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In an 1891 newspaper advertisement (published in Manitoba, Canada) there is a reference to "wool 'health' wests in girls and ladies" which on first glance looks like a spelling error but is repeated in other ads in the same year. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult combination of simple words to search for, does anyone have a reference for a definition of this garment term?

Scan of original advertisement

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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

It's almost sure to be a misspelling of vest. In the nineteenth century, at least in London, /v/ and /w/ were either interchangeable, or they were replaced by a sound in between. Witness Sam Weller.

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A misspelling may be likely, but it appeared to be deliberate use of an alternate spelling. I was curious as to whether there might have been a reason, like success versus succefs indicating an upper class eduction for a Hudson's Bay trader. –  moberley Nov 9 '11 at 19:49
    
@moberley: Misspelling is perhaps the wrong word. Phonetic spelling might be more accurate. I know nothing of the accents of Hudson's Bay traders, but might not that 'f' be a long 's'? –  Barrie England Nov 9 '11 at 19:52
    
I don't have a written reference, but I learned that detail from someone who worked at Parks Canada playing a mid-19th century gentlemen. The dialect coach taught him to pronounce that particular spelling to sound historically appropriate. I mentioned it because the spelling choice indicated information about the writer (such as class). I thought perhaps the spelling choice in the advertisement might carry some added information as well. –  moberley Nov 9 '11 at 20:10
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What about the 'health' part? –  Mitch Nov 9 '11 at 20:56
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Regarding v/w, also consider Wagner and Piggly Viggly. Meanwhile, could "health vest" be a strange euphemism for "corset?" –  fluffy Nov 9 '11 at 21:53

Oxford English Dictionary, under "vest" does list the spelling "west" from the 17th century as dialect. From 1712:

Payd for mackin a west and briches for gouddins child, [£]0. 1. 6.

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While west might be an alternative spelling for vest, it might also be a local or regional term for weskit or waistcoat (which at the time was typically pronounced "weskit"), formed as a sort of contraction of weskit, or a blending of vest and weskit.

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On the "Health" part of the name:

In this era there was a theory that sweating was good for the health. Ballplayers used to train in wool uniforms to get in some sweating. This might be the reason for the 'health', as a wool vest would be considerably warmer than lighter fabrics.

It could also just be warmer to avoid colds and chills.

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