. Cotton hosiery, more desirable than wool, was one of the first uses of the newly abundant yarn in the spinning mills. Spinning machines have made stockings and other textiles even more affordable and abundant.
By the end of the 19th century, industrial textile production had made the fabric cheap enough and a large middle class wealthy enough that people could consider buying “stockings” specially designed to hold Christmas gifts. An 1892 Ladies’ Home Journal column introduced readers to the “pretty French custom” of giving a gentleman friend a “fancy stocking” made of flannel and decorated with bells. The donor filled it with inexpensive gifts, each wrapped in tissue paper with a small note (“My bark is worse than my bite” for a chocolate dog). For a more serious relationship, the bottom could hide a more expensive gift: “If it’s your fiance, and you send him a pair of sleeve ties, a scarf pin or any small gift,” advised the chronicler, “put it down. to the far toe, so that after laughing at all the follies, the real Christmas present is finally reached.
Today, the Colket heritage socks have a nostalgic charm; it’s an ancient eccentricity in a world of tailor-made Christmas stockings. For most of history, however, there was nothing charming about the scarcity of fabric and the high price of hosiery. It was industrial ingenuity and corporate zest that made the special Christmas stocking a container for the excitement of a pregnant child.
–Ms. Postrel is a visiting scholar at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University and author of âThe Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,â which has just been published in paperback.
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