Shirt collars aided industrialization of Troy

In ancient times, oxen pulled wagons, but the ox’s rigid wooden yoke would choke a horse. So, the Romans used a “throat-and-girth” horse harness, a strap around the neck and a lower one around the chest. Horse-drawn vehicles were limited to chariots, a basic one-person vehicle stripped down to just a pair of wheels. Even then it required a team of horses. Around 800 AD, the horse collar came to Europe from the Central Asian steppes. A horse collar was like a padded toilet seat, with the harness attached to the sides. Putting drag on a horse collar puts pressure on the back of the horse’s neck, not the trachea. From that point on, horses became the mainstay of road vehicles.

Skip ahead a millennium to a horse of a different color. In 1827, Orlando Montague of Troy was something of a “clothes horse,” changing his attire several times a day. His wife, Hannah Lord Montague, grew tired of washing his shirts when only the collar was dirty­—remember, in those days laundry was all hand-washed. She cut the collar off and reattached it with a ribbon, in order to wash the collar separately. This began Troy’s enormous detachable collar and cuff industry. By 1900, 90 percent of America’s collars came from little ol’ Troy, employing over 15,000 people in 26 different local companies, which together made over a million collars a day. A related laundry industry arose here, too, eventually leading to the first all-female labor union.

Cluett, Peabody & Co., the largest collar company in Troy, marketed under the Arrow brand name. In 1905, they began advertising with their “Arrow Collar Man,” a sophisticated collegiate gentleman of impeccable styling. This image, created by famed magazine illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, became the icon of that generation, much as the Marlboro Man set a different standard in the 1980s. Each time a new male model appeared in the ads, women swooned and sent fan mail, and even Teddy Roosevelt commented this was a “superb portrait of the common man.”

So why didn’t Montague invent the collarless T-shirt instead of detachable collars? The bustling Victorian city of Troy was one of congested horse-drawn traffic. Urban streets were ankle-deep in horse manure, and horseflies (which bite) were a major problem. There was no air conditioning, no electric fans, no window screens.

Pretty much every inch of skin on both men and women were covered—hats, veils, gloves, long dresses, full trousers—even under the sweltering summer sun. A collar covered the back of the neck, protecting against the sun and the flies. It was originally kept upright by a tied strip of cloth, but detachable collars could be starched to cardboard stiffness, with neckties used for decor.

By the 1920s, the shift to autos, street cleaning trucks, and better sewage systems had decimated the horsefly population.

Cluett-Peabody eventually moved out of Troy; Arrow Collars became Arrow Shirts and ceased advertising the Arrow Collar Man in 1931. Detachable collars went the way of the buggy whip, the buttonhook, and the horse collar.

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