Studies based on data from the past 25–45 years show that irradiance changes related to the 11-yr solar cycle affect the circulation of the upper troposphere in the subtropics and midlatitudes. The signal has been interpreted as a northward displacement of the subtropical jet and the Ferrel cell with increasing solar irradiance. In model studies on the 11-yr solar signal this could be related to a weakening and at the same time broadening of the Hadley circulation initiated by stratospheric ozone anomalies. Other studies, focusing on the direct thermal effect at the Earth’s surface on multidecadal scales, suggest a strengthening of the Hadley circulation induced by an increased equator-to-pole temperature gradient. In this paper we analyse the solar signal in the upper troposphere since 1922, using statistical reconstructions based on historical upper-air data. This allows us to address the multidecadal variability of solar irradiance, which was supposedly large in the first part of the 20th century. Using a simple regression model we find a consistent signal on the 11-yr time scale which fits well with studies based on later data. We also find a significant multidecadal signal that is similar to the 11-yr signal, but somewhat stronger. We interpret this signal as a poleward shift of the subtropical jet and the Ferrel cell. Comparing the magnitude of the two signals could provide important information on the feedback mechanisms involved in the solar climate relationship with respect to the Hadley and Ferrel circulations. However, in view of the uncertainty in the solar irradiance reconstructions, such interpretations are not currently possible.