Saturday, April 6, 2019

Secession Bonnets

Civil-War-era bonnets were amazing
concoctions of froth

Richmond Daily Dispatch

In November, 1860 after Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency and talk of South Carolina's secession was the news, several newspapers copied an article about a new fashion statement worn by:
"The daughter of one of our leading secessionists for whom a dress and bonnet were designed or Georgia linsey and cotton. The dress is made in fashionable style a la Gabrielle and the bonnet is composed of white and black Georgia cotton, covered with a net-work of black cotton, the streamers ornamented with Palmetto trees and lone stars, embroidered in gold thread."

A neckline a la Gabrielle. The concept of
a linsey woolsey dress with a revealing French neckline
is slightly alarming.

Linsey on a quilt back. Usually the undyed yarns
were cotton or linen, the dyed warp threads wool.

The Charleston Mercury, known for its hyperbolic secession rhetoric and alternate fact, may have been the source of the story.
 "The entire work is domestic [Southern-made] and exhibits considerable s execution affords convincing proof how independent we can be of our Northern aggressors....." 
One could imagine how the ribbons on a fancy bonnet
might be embroidered with images.

Some stories over the years (and the story lasted for years) described the ingenious milliner as a Northerner living in Charleston.

Whether any such outfit ever existed is unknown but the idea of a Secession bonnet took hold. A Hartford, Connecticut paper countered, "What would our Lincoln ladies think of a distinctive bonnet of Connecticut corn cobs, trimmed with pumpkin vines, and ornamented with wooden nutmegs?"

This theoretical New England chapeau was discussed by the Baton Rouge Sugar Planter, which enlarged the story of a "Yankee representative hat, when Connecticut or Rhode Island ladies catch the secession fever: bonnet frame and crown; corn leaves, braided with pumpkin vines, trimming, wooden nutmegs, intertwined with buckwheat blossoms."

Hat made from palmetto in 1863
North Carolina Museum of History

 Many Southerners made their own hats during the war.

In 1863, Emma Holmes remarked that her 18-year-old sister Lila was making "a corn shuck Garibaldi hat", perhaps a pillbox or a sombrero, two hats the Italian celebrity made fashionable.

Giuseppe Garibaldi in a pill box hat

The very literate Emma noted, "We certainly striking[ly] developed 'the native resources, talent and industry of the South.' " paraphrasing the Charleston Mercury article. Emma was an avid reader of fire-eating newpapers like the Mercury. 

It was all quite amusing until things got serious. In the summer of 1861 pro-Southern newspapers began circulating a story:
"Our Southern papers are filled with heart sickening accounts of the murders and robberies which individuals in Old Abe's mob are perpetrating on the Southern people. Innocent women and children are shot on their own doorsteps, for wearing what is called 'Secession bonnets.' "
That story was printed in the Burlington, Iowa Hawk-Eye, which must have been a copperhead paper in a Union state. The tale of Northern war atrocities was pure fiction, anti-Union propaganda, but the kind of thing Emma Holmes was very likely to quote in her diary as gospel.

White women wearing hats rather than bonnets in Beaufort,
South Carolina, during the war. These might have been homemade,
woven from straw, grass or palm leaves. The black woman is
wearing a traditional African-American turban/kerchief.

The story of the Secession bonnet and ribbon ties embroidered with gold Palmetto trees and stars may have no more truth in it than the idea of Union soldiers shooting bonnet-clad Southern children. The bonnet story persisted, however. At the end of 1865 the Delaware Gazette printed a history of the war beginning in "The streets of Charleston filled with excited people huzzaing for a Southern Confederacy; and several women made a display of their so-called patriotism by appearing on the crowded side-walks with 'secession bonnets' the invention of a Northern milliner...."

Woman wearing a sunbonnet. It may be a slatted sunbonnet,
a functional if unfashionable item
Brady Studios photograph

Slatted sunbonnet
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Southern women may very well have referred to their homemade hats as Secession bonnets, whether they were fabric sunbonnets or woven hats of grasses and shucks.

Hop pickers in New York


sue s said...

I enjoyed a good laugh about these bonnets! It does sound as though the secession bonnets could have existed. Thank you for the research on this.

Danice G said...

All so interesting. I had never heard of a slatted bonnet. 'Sounds utilitarian and, as you said, likely not a fashion statement. Secession bonnets may have existed it does sound like. I love the history of hats and bonnets.