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.)
While 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!