August 23rd, 2013

Wilt the stilt

Here’s a photo of Wilt Chamberlain in fourth grade, in 1945. It’s pretty easy to spot him in the crowd:


The author writes:

[Chamberlain's] almost twice the size of some of his classmates in this photo (see the girl in the front row on the far left as a reference).

Ummm—actually, no. That girl is sitting down.

And although the boys in the row ahead of him are standing, Wilt’s row has been placed on a step to elevate it. So the only children he can properly be compared to are the ones standing in the same row as he. Chamberlain is very tall, no doubt about it. But from the photo alone it’s hard to know exactly how tall (reports are he was six feet tall at age 10, and that’s certainly believable).

What’s more, fourth-grade boys tend to be pretty small, even smaller than the girls in the same class. Girls generally get their growth spurts early in puberty—boys later, and their puberty tends to occur later as well.

The commenters at the article seem additionally fascinated by the neat and relatively formal clothing of so many of the children. But if they’re surprised, then they obviously didn’t go to grade school in the 50s as I did, because back then that was still how all children dressed. They had no choice.

Dress codes at my New York City public grade school, for example, were very strict. On ordinary days the boys had to wear shirts with collars—no T-shirts!—and long pants but never jeans (which in my extreme youth were called dungarees). On assembly days (once a week), it was button shirts with ties. The girls’ daily garb was skirts or dresses even in the dead of winter. If it was really cold outside girls could supplement with woolen leggings (coats were sold with a matching pair) to keep from freezing on the way to school, but they had to be taken off on arrival.


But of course everybody knew that only babies or losers wore leggings. So most of us just toughed it out even in the foulest of weather.

If we didn’t comply with all of these rules, we were sent home and our parents informed. And believe me, you didn’t want that to happen.

Which reminds me:

20 Responses to “Wilt the stilt”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    “of course everybody knew that only babies or losers wore leggings.”

    And yet today women have to be constantly reminded that, “leggings are not pants”

  2. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    I was in 10th grade when we were allowed to wear pants to school for the first time. That was the era of miniskirts (which we rolled at the waist when the principal and our parents weren’t looking, to evade the rule that hems had to reach the knee) so being allowed to cover cold legs with pants in the winter was a big relief.

    Those pants most certainly were not blue jeans. I vividly remember the pants I wore on that red-letter day when they were first permitted: brown wool “sailor” pants with bell bottoms and a button flap on the front, borrowed from a well-dressed friend. Later I had a pair of spring pants with little lilac flowers printed on white, and a matching lilac top. Those outfits sound so dorky now, but I loved them! Even then — the late 1960s — we were expected, and expected ourselves, to be crisply dressed at school.

  3. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “If we didn’t comply with all of these rules, we were sent home and our parents informed. And believe me, you didn’t want that to happen.” neo

    My father’s ire, though just, was far more to be feared than any school official’s disapproval.

  4. neo-neocon Says:


    Those are a VERY different kind of leggings. The kind I’m talking about were thick bulky wool and not exactly form-fitting, with little zippers on the bottom and often suspenders.

  5. southpaw Says:

    Neo, Geoffrey — you’re probably a little older than me, but you obviously grew up in the same environment – I was more afraid of my parents reaction to getting in trouble in school than the teachers.
    When I was in 7th grade, I got slapped silly by an industrial art’s teacher. The red imprint of his hand was on my face all day, and rather than go home and explain it, I took the latest bus home I could — around 630pm. Then hid in my room, because it was still visible.
    Looking back, if that had happened nowadays, the teacher would have been thrown in jail. It was no ordinary slapping – but I was just glad my dad didn’t find out, or the punishment would have been a lot worse.

  6. roc scssrs Says:

    Blue pants, white shirt, tie. In high school a jacket was added. On hot days (no A/C), we would ask permission of each teacher to take our jackets off in class. They, of course, were wearing cassocks and collars.

  7. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    I was blessed to live in a small Colorado mountain village where there were no dress codes – for school or anywhere else. People did the best they could to have clean clothes and shoes without holes in them. It was the Depression and money was not easy to come by. My first set of new clothes, not hand me downs, came when I was in fifth grade. Even then most of my clothes were handed down from my older brother until he left for the military in 1947. There were a few kids in our school whose parents had money for new clothes, but they were the exception. Clothes just didn’t matter. What mattered was conduct and results. We had wonderful teachers who knew our families and did their best to help us all learn to the best of our abilities. Get in trouble in school? You were in more trouble when you got home. We had little in the way of material resources but much was expected in terms of our conduct and effort. My mother’s motto was, “We may be poor, but we’re not white trash.” Words to live by. To this day, clothes do not affect my judgment of others. I try to never judge a book by it’s cover.

  8. Eric Says:

    I’m a NYC public school product. If it was up to me, school uniforms and appearance standards would be mandatory. I didn’t think that as a NYC PS student. I changed my mind on the issue as a soldier.

  9. Charles Says:

    Nine years of Catholic school – nothing but the official school uniform – handed down from older brothers of course.

    Then the “freedom” to wear whatever in public HS. What a relief!

  10. Sgt. Mom Says:

    I put my daughter into a Catholic girl’s high school, as soon as we settled in San Antonio, in the mid 1990s. I laid out about $300 at Kingston, the local school supplier – a couple of plaid skirts, half a dozen white blouses, some khaki trousers and shorts – and because she stayed roughly the same size and shape for the next four years, and the uniforms were sturdy – I never had to buy anything else.

    Back to school clothes shopping for me every fall involved a six-pack of white ankle socks and maybe a pair of brown loafers.
    I always thought that she and the other girls looked so proper – so studently – in comparison with the public high schoolers, who looked like street people or hookers. Even a lot of public schools here have gone for a uniform, even a casual one; khaki or navy-blue trousers or shorts, with a school tee-shirt. In the long run, school uniforms are easy and inexpensive over the long run.

    Although my daughter has been left with a lifelong aversion to pleated plaid skirts…

  11. Mr. Frank Says:

    You’ll never see kids like that in a present day ad. They aren’t ethnic enough.

  12. Don Carlos Says:

    Kinda ironic, the use of Wilt the Stilt as a lead-in to a piece that is basically about girls’ clothes back in the day. I once heard the aptly-named Terry Gross of NPR in Philly interview Wilt, in which he claimed intercourse with more than 10,000 women, some of them “more than once”, and noted that one shouldn’t do that ‘anymore’ (AIDS, etc.). Shucks.

  13. Gary Says:

    What’s more, fourth-grade boys tend to be pretty small, even smaller than the girls in the same class. Girls generally get their growth spurts early in puberty–boys later, and their puberty tends to occur later as well.

    Has this pattern become much more pronounced in the last few decades or so? Maybe a Family Therapist or someone else might know. The reason I ask is because I’m seeing a good number of girls in the 10 – 14 age bracket who are often 6″ – 15″ taller than their male cohorts and appear to be 20% – 50% larger.

    In the photo above, the boys and girls look about the same size (excepting Wilt of course). That comports with my memory of 4th – 8th grade, with some girls growing quickly and being a bit taller and larger than most boys for a couple years. But what I’m seeing these days is much more extreme and sometimes looks downright weird. Like a girl walking home from school with a boy classmate, towering above him by a foot and seeming to be almost 50% bigger.

  14. Caedmon Says:

    In Britain, short trousers for boys, summer and winter.
    Then at senior school a grey lounge suit, which could follow fashion, so flared trousers, wide collars and waistcoats.
    And a minor Change Narrative: In the summer term at senior school boys were permitted to wear blazers. A few years ago I mentioned to an old friend that boys at our old school now wore blazers all the year round, which I thought looked rather sloppy. He reminded me that the change had begun in our day, instituted by a rebellious troublemaker on the Sixth Form Council. That boy was me.

  15. Liz Says:

    “Dress codes at my New York City public grade school, for example, were very strict.”

    Ugh. Just set a uniform and make it official. Any reason that never happened? Personally, I prefer uniforms to dress codes.

  16. expat Says:

    We wore uniforms. It made life easy and the poorer kids didn’t have to compete with the better off. in HS, we did take off our saddle oxfords after school, stick them in our lockers, and put on flats to go home. The uniforms marked us as good kids when we changed busses downtown, but the saddles were just too nerdy.

    As a contrast, I looked in the winows of a shop at Princeton Shopping Center the other day. It was called Incredible Me, and the clothes were tacky: dresses with cheap lace skirts, silver shoes. Nothing really matched. There was even a black dress for about an 8 year old. It had silver metalic strips going up from the hem. In my day, you didn’t get a black dress till the end of HS; you might have a lace edging on a peter pan collar; and shoes in the summer were Keds. The self-esteem movement seems to have its effect on the people of Princeton, who pay good money so their daughters are incredible.

  17. Lorenz Gude Says:

    Ah memory lane. I started school in ’48 in a two room school school house in New Hampshire. Like JJ from Colorado commented there were no dress codes. Dungarees and tee shirts permitted and the best some families could afford. But in the winter in the little room we wore those heavy pants against the cold with the vertical zippers at the bottom so they could go over the rubber boots that covered our shoes. Getting everyone in and out of that gear took a good chunk of time at the beginning and end of the day and in between if we went outside to play in the snow. We hated those snow pants because they really slowed you down. The rule at the time was you didn’t get a ride to school unless you lived over 2 miles away. At some stage we were deemed old enough not to have wear the snow pants, and if the snow was heavy our parents found the time come and fetch us.

  18. Oldflyer Says:

    I was in 4th through 7th grades during WWII, and not on the best side of town.

    I guess we looked like ragamuffins in comparison to some others. But, I think there was a real effort to send us to school clean and dressed decently. I do know that our dress was very decorous compared to what I see now.

    In Florida, I seemed to recall that we went to school bare foot on occasion, but looking at our 6th grade class picture, we were all in shoes. Well worn Keds of course.

  19. raincityjazz Says:

    I used that pattern to make several coat and legging sets for my daughters back in the day, and they’re coming back in style now for the grandkids. They help a little girl look like an innocent child and not like a miniature hooker-in-training, one of the many important distinctions that seems to blow right over the heads of the low information parents.

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