The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 21, 2000


Treasures of Carlisle's Past: Hats Off to the Hats of History

Baseball caps, Easter bonnets, the tri-cornered hats of Patriots Daythe hats of this season follow in a long tradition of head coverings. Hats as articles of clothing date back to 4,000 B.C. Early hoods and hats served as protective coverings from the sun, wind and other elements, but soon became indicative of the wearer's occupation and social status. We trace academic hoods and mortar-boards to the Middle Ages, and we associate elaborate headdresses with royalty. Hat styles evolved in response to hair styles, hygiene and even politics.

Carlisle is fortunate to have several examples of 18th-and 19th-century head coverings in its historical collections. The artifacts range from infants' caps to military helmets. By definition, caps fit close to the head. Hats and bonnets have brims and a crown. Bonnets have ties; later styles lack a back brim.

In the collections are two tiny, hand-made infant caps. One, of white muslin, measures only 4 3/4 inches by 3 1/2 inches. The other, of darned net, is only slightly larger, measuring 4 1/4 inches by 5 3/4 inches. Both bespeak the care the maker took to create a pretty and protective head covering for her baby. Infants typically wore caps both during the day and at night.

Stylish caps and bonnets

Caps were an important part of a woman's dress throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Women wore caps of lace, linen, lawn and gauze indoors as well as out of doors. In the days before regular bathing and shampooing, caps kept a woman's hair clean, protecting it from dust, smoke from the open hearth and vermin. Cap styles varied. The simple ruffled "mob-cap" exemplifies colonial garb. Caps might also have decorative flaps called "lappets" hanging down on either side of the face. They might be plain, or decorated with lace and ribbons. The historical collections contain two ladies' nightcaps, one knitted and one of white muslin. The files tell us that Eliza Griffith of Chelmsford knit her nightcap and wore it as a bride. Mrs. George Dutton made and wore the white muslin cap.

Hoods, bonnets or hats were worn over the cap when one went outside. In early colonial America, women often wore simple cloaks with hoods. By the revolutionary period, hats and bonnets became fashionable. The high, elaborate hairstyles then in vogue necessitated large bonnets, such as the calash, which remained popular into the early nineteenth century. This style resembles the hoods of covered wagons. The name comes from a French word, "caleche," which meant "wagon." A frame, frequently made of whalebone, supported fabric and allowed the hat to expand and contract with the pull of a string. A fine example, made of green silk, was owned by Mrs. Hannah Heald (1817-93) and came from the William Green Heald house in Carlisle.

Straw bonnets were introduced at the end of the eighteenth century. Variations of the so-called "poke" bonnet remained popular until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Decorations such as ribbons and lace trimmed the space between the "poke" or crown and the brim. Hannah Heald's black straw bonnet, trimmed with a silk ribbon, is representative of this design.

'Pilgrim hats'

Men's hat styles in early New England reflected the Puritans' rejection of highly decorated hairstyle and dress. The so-called "Pilgrim hats" were plain, with broad brims. In the 1700s, colonial men began to powder their hair and many wore powdered wigs. Wigs allowed the wearer to shave his head, which served as a lice preventive. When relaxing at home, the man might don a turban to keep his head warm.

The three-cornered hat has come to symbolize the American Revolution. Both Red Coats and colonial troops wore this style. Costume historians trace its development from very broad-brimmed hats which needed to be "cocked" or turned up. A "bi-corne" version pre-dated the "tri-corne." Gold braid or a cockade might trim the most fashionable of these. The Carlisle collections include two plain black-felt tri-cornered hats owned by the revolutionary soldier, Nathan Green, Senior. Nathan's father John was Carlisle's only hatter. He moved from Malden to Concord in 1729 and later lived in the Old Revolutionary Tavern which once stood on Stearns Street. He was a busy man, serving as miller, hatter and tavern-keeper.

'Stove-pipe hats'

If the tri-corne characterized the 18th century, the tall-hat or "stove-pipe" characterized the 19th century. It rose to high proportions in the early part of the century. The beaver tall hat of Ai Green (1801-48) measures 8 and 1/2 inches tall! There is another tall hat that belonged to Isaiah Green (1772-1855) and a third that was William Green's. Constructing these hats involved making a cotton frame of several layers of fabric, then shaping the plush (often beaver) on a hat block. (A large wooden hat block, of unknown provenance, survives in the collections.) The hat maker next cemented the plush to the frame, using hot irons. Heat also enabled the maker to shape the brim. In 1846 the advent of a machine to make felt streamlined the process.

Military hats

Those interested in military history will find two caps that witnessed different American war efforts. A Union cap, rescued from the Gettysburg Battlefield, is among the Heald Collection of Battlefield Relics. It is supposedly from the first day of the battle.

There is also a French helmet which was awarded to Kenneth Duren for selling the most Liberty Bonds in Carlisle during the 5th Liberty Loan drive of World War I.

If only the hats could talk, what stories they could tell! The dainty caps and infant bonnets witnessed the day-to-day domestic scene, while the tri-cornes, stove-pipes and poke bonnets mingled at social gatherings and political events. These hats of history represent more than practical dress or foibles of fashion. They reflect the life and times of our ancestors.

2000 The Carlisle Mosquito