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The History of T-shirt Printing


A Brief History of T-shirt Printing

Since I really enjoy the business, I got curious about the history of t-shirtt printing and decided to do some investigating. I found a number of things that are quite interesting.

Apparently t-shirts began in Europe as a light piece of clothing for the workers. Around the turn of the last century, in Manchester t-shirts began to appear from the poverty ridden sections surrounding the textiles mills. These mills were the primary work places in the area. The local street gangs known as scuttlers who habitually terrorized the local community promptly adapted the t-shirt. These scuttlers, who as soldiers wore their t-shirts under their uniforms in the trenches of northern France.

It’s not known precisely when t-shirts were originally introduced to the United States but it was the U.S. Navy that first adopted the piece of clothing as an undergarment. Some sources report this as occurring  around 1913 but other information indicates as early as the Spanish American War (1898-1901). The t-shirt was generally used in European countries at the time by labourers working in the heat.  Although the U.S. didn’t adopt the t-shirt early on, Europe manufactured the undergarments with cotton imported from the United States.

During World War I, American soldiers were issued uniforms made of uncomfortable, heavy-duty wool. European troops, meanwhile, by now were wearing uniforms that included cotton undergarments, which were breathable and lightweight. By World War II, this type of shirt also became standard for the American soldiers.

In time, the basic white tee shirt became more than just an undergarment. It grew in popularity. Veterans would frequently wear these undershirts as casual clothing along with the trousers from their uniform or while doing physical labour, like construction work or training. In 1942, the cover of Life magazine featured a T-shirt-clad soldier.

The t-shirts back then weren’t like the heavier t-shirts today.  They weighed closer to 1.5 to 2 ounces where a normal tee shirt today is roughly 8 ounces.

"Dew it with Dewey" t-shirt

Dew it with Dewey”


The First Instance of T-shirt Printing – “Do It With Dewey”

By 1948, the T-shirt had become commonplace with civilians. It also rose to became a marketing tool for campaigning politicians. The first documented t-shirt highlighting a slogan was for New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s presidential campaign. It read “Dew it for Dewey.” The Smithsonian museum has on display ‘the oldest printed T-shirt’ on record in their collection.

Photo of Marlon Brando in a t-shirt

Marlon Brando in A Streetcar named Desire

The t-shirt was propelled into even greater popularity in 1951, when Marlon Brando wore it in the 1951 classic,  A Streetcar Named Desire. Shortly thereafter in 1955 it was James Dean’s wardrobe choice in Rebel Without a Cause. The shirt was now seen as a symbol of cool, youth culture and rebellion among the younger generation of the time.

Photo of James Dean in a white t-shirt

The History of Printing T-shirts- James Dean

Although t-shirts and screen printing developed around the same time, printed t-shirts didn’t become popular until the introduction of plastisol inks along with the youth movements of the 1950s and 1960s.

Printing T-shirts Gains Momentum With Plastisol Inks

Plastisol, which is a durable ink was invented in 1959. (click here to learn more about plastisol ink). This led to a greater variety of designs on T-shirts, as well as the recognition of the screen-printing process. Silk screening was developed in the Song Dynasty in China spanning 960 AD to 1279 AD. (Now the technology has continually developed  however the concepts are the same). With this process, the inks are either water-based or plastisol (PVC-based) and are applied to the fabric through a mesh screen which restricts the areas where the ink is allowed to pass through. Plastisol ink continues to be used for printing t-shirt designs today.

T-shirt printing swiftly became a means of expression for political protest and as a part of demonstrations protesting against the Vietnam war, civil rights movements, and the campaign for nuclear disarmament.

During the 70’s the music industry soon realized that t-shirt merchandising was a very profitable addition to concert prices and album sales. As the likes of the Stones and Pink Floyd headed out on world tours, iconic t-shirts like Warhol’s lips and The Dark Side of the Moon prism quickly grew into multimillion selling items.

Emma Watson wearing an "I Love NY" t-shirt

T-shirt History – Emma Watson “I Love NY”

Many famous designs came about in T-shirts during this era; the Rolling Stone’s legendary “tongue and mouth” logo, the yellow “happy face” art, and the legendary “I (heart) NY”.

The 80’s brought on another graphics trend.  Artists who at the outset shunned printed t-shirts began to discover a new canvas to work with.  The corporations such as Coca-Cola began viewing t-shirts as an enormous advertising platform.  As loose-fitting and baggy clothes grew in popularity, larger images were printed on larger t-shirts. Consumers started wanting a softer feel to the t-shirts.

The iron on transfers almost all but died out in the early 80’s since no one really liked the rubbery, quick to fade printing. Also at this time new screen printing inks began to be popular like puff, glitter, color-changing, and glow inks.

The nineties took over with even better designs. The nineties also brought back iron-on transfers; now called a “heat transfers”.  They were now softer, puffier, and more durable.  They could for the first time duplicate the quality in design as a screen printed shirt could. And the durability and results have continued to get better, where they are now a true alternative to screen printing.

This is one of the processes we specialize in at TshirtsCanada.

Nowadays the shirt printing industry is filled with a mass of t-shirt production houses, screen printers, embroiderers, heat transfer printers, air brushes, direct to garment printers and other t-shirt decorators.

Computers and other technological advancements now allow t-shirt printers to print from single colour graphic art right up to photo-realistic designs and images cost effectively and quickly in quantities including just one or a few right through to thousands.

The Internet allows the consumer and the company to meet, discuss and process the ideas and ultimately print the requested designs.

Printed t-shirts have made great strides and the momentum has not waned. Since the first printed t-shirts, t-shirts have been a way to express your ideas and passions, advertize your business or product, tell the world about something or someone you love or simply to have some fun!

For more information on T-shirt printing please begin with our homepage at