Pantaloonacy, Pantalarceny: When Crime Hits Below the Belt

The term pantaloons dates back hundreds of years.


The term comes from the leggings worn by the character Pantalone of sixteenth-century Italian commedia dell’arte. (Image from Wikipedia.)

But gradually in the United States during the nineteenth century the term pantaloons got cut off at the knees: The term pants sashayed into common parlance, although people continued to use the term pantaloons also. But by the early twentieth century pants had a leg up over pantaloons. Now, a century later, pantaloons is just an old-timey word that’s fun to say. Go ahead: say it. We’ll wait. . . . Pantaloons. Pant-a-loons.

Ah, but if you were a man living in the late nineteenth century, pantaloons—those time-honored, button-flied bastions of maledom—were no laughing matter. Especially if you woke up one morning to find that yours had been emptied or, worse, had walked off in the night.

The following clips from the Fort Worth Gazette and Dallas Morning News of the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s show that pantaloons were a favorite target of sneak thieves—petty thieves who usually carried no weapon and instead relied on stealth. Illustrations are from Fort Worth newspaper retail clothing ads of the time.

Our first victim, in 1879, hung his pants on a chair near a window before going to bed. Without even entering the house, one or more thieves stole the victim’s gold watch, cash, and pants. The Democrat theorized that the crime was the work of a gang.

pantaloons in the news2

Do you detect a recurring MO? The victim hangs his pantaloons over a chair near a window or folds them under his pillow upon going to bed at night. Along comes a sneak thief, who sees, quite literally, the window of opportunity. Quicker’n you can say “knobby knees,” a man is unpantsed by the unarmed.

Just how common was the practice of sleeping with one’s pantaloons under one’s pillow? And just how common was the practice of sneak thieves entering a house through a window? Common enough the two practices were the subject of a chapter in a humor book published in 1853.

For men the situation got only worse: In 1903 Monnig’s Department Store announced a . . .

“slump in pantaloons.” Feel free to snicker and supply your own punch line.

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