Friday, November 19, 2010

Fornication Pants

I'm wearing them right now.

I'd be willing to bet that you're wearing them too.

"Fornication pants" is the phrase that Brigham Young purportedly used to describe . . . blue jeans.

I just finished reading the book Jeans by James Sullivan, and it was quite fascinating. I now know that denim was around for the American revolution, that it comes from the region of Nimes in France ("de Nimes), and that at least 25% of all US paper currency is denim. No--seriously, that picture of Andrew Jackson in your wallet? It's made out of the same stuff that's covering your butt.

This book is a must-read for jeans enthusiasts . . . but I would be a little wary of Sullivan's claims. For instance, that bit about Brigham Young? Sullivan claims that Young denounced blue jeans as instruments of sexual deviancy in the 1830s, when blue jeans first incorporated button flies. While I wouldn't put it past old Brigham to have used those words, I highly doubt that we would have a record of him speaking on the subject from the 1830s, when he was a relatively low-level official in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Quorum of the Twelve didn't really come into power until the 1840s; until then, the local high councils were generally more influential and outspoken).

Sullivan does give a source for his quotation, however--the coffee table book Let There Be Clothes, by Lynn Schnurnburger (say that ten times fast). On page 266 Schnurnburger alleges that "The 1830s bring on an innovation that spells relief--that's when men's trousers button down the front for the first time (The silk band that runs down the sides of tuxedo pants recalls the old tradition of side buttoning.) One of the few opposed to the new style is Mormon leader Brigham Young. Appalled, he dubs them 'fornication pants.'" Unfortunately, Schnurnberger does NOT provide a reference for her quote--and her book doesn't exactly scream "meticulous research."

But even if we can't be sure that Brigham Young used those exact words, anecdotal evidence from pioneer Utah suggests that blue jeans did, in fact, incite lascivious (and otherwise immoral) behavior. In Great Basin Kingdom, Leonard Arrington describes the community of Orderville, Utah--a Mormon community that voluntarily adopted the United Order, a coordinated effort to live the law of consecration--and the lone pair of blue jeans that brought down the whole shebang.

The Orderville United Order was organized in 1875 and quickly became self-sufficient; they produced their own cotton, poultry, dairies, lumber, molasses, silk thread, furniture, etc. In the difficult financial times of the 1870s, this community was  quite a success, and the settlement initially ballooned as settlers in surrounding communities accepted the Order and immigrated. "Church officials advised [Orderville leaders] not to 'overload the boat' by accepting too many new members," Arrington writes, "but the Order members were so charitable in this respect that population began to press upon their limited resources" (335). --Snarky side note: No such charitable problem with today's immigrants!-- But it wasn't the arrival of immigrants that brought down the Order; it was an overabundance of money and the "fine clothing" that Nephi prophesied would cause individuals to "rob the poor" in the last days (2 Nephi 28:13).

When Utah Southern Railroad brought the wealth of the silver mines at Silver Reef, Utah into proximity with Orderville, the formerly content citizens began to covet fashionable goods made outside the community, and one boy's vanity--his distaste for the Order's "floppy straw hats, gray jeans, valley tan shoes, and one-room shanties" (336)--brought the whole community to the brink of crisis:

"As he gained in stature, the pants he wore seemed to shrink, but as there were no holes in them, and no patches, his application for a new pair was denied. But where 'there is a will there is a way.' There was a big crop of lambs that spring. When the lambs' tails were docked, the young brother surreptitiously gathered them and sheared off the wool which he stored in sacks. When he was assigned to take a load of wool to Nephi, he secretly took the lambs' tail wool with his load and exchanged it for a pair of store pants. On his return he wore his new pants to the next dance. His entrance caused a sensation. The story is that one young lady rushed to him, embraced and kissed him."

Fornication pants indeed! (Although Brigham was undoubtedly dead by the time this occurred.)

The Order claimed the pants as their own--since the lambs belonged to the Order--but agreed to use the store-bought blue jeans as a pattern for their future homemade gray jeans. This, however, did not fix anything; the young man's vanity soon infected his peers:

"The tailoring department was soon swamped with orders. The elders of the Order protested. The boys went to work, as usual, but loafed on the job. It was noticed that the [normally] everlasting [gray] pants worn by the boys were getting thin in spots, and even some holes had developed. These boys were often on their knees when at prayers, or when weeding in the garden, but not much time was spend sitting down. Why was this unusual wear on the seat of the pants? When the elders saw the boys going in groups to the shed where the grindstone was housed, they became suspicious and investigated. Yes, the boys were wearing out their pants on the grindstone." (336)

The vanity of these young men forced the elders of the Order to buy denim instead of using their own homespun, and this "victory" spurred the youth to further rebellions against the Order. In 1885, the Order was dissolved. Who needs the law of consecration when you've got blue jeans? And what's covering your derriere?


Becky said...

um...stretchy pants. They're my friend. :) Interesting topic Zach. I might never look at blue jeans the same way again.

Jenny said...

I do love a good historical nugget...

Jo Jo said...

I'm agreeing on loving a good historical nugget! I would love to wear a pair of jeans now!