Nineteenth-century fashion editors in Paris, London, Philadelphia, and New York loved to write about straw bonnets. Why all the chatter?
This charming headgear was a spring and summer favorite for decades. The female population relished the thrill of buying or making a new bonnet, which was about as exhilarating as choosing a new dress. But the manufacture of straw bonnets was also an important milestone for women in the labor force, both as a cottage industry and in factories. And bonnets of all kinds were part of a social and even moral code that no longer exists today (except in certain cultures).
Let’s begin our discussion with an 1840s straw bonnet in Bartow-Pell’s collection. For most of that decade, bonnets had a small crown that merged with the brim in a straight line extending over the forehead. (Styles with projecting brims that partially obscure and shade the face are often called “poke bonnets.”) In the 1840s, many brims had very low sides that dipped below the chin line, and bonnet strings had to be attached and tied on the inside, forming an oval around the face. Bonnets were made of fabric (such as silk, satin, or crepe) or straw of various kinds. “Italian and rice straw, though so long in vogue for summer bonnets, promise still to retain their supremacy, though not certainly to the exclusion of other materials, particularly of fancy ones,” The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music & Romance announced in 1841. Bonnets in the 1840s were worn with a bavolet—a ruffle or curtain at the back—which was not only decorative but also provided protection from the sun. A wide assortment of trimmings—artificial flowers, feathers, ribbons, lace, and more—allowed women to personalize and update their bonnets, and ladies enjoyed buying trimmings from bonnet shops and milliners. Bartow-Pell’s straw bonnet retains its shallow lace bavolet and was likely adorned with additional trimmings at one time.
American and British women looked to Paris for the latest fashions. In May 1841, an animated French editor wrote in La Mode that “à present!,” straw bonnets were the thing, along with airy scarves and lightweight and “vaporeuses” white fabrics. In their fashion choices, “jeunes femmes” must banish reminders of cold and fog, commanded the author. “Regardez le bleu du ciel, voyez la splendeur du soleil!” (Look at the blue of the sky, see the splendor of the sun!) In July 1844, the Ladies’ National Magazine of Philadelphia kept its American readers up to date on cutting-edge Paris bonnet styles: “Straws were never more in vogue in Paris, and they are almost universally adopted here, though drawn capotes [a bonnet made of shirred fabric] are very fashionable.”
Bonnets required special care. In The Young Lady’s Friend (1845 edition), Mrs. John Farrar cautioned against careless habits.
The practice of coming into the parlour with your walking-dress on . . . [and] throwing your bonnet down on one chair and your cloak on another, . . . gathering them up any how, and holding your bonnet by one string, or with a gripe [grasp] of the front that bends it; all these little things will in three months greatly deface your clothes . . . Bonnets are very much injured by lying about; they should be put into their proper box the very moment they are taken off the head, unless they are dusty or damp. In the former case, blow or wipe off the dust; in the latter, adjust the bows whilst you dry them; for a bonnet should always be put away in proper order to be worn again at a minute’s notice.
In A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1843 edition), Catharine Beecher counseled: “Bonnet-boxes, made of light wood, with a lock and key, are better than the paper bandboxes so annoying to travelers.” Others agreed. Beecher also advised that a “bonnet-cover, made of some thin material, like a large hood with a cape, is useful to draw over the bonnet and neck, to keep off dust, sun, and sparks from a steam engine. Green veils are very apt to stain bonnets, when damp.” Beecher and other authors also provided instructions on how to clean, whiten, and stiffen straw bonnets.
Bonnets were essential apparel for ladies appearing in public. Society and propriety demanded it. In 1843, Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal did not mince words: “It would appear that the wearing of a bonnet of silk, straw, or any other material, distinctly marks a woman as belonging to the lady class. If she has no bonnet, she is nobody; if she wear one, she is at once a person of consideration, at least of pretension.”
Straw hats were popularized in the late 18th century by fashion trailblazer Marie Antoinette, who wore them with simple white cotton dresses. This pastoral look—which was inspired by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and its emphasis on the natural state—quickly became a trend that spread to Britain and America. Fine Leghorn straw hats from Italy were especially desirable, as were those made in Dunstable, England. In the late 1790s, Americans began to produce their own straw headgear instead of relying entirely on imports. The industry blossomed in Massachusetts, where women and girls not only prepared straw made from local rye and wove it into plaits at home but also worked in bonnet factories, a number of which sprang up in “straw towns.” According to census statistics in Manufactures of the United States (1865), “In 1845 Massachusetts turned out 1,046,954 straw bonnets and hats, valued at about as many dollars, and of straw braid to the value of $102,237.” These figures continued to climb, and by 1860 Massachusetts was producing straw goods valued at $3,398,466. Some production also occurred in a few other states in the Northeast. “The business in 1860 employed 40 establishments in the United States. . . . It gave employment to 826 male and 6863 female hands.”
“Straw Bonnets,” an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in September 1864, describes the production process in homes and bonnet factories, from harvesting the rye to packing bonnets for shipment and sale. Although many workers learned their skills at home or on the job, charity schools in Philadelphia provided “for the instruction of girls in the plaiting of straw and the manufacture of straw bonnets and trimmings,” according to the book Philadelphia in 1824.
Nineteenth-century moralists targeted a number of alleged vices, and even the innocent straw bonnet did not escape censure. In 1825, An Essay on the Manufacture of Straw Bonnets, attributed to Samuel Standley, was published in Providence, Rhode Island. The author rebuked the industry and “its effects upon the employments, dress, food, health, morals, social intercourse, etc. of the inhabitants of the several towns in which it has been carried on.” This anti-feminist manifesto readily blames what the writer saw as the ills of American society and its moral decline on women earning a living making straw bonnets. These views must have provoked at least a few raised eyebrows and perhaps some scornful shrieks of laughter from factory girls.
Moralizing novelists also jumped on board. In Temper, a work first published by Mrs. Opie in 1812 and reprinted in Philadelphia in 1843, a pretty straw bonnet with pale blue ribbons lay on a shop counter. What young lady wouldn’t be tempted by this “amazingly becoming” and fashionable item? “To resist . . . was impossible.” In this scene, the straw bonnet is used to convey a moral lesson in which the character succumbs to flattery, pride, and a lack of self-control by buying a bonnet she does not need and can barely afford while her disapproving grandmother looks on.
Bonnets appear in a variety of other writings from the period. They can represent respectability, such as when Fanny McDermot donned a “neat straw bonnet” to maintain her self-respect, in a work by Catharine Maria Sedgwick published by Godey’s in 1845. A Sunday bonnet is “a pretty straw bonnet trimmed with gay ribbons and flowers” in A Summer Journey in the West (1841). But young ladies in church could be distracted by “arranging your dress, or watching for the entrance of your friends, or spying out new bonnets,” admonished Mrs. John Farrar in The Young Lady’s Friend (1845). “My bonnet is perfect,” rhapsodized a flibbertigibbet named Isabella in The Young Lady’s Home (1839). Her father complimented her “uncommon taste in the choice of my bonnet” as they returned from church, and “W. bowed to me as I passed him, with such empressement.” Unsurprisingly, her pretty head was filled with thoughts of “delightful balls and parties” in the midst of her Sunday musings. Charles Dickens turned the straw bonnet into a comic prop in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844). Mrs. Hominy “was very straight, very tall, and not all flexible in face or figure. On her head she wore a great straw bonnet, with trimmings of the same, in which she looked as if she had been thatched by an unskillful labourer.”
Bartow-Pell’s straw bonnet may remind us of carefree summer days in the past, but it has a more complex story hidden under its brim.
Margaret Highland, Historian