How Historic Research Works: Clark Gable’s Undershirt

The more I work as a reference librarian, the more convinced I am that most people don’t have a good idea in their head about what the process of research looks like. Also, people have trouble telling the difference between something well researched and something not. So from time to time, I like to highlight articles that I’ve come across that do a good job explaining the process the researcher went through to get as close as possible to the truth. I previously posted on a National Geographic Video about Easter Island. Today we look at another great example. I’m especially pleased with because it covers historic clothing which I’m interested in and that this is actually a story I’ve heard, so I’m glad to uncover its story.

I especially appreciated:

1. Pre-Research

Since they were taking on what was a popular story they set out first to document the story. They searched out places it was mentioned and tried to see how far back the story went.

2. Showing Their Work

As far as the research process itself goes, I think it’s great that they don’t just assume you’ll take their word, but actually show what they found. They didn’t just say that the story existed or was popular, but share concrete examples. However, a jeer within a cheer (as TV Guide used to say pre-format swap) that while the entire thing is well within the original intent of fair use, my guess is that with so many different sources and no notice of reprinted with permission, I’m guessing they didn’t get permission from any of them and I don’t think they’re probably within current legal boundaries. So while seeing the stuff is neat, I’d take references (including article titles and pages) to where they were found the examples with quotes so you could look them up yourself if you wanted instead.

3. Expanding Research Looking for Patterns

So rather than just concentrate on the year It Happened One Night came out, it also looked at long term trends; the effect of the Great Depression on underwear sales and the effect of a garment workers strike (impressive digging there).

4. The Dog That Didn’t Bark

As Sherlock Holmes himself pointed out it was important to notice what didn’t happen as what did. The researcher here went looking for articles describing the sudden craze to go without undershirts, complaints or dire reports from the underwear industry, etc. There weren’t any uncovered in the search whose steps are detailed in the report.

5. Where Did It Come From

Even if origin stories are rarely true (in fact the better the story the less likely it is to be true), they usually aren’t created out of whole cloth. There is either a tiny bit of truth or at least a reason why someone would want that to be true. The researcher here tracked that down to the publicity department and documented how to seemingly authoritative sources made the legend take hold.

6. What To Do Next

A good researcher normally has to report before they are quite finished. In this case they give two sources that they want to have checked, but were unable to.

These things are all very nicely done in this post, I hope you can use some of these ideas in your own research.

P.S. If you haven’t seen It Happened One Night – do! Right now! Seriously! It’s my second favorite screwball comedy of all time.

UPDATED January 12 2021: This really doesn’t have anything to do with my post, but I just read a MeTV article that two of Bugs Bunny most outstanding characteristics (eating carrots while talking and calling people Doc) were references to Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. I had to share!

Sarah S. Uthoff is main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+,LinkedIn, and She is currently acting President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.


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Sarah Uthoff - Trundlebed Tales

Sarah S. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many times at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. She is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic, and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. How can you help? Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, look at her photos, and find her on Facebook , Twitter , Google+, LinkedIn , SlideShare, and . Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and former director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.

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