Super Bowl XLVIII is this weekend, and both teams have already selected their designated uniforms for the occasion. But have you ever wondered why we call these athletic garments “jerseys” in the first place?
Sorry, New Jerseyites: the moniker isn’t an homage to the Garden State, at least not directly. The actual island of Jersey is a “crown dependency” of the UK whose natives have been knitting hardy wool sweaters for centuries. Noted for their tight weave, these warm articles of clothing were initially used as an inner layer by rural seamen before gradually evolving into a type of common outerwear. Jersey sweaters spread to the UK and northern Europe as the country’s trading industry rose in prominence during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Their popularity skyrocketed abroad—so much so, in fact, that the name “jersey” became synonymous with “sweater” in countries as far away as the United States by the 1850s.
And speaking of the Yanks, as American football developed, it was clear that players of the rough-and-tumble game (which often claimed multiple lives every year prior to Theodore Roosevelt’s intervention in 1905) needed strong, insular uniforms. Thick wool “jerseys” fit the bill perfectly. Bikers, golfers, and other athletes began donning the sweaters as well.
Yet, as the Gilded Age wore on, athletic “jerseys” bore increasingly little resemblance to their bulky ancestral tops. Just as the name had previously become synonymized with “sweater,” it was now indistinguishable from the term “athletic uniform.” For example, lightweight baseball shirts were often called “jerseys” by the press during this period despite being generally made of flannel and incorporating short sleeves, buttons, and collars. However, regardless of these developments, the name stuck.
This trend also spread north of the border, to the chagrin of Canadian hockey fans, as longtime NHL commentator Don Cherry recalls in his book Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories, Part 2:
“[Hockey] sweaters are now called jerseys, if you can believe it, and we’ve sort of accepted that. But in Canada, it was always called a sweater… Americans used jerseys when they were playing football; then, when they finally got around to playing hockey, they used the same name. Nowadays, most kids call sweaters jerseys. Another little part of our hockey heritage is gone.”
For those interested, the jerseys we’ll see this Sunday as the Denver Broncos take on the Seattle Seahawks consist largely of nylon and spandex.