Throwback Thursday: Sweet-Orr & Tug-of-War

Willennar Genealogy Center’s collection is full of Throwback Thursday potential, so let’s get our #TBT on!

Remember this picture? We featured it in one of our earliest Throwback Thursday posts as part of a series of “unexpected finds” in the John Martin Smith Collection.

Now, back when we posted it, it really was an unexpected thing to find. Who were these men? And why were they playing tug-of-war with a pair of pants? Unfortunately the photograph didn’t come with any identifying information, so we still don’t know the answer to that first question.

But, I might finally be able to answer the second.

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We recently came across this advertisement in the John Martin Smith Collection. The ad, which was distributed by Patterson Bros. & Olds of St. Joe, features “the famous Orr Pantaloon Overall,” which was manufactured by Sweet, Orr, and Company.

The company was founded in 1871 in Wappingers Falls, New York, by Irish immigrant James A. Orr and his nephews, Clayton and Clinton Sweet. They produced a variety of work clothes, including pants that began to get quite a reputation for their durability. Supposedly, customers kept sending letters to the company about how their Sweet-Orr pants (or coat) had saved them from fires, drowning, falling from great heights, and more.

Naturally, Sweet-Orr began to use these customer testimonies in their advertising, complete with dramatic copy and illustrations. There was only one problem—no one believed the advertisements. The stories sounded just too amazing to be true.

Not to be deterred, the company thought up a new plan: the dramatic advertising was pared down, and a new campaign was developed to demonstrate the durability of Sweet-Orr pants and overalls.

Company representatives began visiting factories and work yards, promising Sweet-Orr pants to any six men who could pull a pair apart in a game of tug-of-war. No one ever managed to do it, and the demonstration became iconic, eventually becoming the company’s logo in 1880.

Back to the photo in question:

While we can’t say for certain if the pants in the mystery photograph are Sweet-Orr, or if the man refereeing was with their company, it does seem fairly likely that the picture was inspired by Sweet-Orr’s memorable demonstrations.

Want to see more? Feel free to search our online photo database, or head on over to the Genealogy Center’s official Facebook page.


About Chelsea

I've been working at Willennar Genealogy Center for over two years now, and I've loved every minute of getting to learn more about the stories of DeKalb County and the surrounding area. I'm interested in all kinds of history, but I'm especially fond of the early film industry, old letters and journals, the DeKalb County Fair, and the Interurban line.
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3 Responses to Throwback Thursday: Sweet-Orr & Tug-of-War

  1. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: A Brand New Year! | Charlie Chat

  2. Bruce says:

    I worked retail in the late 1960s until present day. We sold Sweet Orr work pants, carpenter pants, flannel shirts etc. At that time the CEO was Bernie Oppenheim . They eventually closed and some how a South African company now owns the name.

  3. Hi Bruce

    South Africa has a long history with the Sweet-Orr brand. In fact, in the 1880’s, American miners trekked down to Johannesburg in search of the next gold rush. Miner’s requests for overall replenishment started Sweet Orr’s export department. After WW1, when prices and tariffs made export almost impossible, Sweet-Orr worked out a commercial agreement with a Liverpool work garment plant – Lybro, Ltd. The English company imported piece goods, cut and made the overalls according to the Sweet-Orr specifications. The finished garments were shipped to South Africa. The English company and Sweet-Orr merged in 1930 and set up Sweet-Orr & Lybro in Cape Town, Africa in 1931.

    Sweet-Orr South Africa is the last remaining Sweet-Orr company and holds the rights to sell and distribute globally.


    Denver Berman-Jacob
    Executive Director – Sweet-Orr & Lybro (Pty) Ltd

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