When paper clothing first arrived on the mass market, it had not yet hardened into a touchstone for class identity. Like Howard Paul in “The Age of Paper”, commentators recognized its potential usefulness, but they also felt awkward about replacing their fine linens with something so mundane and ephemeral. In 1858, a cartoon in Australia’s Melbourne Punch magazine showed one man tearing off a piece of another’s paper collar as tinder to light his pipe.
Still, there were occasions for men of any class to think of wearing paper, as on business trips where laundry needs would impose a burden. Turf, Field, and Farm, a New York sporting journal for elite men, gave another reason: hired washerwomen—and sometimes even wives—were liable to perform their jobs badly, which in turn provoked bad tempers in the men. “We hate to swear,” the paper mused, “but do abhor badly washed linen.” It was a misogynistic thing to say, and probably tinged with nativism as well, for washing was job for immigrants. But it also shows an interest in paper that reached beyond clerks.
In truth, housewives may have been equally eager to rid themselves of collar and cuff duty. In 1860, Godey’s Lady’s Book of Philadelphia included a puff piece on the novelty and convenience of paper, directing readers to William Lockwood’s shop on the fashionable Chestnut Street. Godey’s was a titan of its time, pricier than its competitors but unrivaled in circulation. Its iconic fashion plates made it an influential voice among upper-class and upwardly striving middle-class women alike—a voice that crossed over into menswear as well.
By the end of the decade, though, the bloom was off the rose. Increasingly, invective of the kind Walt Whitman had levied against Broadway’s high-collared dandies became linked to paper itself. To the columnist Fanny Andrews, a faux-linen finish was a “sham upon raw materials,” reversibility was a “slander on personal neatness,” and perspiration-proof designs were an “insult to friendly soap and water.” Surely a collar constructed on deception, impermanence, and expediency was the reflection of a fraudulent moral character—a “paper-collar gentility.”
What’s more, Andrews said, the man who wore such collars was of a particular type. In the North, he was usually a merchant’s clerk or the smalltime proprietor of a dry-goods store; in the South, he was a “country beau” who put on a clean shirt once a week to strut among the ladies. “He always has very sleek, greasy hair, carefully curled, and perfumed with cinnamon or bergamot,” she wrote, “and is much addicted to light kid-gloves, always a little soiled.” This was an old type, in fact. Dandies, and the habit of ridiculing them, dated back to the turn of the century.
Often, critics focused on the unnatural pains they took to imitate their social betters. As Robert Cruikshank portrayed dandies in 1818, there were suffocating corsets and impossibly high collars. Later in the century, paper only added to the discomforts of vanity. Despite constant improvements, collar paper was rigid by nature and had edges that could irritate or cut the skin. In fact, when George Snow introduced cuffs with folded edges in 1869, he dubbed them “safety cuffs.” And so, in the eyes of detractors, the new “paper-collar gentility” was not only dishonest; it was foolish too.
To make matters worse, collar paper also turned out to be toxic. The process of bleaching it involved arsenic, which caused painful rashes around the necks of some wearers. The New York Times wondered why manufacturers and buyers had not thought better of the risks, since the dangers of arsenic-treated paper were publicly known. After all, children had died from playing with paper calling cards. But caution was not the watchword of an industry clamoring for profits and new markets. Reports of poisoning continued to surface, and in 1875 the Times took the arsenic issue as the last straw. “The worm, when trodden, will turn,” it admonished. “It is pleasant to notice that the paper collar is following [that] example, and is evincing its just contempt for its wearer by poisoning his neck.”
Nor was this the Times’s only allegation against disposable collars. There was also the problem of litter. Discarded collars reportedly lurked in the corners of boardinghouses, blew around backyards, and caught in women’s skirts. They blocked storm drains, and their muslin cores smoldered in fireplaces and gave wandering goats uptown a taste for clothes-lines. If cast into the river, the Times said, old collars would float along on the surface until landing on some other shore, which they would thus contaminate with their vulgar nature.
All the while, paper collar makers went on marketing their products as respectable and sensible alternatives to starched linen—and millions of people bought them. For all the chatter about an unsavory class of young, urban clerks, disposable collars appeared just as much in rural towns by the last quarter of the century. In fact, one account suggests they were virtually the only kind of collar worn in those places. Outside of cities, frugality and respectability tended to merge, and the social scale was less diverse. As late as 1920, Mississippi Congressman Percy Quin advertised a plan to beat the high cost of living: “Wear your old cloths, have them patched and darned, wear a celluloid collar, carry your lunch, etc.,” he urged his constituents. He even posed for a photo observing his own advice.
A generation earlier, before the new celluloid plastic had begun to replace paper, the Narragansett Company had a similar crowd in mind for its Elmwood collars. Their packaging featured a bucolic middle-class house somewhere outside the bustle of the city. It looked much like one that the architect George Woodward had included in his book of cottage designs a few years earlier. Woodward’s house spoke to the same sensibilities as the Elmwood collar. Its floorplan was designed for economy of heating, and its general proportions and styling were calculated to be just elegant enough. “If tastefully furnished,” he wrote, the cottage would “convey a pleasing impression to all; much more so than dwellings of a more expensive class, where sufficient attention is not given to such accessories.”
But perhaps that was the difference between the two—the house and the paper collar. The cottage confirmed its owners’ respectability by exhibiting a tasteful and presumably tidy interior. The case against paper-wear was that one never knew what dirt it concealed on the wearer, be it an unlaundered shirt or the dirty side of a reversible collar. Better to dress in simple, collarless homespun, Andrews thought, and thus be “perfectly free from vulgarity because perfectly free from pretension.”