An AWARD JACKET is a start and a finish. It’s a person’s first real badge of adult-hood—of accomplishment and victorious memory.
It’s a goal achieved, after years of dreams and sweat.
An AWARD JACKET is a reminder of bruises and aching muscles. It’s a symbol of belonging, a mortar of team and camaraderie…..of friendships earned.
It is moments of victory and defeat, strung like white and crimson banners in the vast stadium of memory.
It is the leather of adventure, the wool of combat and heroics. —The excited hum of competition—cheers that burst like sky-rockets.
It’s the color of loyalty, discovered and developed.
In its creases and folds are loomed and tanned all the efforts of a person to become an adult.
It is union between language, creed or color.
Most people have seen an award jacket. It is most commonly being worn by high school students. The jacket has a wool body and leather sleeves. The jacket has school colors with stripes on the collar, wrist, and waist bands. The jacket can be adorned with a school varsity letter, school name and mascot, student’s name, year of graduation, sport or activity, special accomplishments and many other significant happenings. The adornment can be either embroidered to the jacket or a chenille (embroidered or stitch patch) attached to the jacket.
The jacket is just a piece of clothing with awards attached to it. But what about the tradition that brought about today’s award jacket. This is what VLAS (Varsity Letter Award Society) will try to explore. The purpose of VLAS is to understand and preserve the tradition of the award jacket. This understanding will involve the evolution that has lead up to today’s award jacket. With this first issue of LEATHER SLEEVES it is hoped that some of the tradition can be shared. Also it is hoped that readers can help in this exploration and discovery and help in the gathering of knowledge and the preservation of this tradition.
The question of how did the tradition of the leather sleeved jacket come about is a question that has been asked by many high school students to their parents. The parent could only answer that it was a tradition in high school when they went to school. But how did it start, is what sparked this journey. Inquires were made of the retailers who sell jackets. These retailers had little knowledge of the origin of the jacket. Then information was requested from jacket manufactures. This was much more rewarding in obtaining information. Then it was off to the library, where nothing could be found that has been written about the tradition of award jackets. Then it was research in high school and college picture yearbooks and sports history books. This was a very valuable source. Verbal history was another valuable source to obtain information from people who have had award jackets. VLAS is trying to answer the question of how the tradition of the award jacket has come about and how it is practiced today.
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 satisfied 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.
Misty Hyman is a senior at Shadow Mountain High School, Phoenix, Arizona and graduates in 1997. Misty was the High School Swimmer of the Year for all schools in the United States. She is also a world ranked and world champion in international swimming. She is currently a member of the United States ‘A’ team. She missed making the Olympic Team in 1996 by .03 seconds, coming in third to Amy Van Dyken and Angel Martino.
Misty was awarded her letter in swimming as a freshman. She choose a traditional wool-bodied, standard collar, leather sleeved to display her letter. Good luck to Misty in her college swimming and the 2000 Olympics.
Phoenix Lettering started in 1957 doing embroidery, Chenille awards and letterman sweaters. The sweaters were all wool then and came in school colors, usually with contrasting varsity stripes on the left sleeve. One stripe for each year that a person lettered for a maximum of four stripes. That meant that the letterman would have to estimate how many years they might earn letters. The stripes were knit into the sleeve at the time the sweater was made. Any stripes not yet earned were covered with a piece of sweater material and removed when a person earned their next year’s letter. This remained the norm for Phoenix Letterman until around the late ‘60s or early ‘70s when the letterman jackets began to replace the letterman sweater.
The placement of Chenille items on letterman’s jackets (in Phoenix) has remained unchanged from the old sweater days. The student’s name on the left pocket, year of graduation on the right pocket, on the right sleeve the sport or activity that was earned by the student (i.e. band or ROTC), school mascot on the left sleeve, and the varsity letter on the left chest, over the heart, to show loyalty.
VLAS needs your help to preserve the award tradition both in the form of the jacket, sweater, award blanket, or any other award item.VLAS would like to obtain photos and personal histories of award items. Awards items can also be donated. You can donate to VLAS who is setting up an achieve in cooperation with VLAS manufacturing members. Many schools, mostly colleges, have an archive department through their libraries or athletic departments that would like to receive award items relating to their school. Please help VLAS preserve these items rather than lose them forever.