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Why Men's Breast Pockets Exist: A Brief History

Why Men's Breast Pockets Exist: A Brief History

People cannot always leave home emptyhanded and pockets are a convenient way to carry things. Why they exist may have an easy answer, but a better question is why place one in a location as obvious as the breast pocket? Here is a small summary of the story of how the breast pocket began and why it still exists.

Dictated by Need

Men and women often carried bags during ancient times. Healers and hunters used bags to carry their gear and tools when on a hunt. As societies developed, most men had less of a need for large bags and began to carry pouches underneath their clothing. Once fashion became more form-fitting, the pouches were unusable because they were too bulky.

Pockets sewn onto clothing were a convenient addition to modern outfits. Unfortunately, pickpockets were often a concern and pants pockets were an easy target for the thieves. Interior jacket pockets and those on shirt fronts made it easier to keep valuables secure.

Used for Convenience

Carrying a handkerchief was a necessity when no disposable tissues or easily available public restrooms existed. Men chose to use their breast pocket for their handkerchief because it was cleaner and less cluttered than other pockets. Pants pockets were often filled to capacity as they were a place for watches, money, and cigarette lighters. 

A breast pocket handkerchief was also more accessible when a gentleman needed to offer one to a lady in need. The removal of a crumpled handkerchief from a pants pocket may have lacked the elegant allure of pulling one out from a jacket with a flourish. Since most people are right-handed, the left side of the shirt became the standard location for easier access.

Kept for Storytelling

The breast pocket plays an important role in Hollywood. Pop culture icons like James Dean and Marlon Brando gave the pocket T-shirt visibility. Men everywhere suddenly sported white pocketed shirts to emulate the men they admired.

The Andy Griffith Show of the 1960s showed how the village of Mayberry remained safe because of a breast pocket. The shirt pocket was where a well-meaning deputy named Barney Fife carried the single bullet he was allowed for emergencies.

Used for Safety

In the real world, the breast pocket has been credited with saving the life of an American hero during his presidential run. In 1912, an assailant's bullet struck Theodore Roosevelt in the chest as he was leaving a rally. The bullet penetrated the folded 50-page speech in his pocket and came to rest against his ribcage, rather than in his lung.

The Bull Moose Party leader continued to his next stop and gave a 50-minute speech before seeking medical attention. Doctors later found the bullet, but it was never removed. The Smithsonian Museum now has the first page of the speech on display. Unfortunately, the breast pocket that held the papers was overlooked and is not included in the exhibit.

President Roosevelt's is not the only life spared by a breast pocket. Sam Houston, Jr., the son of General Sam Houston, was saved from a musket ball during a Civil War battle when a bible in his breast pocket stopped the projectile. In 2014, an Ohio bus driver was shot three times in the chest but survived thanks to a copy of the New Testament in his shirt pocket. 

Throughout history, the breast pocket has outsmarted pickpockets, saved lives, and made it easier to be a gentleman. Men can now find pocket-free casual and formal clothing, but many still prefer the convenience and style of the breast pocket. At Over Under Clothing, our inventory includes men's shirts with or without pockets so everyone can find what appeals to them.