The clothes we wear say a great deal about the jobs we do and the people we are. To many, overalls like these worn by Dale McKale of Longford, Kansas, are the standard farmer's uniform. Ironically though, the farming profession only recently adopted the garment.
Overalls first appeared in the British Army in the 1750s as a protective covering for formal clothing. With Levi Strauss' refinement of denim in the 1870s, overalls proved durable and comfortable enough that by the early 20th century, miners and railroad workers commonly wore them. Influenced by the Great Depression of the 1930s, farmers increasingly found the cheaply priced overalls appealing.
Beyond price, overalls offered multiple desirable qualities to the workingman. Their many pockets and loops enabled storage of tools, documents, and personal items. The loose fit allowed additional layers to be worn during cold months, and the bib feature provided built-in suspenders that eliminated the need for a waist belt.
Dale McKale (pictured at left) purchased these overalls in Clay Center, Kansas, in the 1960s. Born into a farming family in rural Clay County in 1916, Dale probably wore overalls most of his life. According to his son, he even retained a "nice" pair for semi-formal events. Married in 1938, Dale lived in the Oak Hill-Longford communities where he produced wheat and raised livestock until the 1970s.
As illustrated by his overalls, Dale's life as a farmer was not easy. Faded denim alludes to long days spent under the sun and numerous washings. Stains on the thighs and extreme wear on tool-holding pockets suggest Dale often repaired mechanical devices and frequently wiped oily hands on his pants. The advanced state of patching (view close-up of one patch) is emblematic of early influences in his life. Coming of age during the Depression, a time of scarcity, Dale and his wife Nadine resisted tendencies to prematurely dispose of household items. Nadine continually patched the overalls until they were no longer wearable. As the photograph shows, Dale's propensity to wear overalls to the bitter end implies he was still tearing holes in his knees when he retired at the age of 65.
It seems appropriate that a Kansas farmer would purchase Kansas-made overalls. Key Industries, located in Fort Scott, manufactured these overalls. Founded in 1908 as Lakin McKey Manufacturing, the name was shortened to Key in 1938 when Kenneth Pollock purchased the company. Pollock was originally from Wisconsin, where his father started another overalls company, Oshkosh B'Gosh. Key's early success was most likely linked to its location. Large mining endeavors in southeast Kansas probably provided a consistent demand for Key overalls. Over the years, the company grew to produce multiple products at locations throughout the U.S. and even today manufactures overalls at its Fort Scott plant.
In 2003 Dale McKale's son donated these overalls to the Kansas Museum of History. They are now part of the museum's collection.
Entry: Key Overalls
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: September 2006
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.