“Here we behold a hat, there a bonnet…”*

Bonnets in the 18th Century

by Sue Felshin

Last modified 4 Jan 2013

Copyright © 2008–2013 Sue Felshin, All Rights Reserved

Water Cress, detail of Catchpenny #196.

Very typical size, shape, and trim.

Contents

What is a bonnet?
Change Over Time
Use
Design Features
Size  |  Brim shape  |  Caul shape  |  Color  |  Materials  |  Trim  |  strings
Safety Note
Documentation
Artifacts  |  Art  |  Writings: newspapers, inventories
Note on Images
Footnotes

Women, are you tired of wearing a straw hat everywhere you go? Let's look at an alternative: the bonnet. While not as commonly worn as straw hats, we find bonnets just as widely worn, by women of every class and in plain and fancy styles. A bonnet is warmer than a hat, especially in rain or snow, and there's nothing like it for keeping your cloak hood in place. Depending on the shape, it may be better than a hat at keeping the sun out of your eyes. On the other hand, a bonnet can be unpleasant on a hot day, it restricts your view more than a hat does, and depending on the style, it restricts your hearing as well—maybe that's why we find that although bonnets were quite common in the 18th century, they didn't have the ubiquity of straw hats.

What is a bonnet?

While an exact definition remains elusive, in general we may say that an 18th century bonnet is an item of headwear consisting of two parts, a soft caul and a stiff brim which is wider toward the front than the back (and frequently narrowing to nothing at all in back). Although size and shape varied, the most common sort of bonnet had a slightly downward pointing brim of a moderate size that blocks the sun in front and leaves part or all of the ears exposed.

Scater, detail of Catchpenny #24

Typical brim, slightly large caul, worn over dormeuse cap.

Change Over Time

Overall: Bonnets started to gain in popularity just as hoods become less common. That's not too surprising since the two types of headgear have much in common in terms of being warm and providing protection from bad weather. (These “hoods” were detached hoods, possibly with capes but not connected to cloaks, e.g., MFA 99.664.19.) Textual mentions of bonnets appear as early as the 1730s. Artwork with bonnets is rare until the 1770s. Although the fashionable shape changed over time, bonnets remained popular for another century.

Early 18th century: Bonnets may have developed from straw hats. The earliest artwork of a bonnet (Elisabeth Oberbüchler, 1732, Germany) is straw, as are two early references in The Pennsylvania Gazette ("plat bonnet", 1732, and "platt bonnet", 1740).

1760s–1780s: If we surmise that country people and poor people tended to wear old-fashioned bonnets, then we can start to see some trends in bonnet styles from the 1760s through the 1780s. Earlier bonnets tended to have a deep brim, either in a conical shape as in The Marquess of Granby aiding a sick soldier, 1765, and The young mendicant, 1776, or like a overgrown baseball cap brim as in The Rival Milleners, and Water Cress, undated, or somewhere in between, as in Pot Fair. Cambridge., 1777 (lefthand bonnet). As the 1770s progress, we start to see more bonnets with a shallow brim and set vertically on the head, and also a style with a tiny visorlike brim as in An old macaroni miss-led. But see Miss Tipapin Going For All Nine, 1778?, for a fairly late bonnet worn over high hair that retains the overgrown-baseball-cap style of brim. Cauls, naturally enough, grow larger as hairstyles grow larger, starting small as in The Marquess of Granby aiding a sick soldier, 1765, gaining a slight pompadour shape as in The Rival Milleners, 1772, mushrooming up into a puff as in An old macaroni miss-led, 1772 and then ballooning as in The lover's disguise, 1776?.

Post-18th century: Bonnet shapes change considerably in the 19th century, acquiring a brims that flare upward and outward in the early 19th century ("Jane Austen period") and then turning into deep and tubular "poke bonnets". See Edinburgh Lacewoman, 1784 for a rare example of a flaring brim in the 18th century, and see The Silver Age for an almost mid-19th century shape, although this may be due to the child wearing an oversized bonnet that doesn't fit her correctly.

Pea-Cart. Detail of Catchpenny #107.

Use

Documentation shows that women wore bonnets in largely the same circumstances as hats: mostly outdoors, for protection from the elements. As with a hat, a bonnet was typically worn over a cap. Experimental archaeology (also known as “trying and seeing”) reveals that bonnets have one particular feature that hats don't have: Because they have no brim in back, you can wear a bonnet under the hood of a cloak. The bonnet holds the hood in place. It keeps it from falling backward off your head or forward over your eyes. Has it ever driven you crazy that when you wear a cloak with a hood, and you turn your head, the hood stays put and you find yourself looking at the inside of the hood? Well, when you wear a bonnet under a hood, it makes the hood turn with your head and the bonnet. It's very handy!

Design Features

Size

The typical RevWar bonnet has a fairly small brim compared to Regency and Civil War era bonnets, but size does range a fair amount. Commonly, the brim covers up to about half the ear. See the safety note, below!

Brim shape:

The typical Revolutionary War era brim is downward pointing. However, not all are. Brim shape varies from a circle with smaller circle (“bite”) taken out of it to a long strip with only slight curve.

The circle-with-circular-bite shapes (similar to a modern baseball cap brim, but larger), yield a 1760s–1770s shape.
See: Water Cress, Scater, The Rival Milleners, Fording the Brook, A ladies maid purchasing a leek, An evenings invitation, with a wink from the bagnio, A call to the unconverted (lefthand bonnet), Is this my daughter Ann, A Society of Patriotic Ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina (foreground bonnet), Pot Fair. Cambridge. (righthand bonnet), Miss Tipapin Going For All Nine, and The liberty of the subject. These brims are typically paired with small cauls for common folk (Water Cress, Fording the Brook, A call to the unconverted (lefthand bonnet), Is this my daughter Ann) and large cauls for women in fashionable dress (A ladies maid purchasing a leek, An evenings invitation, with a wink from the bagnio, Miss Tipapin Going For All Nine).
Visor-like shape:
An extreme version of the circle-with-bite shape with a small and nearly flat brim rather like a visor can be seen in An old macaroni miss-led, The pretty mantua maker, and The man of business. These brims are paired with cauls shaped like fairly large round puffs.
Conical shape:
See The Marquess of Granby aiding a sick soldier, The invitation, The young mendicant, and A Market Girl Holding A Mallard Duck.
A narrow strip-like shape is first seen in 1773 and remains a common style through rest of the decade:
The brim has a slight curve that creates a slight flare, and is set fairly vertically so as to encircle the head. See Pea-Cart, The Abusive Fruitwoman, A call to the unconverted (righthand bonnet), The slip, or, Miss, willing to be in the ton, The lover's disguise, and Lord No--h, in the suds.
A rare style is a wide strip set vertically.
See Walton's The Silver Age (possibly oversized for the wearer), Heyday! Is this my Daughter Anne! in versions from 1773 and 1779, and The old maids morning visit, or, The calash lady's. Any Eggs newly laid is a very unusual example of a wide strip brim set somewhere between horizontally and vertically.

Caul shape:

Caul shapes, as cut, appear to vary from an arch to a bowed arch to a circle. If a circle, then the brim meets itself in back. An arch-shaped caul, with a casing through the straight bottom edge and long strings in the casing, yields a bonnet that can be stored flat. A bowed arch or circle yields a smaller, neater caul. Some bonnets have smooth stiff cauls. Are these the oft-mentioned “jockey bonnets”? I don't know, and I don't know how those cauls are constructed. Are some cauls made of a strip sewn into a loop and then tightly gathered along one edge like the pleated circle at the back of a cloak hood? I'm not sure, although the bonnet in Catchpenny #152 (Any Eggs newly laid) kind of looks that way.

Watercress, Catchpenny #184, detail.

Small, close-fitting caul:
See The Marquess of Granby aiding a sick soldier (possibly a very small flattened puff), Watercress, Scater, Is this my daughter Ann, and Mrs. Lane.
Flattened puff:
See Fording the Brook, The Abusive Fruitwoman, Heyday! Is this my Daughter Anne! in versions from 1773 and 1779, Pot Fair. Cambridge. (lefthand bonnet), The young mendicant, and A Market Girl Holding A Mallard Duck.
Pompadour:
See CWF 1993-335 artifact, The Rival Milleners, and Buying a Mop.
Round puff:
See An old macaroni miss-led, The pretty mantua maker, A ladies maid purchasing a leek, An evenings invitation, with a wink from the bagnio, The man of business, and Pot Fair. Cambridge. (righthand bonnet).
Giant puff:
These cauls have trim around the caul itself, which I surmise is to control the shape of the caul, which might otherwise collapse or become disordered. See The lover's disguise, The slip, or, Miss, willing to be in the ton, and A lady in waiting. The additional trim in The slip, or, Miss, willing to be in the ton appears to be a ribbon tying the bonnet onto the wearer's head—the bonnet appears to be too large for her head.
Stiffened(?), flat-topped cone covered with rows of trim:
See The invitation and A Society of Patriotic Ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina (background bonnet).
Divided caul, lengthwise or crosswise:
See A Society of Patriotic Ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina (foreground bonnet) and Catchpenny 140 ("… moon … balloon").

Color

Based on writings, black was by far the most common color, white a very distant second, then very few blue, even fewer green and brown, and lastly various rare examples. Nancy Watt's study of the Pennsylvania Gazette found about five times as many black bonnets as white bonnets, and hardly any bonnets of other colors.

Materials

Based on writings, taffeta was the most common, with some examples of peelong (satin), velvet, certain wool fabrics such as stuff and camlet, and even a tiny number in linen. Brims could be stiffened with pasteboard ("chip"), whalebone, or (possibly) buckram. Most brims show no visible stiffening and are presumably stiffened with chip or buckram, but for a creased brim that must be stiffened with chip or buckram, see The young mendicant. For examples stiffened with whalebone, see CWF 1993-335, The invitation, The Rival Milleners, and Miss Palmer.

Trim

A call to the unconverted, detail, courtesy LWL, Yale U..

The most common trim appears to be a gathered strip of self fabric, sometimes with a bow in the front. Here are just a few examples:

CWF 1993-335, The Rival Milleners, Fording the Brook, An old macaroni miss-led, The Abusive Fruitwoman, Water Cress, Pea-Cart.

Pot Fair. Cambridge., detail, courtesy LWL, Yale U..

Snuff and Twopenny, detail, courtesy LWL, Yale U..

Other trims include a bow at the front, back, or both, and fancier trims. An uncommon possibility is no trim. Most artworks are black and white so it's hard to tell if the trim is self fabric, matching ribbon, or contrasting trim. Silk taffeta will hold an edge well if pinked so makes a good material for self fabric trim. Some runaway ads mention bonnets with lace (not many). The bonnet in Sandby's Mrs. Lane appears to be trimmed with narrow lace or cord and with ruched or gathered or textured ribbon.

Trim along the front edge is not common but is occasionally seen, for example:

The liberty of the subject, An old macaroni miss-led, Mrs. Lane.

Strings

Strings (ties) are not generally visible in art. Bonnets generally stay on well without being tied, and you can tuck ties up in the brim until needed in very cold or windy weather.

Why they say the Balloon / Is gone up to the Moon. Detail of Catchpenny #140.

Enormous caul.

Safety Note

A bonnet will affect your perception of sound. Depending on how far down over your ears your bonnet comes, it may merely dampen echoes, or may change your perception of where sounds come from, or may even eliminate sounds from some directions almost entirely. Test your bonnet, and if it affects your hearing significantly, then be careful when wearing it, especially when crossing streets!

I find that any bonnet that covers half the ears or less doesn't impair hearing badly, but “your mileage may vary”. My bonnet comes about halfway down my ears. While there is an interesting sound change (compare how certain room shapes, like concert halls, can reflect sound differently from normal), my hearing is not impaired to any noticeable degree. My bonnet brim allows me to see straight ahead and (mostly) to the sides but cuts off all upward vision. This is great for keeping sun out of eyes and still lets me see ground level traffic, but does limit visibility noticeably.

Documentation

Artifacts

Art

For additional post-Revolutionary War bonnets, see 18th Century Notebook : 18th Century Women's Bonnets.

For a Germanic (?) style of bonnet, see:

Writings

Newspapers contain many written references, some mentioning color, fabric, lining color, lining fabric, size, condition, or style. Most mentions are in ads for runaways, and some are for stolen goods or goods for sale. Unless otherwise noted, these bonnets are from The Pennsylvania Gazette:

Inventories are another good source of documentation, for example:

Note on Images

Images from the Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection are courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, used with permission granted to the author.

Catchpenny images are from The Catchpenny Prints: 163 Popular Engravings from the Eighteenth Century, originally published by Bowles and Carver, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1970. Images are used with permission: "Up to ten illustrations from this book may be reproduced on any one project or in any single publication, free and without special permission."


Footnotes

* From The general index as to twenty-seven volumes of the London Magazine, or the Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, Vol. XL, for the year 1771, page 308.