by Cindy Regnier
I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I read them all, over and over, so many times I practically wore them out. One thing in those books always puzzled me though. What were those things called sunbonnets that so often got mentioned and why did women wear them? Was it considered unfashionable for a woman to be suntanned? Apparently so.
Sunbonnets were considered necessary as well as functional for all ladies during the 1800s, but especially popular for farm wives and country girls. Mostly they were kept hanging near the doorway so they could be easily grabbed any time a lady ventured from the home. In Laura’s case, she disliked the sunbonnet and often left it hanging from its strings down her back, much to Ma’s chagrin. It seems that as long as the sun was up, women even wore the bonnets to do chores or hang out the laundry for it was considered unladylike to have a tan.
Of course, most ladies had everyday bonnets for chores and hanging out laundry and nicer, often fashionable ones for Sunday and special occasions. The bonnets were often made of gingham or calico, even fashioned from the leftover fabric of a new dress so that the outfit matched. Colors varied from dark and drab to pastels and floral prints. Older women frequently wore black bonnets, especially to church and funerals, but ruffles and lace were customary, even on the black ones. Some even had ribbons or bows for decoration. Another common theme was an apron matching the bonnet. No farm-woman was properly attired for an outing to the fishing pond unless she sported her sunbonnet and apron.
So when did the sunbonnet finally fade from popularity? When women's hats began to be manufactured in large quantities in the mid-1800s, they gradually became more common than the bonnets and eventually replaced them for all but the most rural folk. Remember Laura mentioning the milliner’s shops? Even suntans became not only acceptable, but fashionable. Bye-bye sunbonnets.
How did one go about making a sunbonnet? Most consisted of a brim, a crown and a tail or ruffle. The brim was always made stiff to shade the face, either by interfacing or starching. An old recipe for laundry starch instructed one to mix 2 parts flour with one part salt then add a little cold water to make a paste. Add boiling water to the paste until smooth and creamy. Sounds kind of like making gravy to me. Some used coffee instead of water if the fabric to be starched was dark colored. I bet that had an interesting aroma.
The crown was made puffy enough to allow for the buns and braids. The tail hung down the back to protect the neck. Most bonnets had ties to keep them in place. If the bonnet was tied firmly beneath the chin, a strong gust of wind could not carry it away. Bonnets were of many types such as a button bonnet, a snap bonnet, a split bonnet and a gathered bonnet. Terms such as Bavolet bonnet,Staithes bonnet, or Calash bonnet
were also used among the more fashion-conscious.
No one wears sunbonnets today, but we haven’t forgotten them. Sunbonnets can still be found in popular items such as prairie dolls, quilt patterns, fabric prints and decorating items. Sunbonnet Sue anyone? Tell me in the comments if you think you would have liked wearing a sunbonnet. Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure I would have been as guilty as Laura of having it hanging down my back instead of on my head!
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Fleeing her former employer who would use her to further his unlawful acts, a newspaper advertisement reads like the perfect refuge to Carly Blair. The idea of escaping the city, the intrigue, and the danger to hide herself on a cattle ranch in Kansas is her best shot for freedom.
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My great grandmother, who was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), made and wore what she called slat bonnets. They look just like the slip bonnets you talk about. Probably are the same thing. She called them slat bonnets because you used the slats off broken blinds (or cardboard if you didn't have any slats). I have three of her bonnets. If she was outside, she had one on. She died in the mid '90's. What a pioneer.ReplyDelete
What a treasure to have those bonnets. I've also heard the term "Slat bonnet" but wasn't sure why it was called that. Now I know!Delete
Thanks for posting! Sometimes I wish I had a sunbonnet in the summer, but it's more common for me to grab one of my husband's "ball caps" if the sun is strong.ReplyDelete
I'm with you Connie. A pair of sunglasses and a ball cap will do it for me.Delete
I have a few sun bonnets. A friend made them for me.ReplyDelete
That's so interesting. Do you wear them or are they for period dress purposes?Delete
Thanks for such an interesting post, Cindy. My husband's grandmother, who died just a few years ago at the age of 102, always wore a sunbonnet outside to do chores. Her skin was remarkably unlined for most of her life.ReplyDelete
Hi Laura - as is usually the case, there was a good reason behind those traditions that might seem silly to us today. 102 years old and unlined skin - that's amazing!Delete
She had some wrinkles in her older years, but still never looked her age. She was also a fan of aloe vera (straight from the plant) and Vick's vapor rub, and used them for everything from routine skincare to illness. She was a fascinating woman.Delete
I would have been like Laura I think. But for church and special occasions I would wear a pretty bonnet with ruffles and ribbons. I agree with you, that starch does sound like making gravy. LOLReplyDelete
quilting dash lady at comcast dot net
Hi Lori. Agreed on all points! Thanks for stopping by.Delete
I should be more appreciative that we have sun block, and don't need to use bonnets the way ladies like Laura did.ReplyDelete
I do enjoy clothes and trends, so I think I would have liked having bonnets as a fashion accessory. There would be many more options for fashion than a visor or ball cap!
I suppose that's right that it would have been kind of a fashion accessory. I was just thinking of it as an annoyance. Sun block works for me!Delete