In books and articles about 18th C costume, caps are usually mentioned in a few pages, a few examples are given, perhaps a museum piece is described.   Books about the history of hats will include some depictions of linen caps, but often show the extreme styles drawn for fashion plates of the time, gathered from many different countries, and offer no evidence which women actually wore them. Were these depictions like haute couture today? Or more like Target ads? Or more like Walmart? Examining the few sources of useful data about U. S. caps will show the large gaps in our understanding.  There aren’t any books or articles yet that summarize what we know about which caps 18th C American women wore, when or where.

Period Artifacts in Books

A few written sources have offered us detailed looks at period artifacts.  Burnston’s Fitting and Proper [i] includes four caps from the collection of Chester County Historical Society, probably all of Quaker origin. Rural Pennsylvania Clothing [ii] describes seven caps from Pennsylvania, which are not individually dated. These are presented as late eighteenth-century PA clothing of the common person.  Baumgarten of Colonial Williamsburg has published several books about the clothing collection there.  What Clothes Reveal [iii] includes descriptions of the three caps owned by CW: a lace lappet, several caps for a doll, and a child’s cap.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources offer short histories of caps, often with sketches of cap styles. Wilcox’s The Mode in hats and headdress [iv] is a standard overview of the history of caps and hats.  The drawings are taken from around the world, and concentrate on high fashion examples. Amphlett’s chapter[v] on 18th C head wear is a good general overview with English and European examples.  The Dictionary of Fashion History [vi] offers a comprehensive list of definitions of caps and cap styles from around the world, although they can seem confusing and overlapping,.  Pickens offers several pages of definitions and sketches of types of hats.[vii]  Fashionable Headdresses of the eighteenth century, [viii] an unpublished report in the library of Colonial Williamsburg, is an exhaustive survey of pictorial evidence, from French, Colonial American, and English examples.  This is the closest thing to a true survey of cap styles, but it is unpublished.  Its reliance on primary sources served as an important starting point for my research.

To these must be added a great deal of ephemeral work being done by online discussion lists[ix] and bloggers in recent years, many of whom have taken up pieces of the questions of caps. Notable in this category is Hallie Larken, whose blog, At The Sign of the Golden Scissors[x], has delved into, for example, the conundrum of the term “mob cap.” That blog seems to be gone now, which is why librarians call blogs “ephemera.”

Primary Sources: Patterns

One hopes to find contemporary or primary U.S. sources that discuss or portray caps, and summarize or codify the use, fashion, or construction of caps.  Early French manuals[xi], [xii], for example, describe how to sew a cap.  No such manual exists for Colonial America.

The earliest printed pattern is from London in 1786 in Instructions for Cutting out Apparel for the Poor,[xiii] which has a very simple one-piece cap pattern.  Here, at least, is one style that must have been worn by poor English women, if church ladies were sewing them up to give away to the needy. But, it is from London.

In the 19th C, books such as The Workwoman’s Guide ,[xiv] 1838,  or The Ladies’ Economical Assistant,[xv] 1808, (both published in London) become commonplace.  These include many patterns for homemade wardrobe pieces, including caps.

Primary Sources: Periodicals & Correspondence. 

In the period, milliners and merchants put ads in newspapers saying they sold or made caps or materials for caps.

“Ladies caps, Hats, Bonnetts and Cloaks ‘ and all Kinds of Millinary Ware, made in the neatest and most Fashionable Manner, may be had at the House of Mr. Livermore on Spring Hill near the Market.” [xvi], [xvii] (sic)

Few if any of these, however, give us clues as to what styles they are making or selling. One exception may be the availability of “cap wires,” and tracing the rise and fall of that item in ads is an opportunity for further study.

The hope that diaries and letters might yield clues is another avenue to pursue.  Anna Green Winslow, in her diary as a young girl, describes an incident[xviii] in which it seems she insulted a friend about a cap the friend had offered to make, and offered to send along the cloth to be made up anyway. She says she they are talking about a “queen’s night cap,” which is not “a black skull cap lined with red,” but then she doesn’t say what it is. (March 10, 1772)  This is an area for further study; many diaries and letters are available in microform and increasingly, electronic databases, and digging through these more thoroughly may yield as yet undiscovered clues.

There are, of course, an endless supply of primary resources yet to be scoured for other details, such as court records, inventories, individual diaries and letters not electronically available, items in small museums not yet identified, more newspapers, etc. Each of these would be a study all its own.

From many sources, pieces of the story of 18th C caps can be puzzled out; but none, finally, offer a thorough story of the changes in U.S. cap styles of the 18th C.


[i] Burnston, Sharon Ann, Linda A. Scurlock, and George J. Fistrovich. Fitting & Proper : 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society. Texarkana : Scurlock, 2002. Pp.

[ii] Gehret, Ellen J. Rural Pennsylvania Clothing: Being a Study of the Wearing Apparel of the German and English Inhabitants Bothmen and Women, Who Resided in Southeastern Pennsylvania Inthe Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century: Also Including Sewing Instructions and Patterns Which Are Profusely Illustrated! York, Pa: Liberty Cap Books, 1976. Pp. 64-71

[iii] Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection. Williamsburg Decorative Arts Series. Williamsburg, Va: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002. Pp. 60, 97, xx.

[iv] Wilcox, R. Turner. The Mode in Hats and Headdress. New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1945.

[v] Amphlett, Hilda. “Eighteenth Century.” In Hats: A History of Fashion in Headwear, 113–28. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 2003.

[vi] Cumming and Cunnington. The Dictionary of Fashion History. Berg, 2010.

[vii] Picken, Mary Brooks. The Language of Fashion; Dictionary and Digest of Fabric, Sewing and Dress. New York, N.Y: Mary Brooks Picken School, incorporated, 1939.

[viii] Cabell, Eleanor. Fashionable Headresses of the Eighteen Century. Williamsburg, Va: (unpublished report), 1988.

[ix] There are so many problems with citing non-public sources, lost archives, etc.

[x] Larkin, Hallie. “At the Sign of the Golden Scissors:” Blog. At the Sign of the Golden Scissors, May 10, 2015. (This seems to be gone now!)

[xi] Garsault, François A. de. Art du tailleur: contenant le tailleur d’habits d’hommes, les culottes de peau, le tailleur de corps de femmes & enfants, la couturiere, & lamarchande de modes. Description des arts et métiers. Paris: Impr. de L.F. Delatour, 1769.

[xii] Garsault, François A. de. L’art de La Lingère. Descriptions Des Arts et Métiers. Paris: Impr. de L.F. Delatour, 1771. (possible dead link).

[xiii] Cengage Gale, ed. Instructions for Cutting out Apparel for the Poor; . . . . Best Source of Employment for the Schools of Industry. London: sold by J. Walter, Charing Cross, 1789. [ECCO].

[xiv] Lady. The Workwoman’s Guide: Containing instructions to the inexperienced in cutting out and completing those articles of wearing apparel, etc. which are usually made at home… . Guilford, Conn: Opus Publications,[Reprint] 1987. An 1840 edition is avail in Google Books.

[xv] Lady. The Lady’s Economical Assistant, Or, The Art of Cutting Out, and Making, the Most Useful Articles of Wearing Apparel, without Waste; Explained by the Clearest Directions, and Numerous Engravings, of Appropriate and Tasteful Patterns. Springfield, Ohio: Kannik’s Korner, [Reprint] 1998.

[xvi] “Ladies Caps, Hats.” New-Hampshire Gazette. July 3, 1772. America’s Historical Newspapers (subscription database).

[xvii] Another example, in which “ladies caps” are part of a long list of “European and India Goods” :  “William Martin at His Store in Hanover-Square.” New-York Gazette. June 8, 1761. Early American Newspapers (subscription database)

[xviii] Winslow, Anna Green. “Diary of Anna Green Winslow, a Boston School Girl of 1771.” Diary. Boston, Mass, March 10, 1772. North American Women’s Letters and Diaries Colonial to 1950 (Alexander Street). (Subscription database)

Not final: add Sara’s diss. Make an easy list. run an update.