The Cap That Started It All — and the Debate that Ensued

This was the first cap I saw in a museum. It is housed at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. I found it because it is one of the very few women’s caps in American museums dated to the 18th C that have online catalog records. It was so exciting to go behind the scenes for the first time and be allowed to touch something 200 years old.  I was wide-eyed and awe-struck, in a sort of history bliss coma.

I was also disappointed: the cap was so small!  Although the museum has it categorized as an adult cap, we wondered immediately if, after all, it was for a child.  Deciding that question became the focal point of my investigation of this cap.

The Original

Small 18th C cap of linen, with lappets.
Boston MFA #49.366. Yes, but is it an adult cap?

Boston MFA #49.366 is a lappet cap with the usual 3-piece construction of semicircular caul, headpiece on the straight grain, and a ruffle, this one made of lace.  It is linen, dated by the museum “18th C”.  All details here agree with that dating.

Being only 11″ from tip to tip isn’t what makes this cap really small; its the caul, only 6″ high by 4″ deep.  The seams are unfinished on the inside; stroke gathers go along the top 3″ of the caul. The ungathered edges of the caul and headpiece are butted together, 22 stitches to the inch.  A 1/16″ hem down the front of the headpiece is whip stitched, before the lace is whip stitched on.

The record identifies the lace as linen bobbin lace, and since the study of lace is another thing all its own, I defer to their judgement.

The headpiece is on the straight grain, with a little triangle of cloth that dips under the bottom edge of the caul.  So the caul and the headpiece have to be cut to agree on that curve.

The really interesting part, and for me the final deciding factor, is a casing made of a straight piece of cloth that goes from the tip of one lappet, around the nape of the neck, down the tip of the other lappet.  A plain linen tape is encased here, allowing the cap to be pulled into a gather all around the bottom at once.

In correspondence with Curator Jennifer Swope, I learned that this cap was give to the MFA by Mrs. Wendell Taber, who gave the museum a collection of clothing dating from 1742 to the 1830’s, but no information about the wearers.

Close-up of top of cap where headpiece and caul are joined.
Cap from the top: the headpiece is made of 2 pieces butted together in tiny stitches, with rough ends exposed inside.
Lace edges the front of this 18th C cap.
Good view of the bobbin lace with purple glove behind as contrast.
Close-up of top of cap, showing join of the headpiece and gathers of the caul.
Seams are all unfinished on the inside of Boston MFA cap #49.366.

Questions that remain

So, the question: is this an adult cap? My verdict: no.  This is a toddler’s cap. It’s that all-around-the-bottom gather that seals the argument for me.

Here’s [my repro of] the cap on an adult head:

Very small cap shown on adult head.
Steve Saines, 59, models the Boston MFA cap.
4-cut picture of baby in repro cap, laughing.
Weston Wells, 4 mo.s, models Boston MFA 49.366

And here it is on a child, with the gather string making a really pretty face-framing ruffle:

Thanks to Selena Wells, Weston’s mom, for allowing Weston to model for us!  Weston is probably just a little young for this, but you can see the effect the gathers makes.

While many of the caps I’ve seen seem really small for my head, I wear an XL hat. But in general, 18th C caps are smaller than 19th C caps, which are often made to cover the whole head and frame the face.  18th C caps tend to ride further back, higher on the hair, more like a halo than a frame. You can see the hairline, the whole forehead, often even one’s ears. So I’m not going to say that every small cap is for a child. See my discussion of another really small cap, Winterthur 1955.0003.013 for comparison.


I haven’t found a portrait of a baby in a cap with lappets tied under the chin! Help me out here! Maybe 18th C babies didn’t like having things tied under their chins any more than my babies did. Maybe that’s why this cap survived.

I did discover this very similar cap at the UK National Trust, dated 1730-1750. Dimensions aren’t given, which is too bad, so we can’t compare exactly. I see a similar gather casing along the back of the lappet, just like this one. The online record identifies this as a child’s cap.

The Reproduction

As the first cap I tried to measure, pattern, and recreate, this was a learning experience.  How to discover the shape of a gathered piece had me flummoxed for a while. Making the curved headpiece mate with a curved caul was a puzzle as well.  I have since made this cap over several times, and it is, with experience, — and a working pattern — a simple, pretty baby cap.

See Sharon Burnston’s notes and pattern, too. Her pictures are clearer than mine. Better two than one.

Lappet cap, repro of Boston MFA cap, probably child's.
First attempt, before adding lace. I made the lappets way too wide.
Repro cap, gathered and displayed stuffed with paper to show shape.
Here is a second version, with lace, of Boston MFA 49.366. It’s pulled up to show the gathered effect.

My Notes

Click here for notes and pattern: boston MFA 49.366

Thank Yous and Permissions

I want to thank Sharon Burnston, who met me at the Boston MFA, taught me to measure and examine an artifact, and set me on this journey with her help and blessing.

Diana Zlatanovski, Curatorial Research Associate, helped us at the museum that day, and Jennifer Swope, Curator, corresponded with me afterward when I had more questions.

Photos by the author.

Other Related Scholarship

I am not aware of any further scholarship on this cap.


3 thoughts on “The Cap That Started It All — and the Debate that Ensued

  1. As you know, I have also replicated this cap. I agree it’s not an adult’s cap, but I’d call it a child’s cap, not a toddler’s cap. It looked great on a 5 year old.


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