The “suit of brown paper” was more than an urban myth at the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. The expression itself was not unknown earlier, as this extract from Francis Paget’s The Curate of Cumberworth (ch. 4, p. 35) shows, but here it does not connote a suit worn by a real person:
There was at each end of the mantelpiece a shell-man, with a limpet on his head, and clothed in a suit of brown paper sprinkled with cowries.
Earlier than this, brown paper (and vinegar, as in the nursery rhyme) had long enjoyed a place in medical cures:
Rheumatic pains in the body has [sic] been cured in a few days by wearing a brown paper jacket [next] to the skin. Wearing a night cap of the same under a flannel one has cured many of a deafness who have been subject to it for years. [Etc.]
Annual Gleanings of Wit and Humour (1816), vol. 1 pt. 2 p. 310
Towards the end of the nineteenth century references to the “suit of brown paper” become more numerous. The American novelist Sarah Hammond Palfrey, wife of US congressman John Gorham Palfrey (1786-1881) alludes to a suit of this nature in her short story “Mr. John Rollins’s Revenge”. She describes the experiences of an innocent sailor-boy coming ashore:1
The land-sharks come down to meet us […] They drugged my beer; and, next I knowed, I were sick and drunk out in a lane, in a suit of brown paper.
But Mrs Palfrey has more to say on the curious expression, in a short note appended to the magazine publication of her story:
I have met with the item of the brown-paper suit, told, if I recollect right, as a fact.
Readers of Joyce might notice that she stresses that the story had been told “as a fact”, and that he ends his reference to the suit as “(a fact)”.
In 1893 Laura Kendall’s translation of André Laurie’s Schoolboy Days in Italy includes another reference to this type of suit:2
Tito Salvati […] had begged as a special favour to be allowed to accompany them, and dressed from head to foot in a suit of brown paper, now sat gravely enthroned upon the front seat of the first vehicle.
But the most syndicated and celebrated brown-paper suit came from America. The Illustrated American of 1894 tells the story of a bet made at the Boston Athletic Club. The tale begins as follows:3
Last New Year’s eve some young men were discussing, at the Boston Athletic Club, the expenses of a trip to Europe. The result of the conversation was that, a few days later, one of the men, a Harvard graduate, who calls himself "Paul Jones" – though that is not his name – made a bet that he would start from Boston without a cent and without clothes, travel round the world, and return to Boston in a year, after having earned at least $5,000.
He starts with nothing, but tricks the organising committee into paying to see him off:
Out of his first twenty cents, "Paul Jones" invested in a two-cent newspaper and a cent’s worth of pins. With these he made his first costume […] The next day he made himself a suit out of manila paper, for which an enterprising outfitter offered him ten dollars. From the brown paper suit he emerged into one made out of a blanket; [etc.]
When the article was published, “Paul Jones” had not yet left American shores, but the brown-paper suit bought by the enterprising outfitter was also used for publicity material: