Print made by James Caldwall, 1739–1819, British, A Ladies Maid Purchasing a Leek, 1772, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a bonnet existed in the 1770s, it was black taffeta” has long been the rule reenactors have followed, particularly those wanting to adhere to the strictest standards of well-researched impressions based on primary source documents and period material culture. Truth examined is more subtle, showing that bonnet colours, materials, and shapes varied from decade to decade—and year to year—and that these factors seem to have varied by region. What worked in Boston would not be comfortable in the Carolinas, and people adjusted accordingly.
I was asked recently about Boston-area bonnets in the first half of the 1770s. My impression of this decade is that it is one in which there is a stylistic change in women’s headwear, as the “sunshade”* and “Bath” bonnet terms fade from use, giving way to plain “bonnet” or “chip” bonnets. These appear to have been made from “bonnet paper,” seen in both blue and white** in newspaper ads, though prints and paintings show brims in both boned and paper forms.
The Rival Milleners. Mezzotint after John Collet, 1772. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1955-125
Brim shape and bonnet material— fabric and colour– vary by period (and region). So let’s look at Boston in the first years of the 1770s. One tricky bit is that there are fewer indentured servants and enslaved people in Boston than elsewhere in the American Colonies in this period, so runaway ads are scarce, giving us fewer clues than we get in Pennsylvania and points south. Still, there are plenty of ads to help guide us.
As early as 1769, we see color variations, with the mention of “black, blue, green, white, and crimson bonnets” in Caleb Blanchard’s store. The year before, Joshua Gardner and Company advertised “black, pink, blue & crimson sattin hats and bonnets.” That means that on the streets of Boston and environs, by 1775, you’d see half-worn black, blue, green, white, crimson and pink satin bonnets.
The best statistics around for bonnets are currently tabulated for Pennsylvania, and definitely show the preponderance of bonnets are black (52 of 75 tabulated, or 69%). So don’t give up on black silk bonnets! They are the most common color. If we extrapolate these statistics, for a Pennsylvania event in the 1770s, of every 10 bonnets, seven should be black, one should be white, one should be green, and one should be blue. In larger groups, we’d also see red and brown bonnets, but again, just one in 20 or 30.
The Boston Gazette, April 4, 1774. Benjamin Franklin’s sister advertises “Sattins of the newest Fashion… for Bonnets.”
“A few sarsnet taffety bonnets,” in the Boston Evening Post, September 28, 1772.
For Massachusetts, statistics are more difficult to compile, given the dearth of runaway ads and the fact that I haven’t yet dived into inventory and probate records. Merchants’ ads give us some clues as to materials, and one thing I find is that “sattin” shows up, as well as “sarsnet taffety” or pelong. Sarsnet or sarcenet was a “think transparent silk of plain weave,” according to Textiles in America. Thicker than Persian, sarcenet was woven both plain and twill, and could be plain or changeable. Pelong is a kind of silk satin, again according to Textiles in America, and in The Dictionary of Fashion History, described as a kind of “thin silk satin,” but I have also seen it described as a ribbed silk. Joshua Blanchard advertised “Pelong sattins of all colours” in 1768. Where does that leave us with materials? Probably with the need for more bonnets to be made of silk satin than of silk taffeta, though the proportions are difficult to calculate yet.
Miss Theophila Palmer (1757-1848), oil on canvas, attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds ca 1770.
What about shape? For those dressing a la mode, we are past the deep-brimmed, small-cauled “lampshade” of the 1760s, and into a smaller, tighter bonnet with a larger caul and more trimming. In the portrait of Miss Palmer, we see how the brim stands away from the face, and the caul or crown poufs up. “A Lady’s Maid Purchasing a Leek” and “The Rival Milleners” (aee above) both depict women in similarly tight-brimmed and round-crowned bonnets trimmed with bows. These are shapes that I am confident appeared almost universally (with variations) in the American colonies in the first years of the 1770s. Now, there are different shapes to be sure, but these seem to predominate. I do think we need to see more brims that wrap around the head, as seen in the 1774 mezzotint of George Whitefield (Anglo-America’s most popular preacher) and his followers.
Detail, A Call to the Converted. Publish’d April 15, 1774, by W. Humphry . Lewis Walpole Library, 774.04.15.01+
So what’s the take away, if we are looking specifically at Boston and environs in the first half of the 1770s?
- Most bonnets (70%) were black, but a few white, green, crimson, and blue were seen.
- Most bonnets were made of silk satin, with others of taffeta or sarsnet (sometimes twilled silk).
- Most bonnets would have a shorter, higher brim that curves across the face just above eye level, with a high, rounded crown/caul and bow trims.
- Bonnet brims would vary between bonnet (paste) board and boned
Each place has a local style– which, if you think about it, is still true today. When I stand on the Metro platform in the red wool coat I bought in Providence, these folks know I’m not from here. The way we dress for the past should reflect the place and the time we are representing as best we can. And that means we need accessories to match those times and places, as well as clothes.
And yes, full disclosure, I sell researched bonnets on Etsy. If you want a bonnet for a particular time and place, that’s what I make.
* Known on this blog as “lampshade”
** Nope, don’t know what that means yet, haven’t looked into it