Friday, September 6, 2019

Who Wore Short Shorts?

Who Wore Short Shorts?  :  Putting Historical Events into Context

“Clothes make the man,” usually attributed to Mark Twain[1] is a phrase clothing stores sometimes use to influence buyers to choose their clothing lines.  Clothes make the first impression.  While working I usually wear a library themed tie and lab coat while the students and faculty wear a large variety of clothing types.  Some in the health fields are required to wear uniforms based on their program. Some even wear shells under the uniform to make them more modest.  Others wear more ordinary casual clothing. Some wear clothes that expose a lot of skin; some wear pants that have ready made holes or tears.  I wondered can someone be arrested for wearing the wrong clothes in the wrong place?

I came across the following articles in my family records.  They mention the arrest of my father’s older brother, Louis for wearing short shorts. Getting arrested for short shorts didn’t make sense. With my Talmud head, I had a lot of questions concerning what was going on. Isolated events are hard to understand in history.  One needs to know if the events create a pattern or have some context. in order to better understand and interpret the events.

July 8, 1940 St. Louis Star and Times


Another version of the story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , July 8, 1940

Before seeing this article, I never heard of the news paper St. Louis Star and Times. The St. Louis Star-Times was a newspaper published in St. Louis founded as The St. Louis Sunday Sayings in 1884. The newspaper ended publication in 1951 when it was purchased by the St. Louis Post Dispatch. That explains why I never read or even heard of this paper growing up.

I remember my uncle loved to play handball in the outdoor courts at Forest Park. Afterwards he would go to the fieldhouse to shower and change clothes.  I never saw him play.  The outdoor handball courts still exist.  They are not within walking distance of the residences of my uncle and his friend lived at the time. Today it would be a 17-20 minute drive and a 32 minutes trip by public transportation.  It probably took longer in 1940. There are no residences where one can see the handball courts. Outside of painting and repairs the courts are pretty much the same as in 1940.  It is perfectly logical that he would have been playing handball.

Louis and Mayer were dressed for handball.  In the above picture two players are without shirts.  Since this says nothing about how players dressed in the 1940’s, I looked in newspapers of the 1940’s and routinely saw pictures of people in swim suits.  The page in the Post-Dispatch had news of entertainment in St. Louis and ads for the movies currently showing. Bob Hope was appearing live at the Fox Theater (in those days the Fox had a stage show and a movie) while down the street at the Missouri Theater was showing his film, Ghost Breakers.  There were no similar articles about people being arrested even for similar “crimes.” Much of the news was concerned with the war in Europe.  The newspapers provided no context.

Just the fact men were shirtless and wearing short pants would not be a reason for their arrest.  Since there are no residences nearby and no cell phone existed, I wonder who could have phoned a complaint. There may have book some outdoor phone booths.  I told this to one of my fellow librarians and she suggested that this was racist.  I answered, my uncle and his friend were not African-American or black.  I thought perhaps this was anti-Semitic since they were both Jewish. They were not wearing kipot or other head coverings.   I could find no evidence of anti-Semitism or even if it was possible to know they were Jewish from their clothes or actions.  Perhaps someone thought they were gay?  Again, this is not possible to determine because there were no similar articles.  Perhaps this event made the newspapers because it was so unusual?

Next, I investigated the law.  What were they accused of violating? The article say they were accused of “indecent conduct.” A search of the St. Louis city code for “indecent conduct.”  The closest I found was in the code of 1936. [2]

There was a case in 1986 United States Court of Appeals, Eighth CircuitJul 9, 1986
795 F.2d 652 (8th Cir. 1986) that showed an arrest for “indecent conduct.” Accusing the appellants of indecent and lewd conduct.  In the case Postscript Enterprises, Inc. v. Whaley, 658 F.2d 1249 (8th Cir. 1981) it is stated that due process requires that laws provide fair notice of what is prohibited, as well as standards of enforcement. Said that due process requires laws that provide fair notice of what is prohibited.  Vague laws may often trap the innocent by not providing fair warning. While these cases happened more than 40 years after my uncle’s arrest the concept of vague laws make it hard to understand what is allowed and what is not allowed.  The Municipal Code that was operating in 1940 said that touching of the genital area in public and other behaviors (I’m not listing the whole law) meant to be sexually provocative are considered lewd. There is no listing or description of clothing that is too short or skimpy.

The only mention of “indecent conduct” refers to threatening or profane language and games that for disturb the feelings and enjoyment of visitors attending parks.  Since handball was played in open outdoor courts, no one can complain that playing handball or relaxing after the game could be violation of this ordinance.

The current code 14.01.170 - Lewd and indecent conduct[3] has a section defining exactly what is considered “indecent conduct.”  In brief the exposure and/or touching of the body for the purpose of sexual arousal is forbidden. Movies and theater productions are exempt from this prohibition.

To summarize --  1) There is no context  for this arrest.  There were no similar stories of arrests in the newspapers. There was no comment from a complainer.  2) The arrest was not motivated by race or religion. 3) There is no real ordinance that they broke.  What is in the law is vague.  There was no notice concerning acceptable attire. The real story behind the arrest is not known based on the online and library research that I was able to complete.   There is no way to prove the motivation of the arrest.  All the speculation of the motivations had no evidence.  Unfortunately, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. My Uncle Louis died in 1979 and all of my father’s sibling are gone, too.  There is no one who had direct knowledge alive. For now, this will remain unsolved.


Since I didn’t find the answers I sought, the story of the search may be of interest as it becomes more important than the answers.  As a librarian sometimes all we want is the latest and greatest, forgetting that historical research may require books that haven’t been opened in many years.  While online sources are great, they a complement not replace in person searches. Sometimes actually seeing the books is better for finding what you want and not expect than an on-line search. For example, yesterday I visited an online picture collection that could be only searched with words such as author, title and keyword, but not browsed in any way.  If a searcher didn’t know the exact word, there was no way just to look.

This article, while not “peer-reviewed” by the strict interpretation, was reviewed by several libararians, a professor, and a friend who is a journalist.   From one of the readers, “You may not have solved the mystery of your father’s older brother’s arrest but the research you did was fantastic, very impressive. Thanks for sharing. Interesting & Informative!”

The current code for the city is online with a link from the City of St. Louis website  (  The historical code is harder to find.  I was able to find some of the St. Louis City Revised Code online. The search was not easy.  I used WorldCat and Books.Google to find the references.  The latest code prior to 1940 was published in 1936.  Google books would not provide a full copy claiming, “copyright restrictions.” This is wrong because the text of government documents is not protected by copyrights. No library in the Chicago area had the paper copies.  I checked WorldCat and found copies in St. Louis.  The Washington University Law Library’s copy was marked missing in the catalog.  The St. Louis County Law Library was near where I was staying.  I tried to find their catalog online and couldn’t.  I decided to take a chance and go there.  I mentioned to the refence librarian that I couldn’t find their catalog online.  They said that they don’t have any catalog; not on cards or online.  This was the first institutional library that I ever heard of that didn’t have a catalog. After telling the librarian what I wanted she looked around.  She found the book in the small rare book room, which was also their break room. I found the page and took a picture. Most of the library users want the current laws.  The library does not get many people doing historical research.

The newspapers are partly available online.  I visited the St. Louis County Library main branch to read some of the newspaper microfilms. The library subscribes to historical newspapers via ProQuest.  I found the Post-Dispatch was in their subscription, but the Star-Times was only available with a paid subscription. There were no articles in other newspapers of the time.

I found many municipal ordinances that are vague and difficult to understand what exactly is forbidden.  They had a law against making disturbing noise or rude or indecent behavior within a place of worship. (in the 1916 code section 650, page 983; in the current code 15.46.020).

Sept 8, 2019  Addition

One of the great things about publishing an article to a blog is the ability for sharing.  Connie Williams found some more articles on the story of short shorts. Bare chested men were not acceptable, however, the newspaper articles due not say anything about the lack of shirts.  The men arrested were brought to court and fined $5 for sunbathing.  From the articles is seems that Park Commissioner could decide who was dressed properly and he targeted them as an example. While handball was a sport dominated by Jewish men in that period, I still have no proof that the arrest for an anti-Semitic act.  A display of power is the best explanation for how the police knew about them and the newspapers got the story. I wonder why the newspapers reported that they did not testify in court.

[1] The full quote, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society” first appeared in print in 1927, Mark Twain was probably basing his statement on a line Shakespeare’s character, Polonius says in in Hamlet,  “The apparel oft proclaims the man.”  Shakespeare probably got the idea from the Latin writer Erasmus.  For a full examination of the quote see: “What is Origin of “Clothes Make the Man”? by Alexander Atkins ( and Quote Investigator ( )

[2] The 1936 edition was found in the St. Louis County Law Library.  It is not available online.  The Revised Code of St. Louis 1914 is the same.  It is available online via the Hathi Trust.
[3] Ordinance Number  68536, § 2, 12-15-2009.