Reader Request: Abraham Woodhull’s Beloved “Beanie” (Cap)

Posted on Updated on

Greetings, readers, and welcome to Week 3!  The demand for historically-informed commentary about TURN is clearly very high, as evidenced by the whirlwind of the past few weeks here at “TURN to a Historian.” I want to take a moment to thank the fans and readers who have submitted questions and comments via social media or the “Ask a question” page or comments threads on this website — your input helps immensely by letting me (and other guest writers) know exactly what people are spy-curious about! This is the first post (of many, I hope!) that will address a reader-requested topic.

Today we’re discussing the most talked-about item of clothing in the TURN series so far: Abraham Woodhull’s gray wool cap.


Yes, you read that correctly. There’s been plenty of talk on social media about women’s too-long gown sleeves and John Andre’s bizarre little braid and the shiny brass helmets of Tallmadge’s dragoons – but none of those have generated as much buzz as Abraham Woodhull’s highly covetable “beanie,” as it’s often referred to on Twitter, tumblr, and Facebook.  Of all the material culture shown on TURN thus far, I never would have guessed a humble workman’s cap would be the thing to go viral.  Perhaps it’s because the simple hat looks so familiar and modern to 21st-century eyes.  In fact, some of you might own a knit cap that looks nearly identical to the one pictured above.

First, a note on etymology: while the 20th-century word “beanie” has been the descriptive word of choice on social media, it has never been used in the show itself. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “beanie” was first used to describe small knit caps in America in the 1940s. In the 18th century, a beanie-style head covering would simply be referred to as a “cap.”

Abe’s popular little cap is a bright spot of authenticity amidst a lot of less-than-stellar material culture in the show so far. While cocked hats were common for business, travel, and formal occasions (for example, if one were solemnly swearing a loyalty oath to King George III in front of the entire town), they were hardly the only headwear option available for men in the late 18th century. Material culture historian and Colonial Williamsburg curator Linda Baumgarten puts it simply: “When men relaxed at home or performed physical labor, they often removed their cocked hats and wigs and put on soft caps.” (What Clothes Reveal, 108.) These caps ran the gamut from plain, simple, wool caps (like Woodhull wears in TURN while working in the field) to exquisitely embroidered linen caps that wealthy men would wear with matching banyans (fashionable kimono-style robes) when lounging around at home.  (Colonial Williamsburg has a great glossary of men’s clothing terms for readers unfamiliar with the basics of 18th century fashion, which covers banyans and several types of hats/caps.)

beanie_2While knitted caps came in a variety of shapes and sizes in the 18th century, the gray cap seen in TURN closely resembles a Monmouth cap, a simple knitted wool cap popular among seamen and other working-class men because they were functional and inexpensive. Monmouth caps, named after a bustling port city on the English-Welsh border, were a common sight throughout the British Empire for centuries – they’re mentioned by name in the works of Shakespeare and remained popular well into the 19th century. And depending on what you use as an example, you could make a good argument that Monmouth caps are still with us, in spirit at least, in the shape of modern-day beanies.

For more information on hats and caps of the 18th century, you can check out a slideshow of primary sources at the 18th Century Material Culture Resources Center – the section on wool caps begins on slide 90 — or costumer Mara Riley’s list of secondary sources pertaining to knitted caps.  Finally — for the real hardcore TURN fans — there are many “sutlers” (merchants) who sell hand-made reproductions of 18th century knitted caps.  Reputable sutlers like South Union Mills use period-correct materials, period-correct processes, and are always eager to discuss the sources and documentation behind the items they sell.  (And yes, their caps come in gray.)

So that wraps up our first reader requested blog post topic.  More to come soon! Thanks to all you fans and loyal readers for your support thus far — and keep the questions and comments (and amazing tumblr gifsets) coming!


11 thoughts on “Reader Request: Abraham Woodhull’s Beloved “Beanie” (Cap)

    S.M.Grenier said:
    April 21, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Reblogged this on Sophia M. Grenier and commented:
    The beloved beanie, indeed.

      Mössor said:
      July 15, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      Love the picature with the brown beanie!

    Judy Cataldo said:
    April 22, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Knitters on Ravelry can get a free pattern here

      spycurious responded:
      April 22, 2014 at 3:42 pm

      Fantastic, Judy! I know Colleen, the creator of that pattern, is very active in the Hive (a group of men and women devoted to the study of New England material culture during the American Revolution: Thanks for sharing!

    Rowenna said:
    April 25, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Honest question–though the Monmouth cap is in and of itself an accurate item for the period, is Abe wearing it in a fashion typical for the period? I feel that most depictions I’ve seen of the cap on eighteenth century heads in prints and cartoons show a tighter (and admittedly, to modern eyes, dorkier) wearing of the cap. Or perhaps poor Abe is just a touch pinheaded and the cap will fit loose and slouchy regardless :). Just wondering if, even if the item is correct, if it is being used correctly–as we all know that’s at least half the battle of authentic representation!

    Loving the blog, by the by!

    […] and another Reader Request post in the works.  No doubt about it — I’ve swapped out my gray cap for a hard hat this week, metaphorically speaking. Stay […]

    Sonny said:
    May 24, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Love the cap but does anyone know who makes the jacket he wears?

      Darren said:
      December 26, 2015 at 12:15 pm

      There is one site that claims to, but I lost confidence in them when they got all huffy about my asking why the only pictures of the coat on their site are screencaps from the show – no pictures of one’s they have made.
      I’ve been looking one something similar for myself, though I would prefer wool, so I would appreciate it if anyone knows to whom I should go for one.

    Colleen said:
    May 28, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Here is a more similar cap to the one in the show: But, this one is made a bit small, add a few stitches and rows for most people.

    The grey cap in the show is pretty good. But it has a few rows of ribbing as the hem, where period caps either had a lined hem, rolled hem, felted so it didn’t roll, or a turned up hem. Nary a purl ridge or rib to be found in any of the extant caps I can find.

    He is certainly wearing it wrong, it should be further back on his head and floppy, flopped over or bunched are both fine. The edge can be turned up, as long as the top is still floppy.

    […] and talked-about depictions of material culture in TURN thus far. (The other one being, of course, Abe Woodhull’s wool cap.)  Spread the word!  And if you have any more questions or braid-theories, send them this way via […]

Join the conversation:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s