By Barbara Carney
TERRE HAUTE — The Vigo County Historical Museum’s collection of local high school memorabilia includes a variety of letter sweaters proudly worn by athletes from various former Wabash Valley schools. These were prized possessions and often saved for many years by those who earned them. They were also known as varsity sweaters. Though usually worn on a jacket today, the letter is no less coveted by the athlete who merits it than it was years ago.
An athlete who played a certain sport for a set number of games or periods of time was eligible to receive a letter. Letter sweaters were produced in the schools colors, usually with the sweater in the school’s primary color, and the letter in the secondary color. For example, a Wiley High School letter sweater was red and white. The letter, usually of chenille, was sewn onto a cardigan or pullover sweater purchased by the sportsman. Thus, the school attended by the athlete could be identified by the colors of the letter sweater. If the player continued the same sport for subsequent years, a stripe was awarded each year, and added to the sweater’s sleeve. A star indicated the team captain.
This tradition goes back to 1865 when the Harvard baseball team added an “H” embroidered on the front of their flannel uniform shirt. The following year, the football team did the same. For the next 25 years, it was the practice of the team captain to allow those who played in the most important games, such as Yale and Princeton, to keep the letter as an award. In 1891, the letterman sweater was first worn by members by the 1891 baseball team, and was black with a small Crimson “H” on the left breast.
It is not actually known when the letter sweater came to high schools. The earliest reporting of a high school letter sweater was one noticed in a 1911 yearbook of the Phoenix (Arizona) Union High School. In a group picture, a young man is wearing a V-neck sweater with a letter “P” on the left side.
The letter sweater pictured is from Pimento High School and was worn in 1944 by Robert A. Siner. It is royal blue with orange piping around the letter and stripes. It was given to the Historical Society by Judith Siner.