In the opening chapter of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we find Aunt Polly trying to dupe Tom into revealing that he skipped school to go for a swim. To preempt a potential line of questioning, Tom volunteers that his head is damp since he pumped some water on it earlier, presumably to cool down. Then his aunt says:

“Tom, you didn’t have to undo your shirt collar where I sewed it, to pump on your head, did you? Unbutton your jacket!”

Now it's been a few years since the 1800s, so what does this actually mean? I was trying to look online for some understanding of what type of collar and what sort of sewing is being suggested here, but I couldn't turn up anything.

Then, Tom's web of lies unravels when Sid detects that his collar is now sewed using black thread instead of the white that Aunt Polly originally sewed it with. Tom grumbles that:

She’d never noticed if it hadn’t been for Sid. Confound it! sometimes she sews it with white, and sometimes she sews it with black. I wish to gee-miny she’d stick to one or t’other—I can’t keep the run of ’em.

How would it be possible for Tom not to know what color thread the collar was originally sewed with? Assuming he rips off the collar, wouldn't the broken pieces of thread be more than enough to tell? I guess this goes back to the question of how this sewing of the collar is done in the first place.

  • 1
    one point: collars were a separate part of shirts in those days. not sure if that helps or is relevant. people would change to a clean collar rather than change shirts.
    – releseabe
    Jul 27, 2023 at 2:52
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    Separable collars are usually fastened to the shirt (and fastened closed as well) with shirt studs, which can be expensive jewelry. Perhaps sewing was an alternative for the less well off, or just a better idea with a boy like Tom, who might be tempted to use the studs as toys and so lose them. I doubt Tom would be so careless as to leave the old threads in place, when he is careful enough to prepare his deception by equipping himself with needle and thread. The "sometimes ... sometimes" implies that her sewing his collars is habitual action, and possibly that his ruse is equally so. Jul 27, 2023 at 15:41
  • @BrianDonovan Yeah that makes sense, but I still can't quite wrap my head around how Tom wouldn't know what color thread his aunt originally used to sew on the collar. Especially if he's so meticulous about his ruses.
    – Vasting
    Jul 27, 2023 at 15:56
  • Perhaps he equipped himself with the needle and thread in advance of her sewing his collar for the day (or perhaps he could not even see the threads till he had undone her work); but his foresight did not quite extend to equipping himself with both black and white thread. Jul 27, 2023 at 16:10
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    @BrianDonovan Tom had prepared himself with both colors of thread. It seems he just selected the wrong one. Jul 28, 2023 at 3:36

1 Answer 1


Despite rigorous searches of the internet for details of rural boy's clothing from mid 1800s Missouri, I've found no suggestion of daily sewing of collars to be a standard approach to the garmenting of children.

Looking instead to the text of he book, we can see that this event occurs very close to the beginning where Twain is introducing us to the characters. This is part of our introduction to Aunt Polly:

His aunt Polly stood surprised a moment, and then broke into a gentle laugh.

“Hang the boy, can’t I never learn anything? Ain’t he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old fools is the biggest fools there is. Can’t learn an old dog new tricks, as the saying is. But my goodness, he never plays them alike, two days, and how is a body to know what’s coming? He ’pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it’s all down again and I can’t hit him a lick. I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I’m a laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow. Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks.

It seems that she very much wants, for his own benefit, for Tom to be well behaved yet does not enjoy punishing him.

When we get to the particular incident of the collar, the text is clear that she suspects him of going swimming after school. Given her aversion to punishing Tom, my reading is that we are to understand that she has taken to sewing his collars closed as a preventative measure to prevent him going swimming.

Shirts in that era and social strata were not made to open all down the front, but to be pulled on over the head with a relatively short opening. My interpretation is that because Tom is so untrustworthy, Aunt Polly has taken to sewing up this opening so that Tom can't slip out of his shirt.

  • It does seem slightly odd, but I agree with your interpretation. Jul 28, 2023 at 12:42
  • That sounds more plausible than the 'detachable collar' idea. Jul 30, 2023 at 16:17
  • I think that by "sewn, Tom (and Twain) mean "laced". Stiff, detachable collars would have been right up Aunt Polly's alley. They were usually attached to the shirt by studs, but for kids, perhaps they were laced. Or Aunt Polly could have sewn them on with a quick hemming stitch, that would have lasted through a day or two. Aug 11, 2023 at 0:54
  • @DenkofZwemmen I clearly don’t think that for the reasons explained in my answer. If you think my answer is unhelpful please feel free to downvote it and also to post your own theory as an answer so that people can vote on that, if they choose.
    – Spagirl
    Aug 11, 2023 at 12:34

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