Antique Hats at Old Sturbridge Village

antique hat


Trimmed with frills, feathers, flowers, and ribbons, wide-brimmed bonnets were a must-have fashion accessory for women in the 1830s, even in rural towns like Sturbridge. Bonnets were usually made by professional milliners. Countryside women learned of the latest styles through local milliners who brought back the newest designs from Boston and New York, as well as from fashion plates in ladies' magazines.

antique hat 1830
Silk bonnet circa 1830s.
[Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village]
Bonnet making
Bonnet making at Old Sturbridge Village.
[Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village]
antique hat 1830
1835 buckram bonnet. [Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village]

A tan silk bonnet at Old Sturbridge Village was purchased in 1835 from a milliner, Mrs. P. Hinkley, whose Hartford, Connecticut, shop was located "12 rods south of the Episcopal Church," in 1825, and later listed at 87 Main St. in 1828, and at 240 Main St. in 1838, according to Hartford city directories.

antique hat 1830
Straw bonnet, horsehair trim, silk ribbon, c1800-40 [Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village]

Although many of the basic bonnet hat shapes stayed in vogue for a decade or more, women changed the trimmings nearly every season, adding new linings, ribbons, and flowers to their old bonnet frames. The wide bonnet brims protected a woman's face from the sun, and in the days before make-up, soft pink linings were sometimes used to add a reflective glow to the wearer’s complexion.

antique hat 1830
Straw bonnet, silk pleated lining, circa 1830.
[Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village]

While straw bonnets were imported from Italy in large numbers, New England women and girls mastered straw braiding themselves and became so adept that Old Sturbridge Village historians say it is often impossible to distinguish between a New England-made straw hat and one imported from Europe. Rye straw grown on local farms was split into thin strips using a straw splitter, and then braided. The lengths of braided straw were made into hats and bonnets by hat manufacturers.

Ribbons for bonnet trims.
[Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village]

In addition to Italian imports, bonnet styles from New York apparently set the tone, as Old Sturbridge Village historians discovered in this piece of advice on bonnets from the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F.B. Morse, to his new bride, Lucretia Walker Morse:

"I have talked with Aunt Bartlett about getting you a bonnet. She says that it is no time to get a fashionable winter bonnet in Boston now & that it would be much better to get it in New York as the Bostonians get their fashions from New York. . . She thinks if you cannot wait for the new fashion that your black plumes would be as tasty & fashionable as any you could procure."

antique hat form 1830
Hat form for molding bonnets.
[Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village]

"The intricate workmanship in these bonnets is quite impressive, and it's even more impressive that they have survived nearly 200 years," notes Jean Contino, coordinator of households and women's crafts at Old Sturbridge Village.

Old Sturbridge Village celebrates New England life in the 1830s and is open year round, (hours vary seasonally). Winter hours are Wednesday – Sunday 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Beginning April 3, the museum will be open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Admission: $20; seniors $18; children 3-17, $7; children under 3, free. Free parking; free return visit within 10 days. For all details:; 1-800-SEE-1830.




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