18th century clothing
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!
While I’m working on a longer post concerning the convoluted chronology of TURN’s pilot episode, I thought I’d write a short post concerning a (literally) tiny realm of 18th century material culture seen in the show thus far: babies!
Little Thomas Woodhull, whom Abraham fondly calls “Sprout,” steals the spotlight at the beginning and end of the TURN pilot episode. (His very appearance is a bit of a chronological anomaly, but we’ll discuss that later.) Abraham mentions that his son is “almost a year old” as he eggs him on to start walking on his own. Adorable outfit he’s wearing, right? Breeches and a linen shirt, like the little colonial man he is! Except what he should be wearing at that tender age is… a gown.
Yes, a gown, as in “a dress.” Sometimes boys even wore stays, too.
For the first few years of a child’s life in the late 18th century, regardless of gender, he or she would wear a gown, a loose-fitting garment that could be tied, pinned, or buttoned shut. Once they were several years old, boys and girls would then make the transition to outfits that were miniature versions of men’s and women’s adult clothing. For boys, this was often a celebrated childhood milestone. Linda Baumgarten of Colonial Williamsburg writes:
“The time when a little boy went from skirts to pants, which was called, ‘breeching,’ occurred anytime from age three to seven and was symbolic of his first step toward becoming a ‘little man.'”
So yes, if you were to time-travel back to the era of the American Revolution, you might very well see a young six-year-old boy wearing stays and a gown. In fact, in 1790, Benjamin Tallmadge’s own son was wearing them at the tender age of three. For more information, I highly recommend reading Linda Baumgarten’s primer on colonial children’s clothing (the source of the above quote). And if you weren’t sure what I was talking about when I mentioned ‘stays’ earlier, don’t forget to check out Baumgartner’s very helpful glossary of clothing terms, too. Additionally, you can browse through a slideshow of primary source images concerning children and babies over at the 18th Century Material Culture Resource Center.
So little Thomas “Sprout” Woodhull appears to be quite the little hipster baby — wearing breeches before they were cool. (He’s not even a year old and he’s already turning Setauket into the Brooklyn of the 18th century!)
In this case, I could understand the rationale behind “breeching” little Thomas several years early in TURN. A little boy wearing a feminine gown would be confusing and strange to the average 21st-century viewer, and distracting enough to detract from the main storyline. (Don’t believe me? Look at the above painting and take a guess as to how much airtime would be needed to explain that boy’s outfit to a modern-day viewer.) Still, the fact is that little hipster Sprout’s outfit IS several years ahead of his time, according to the historical record. I know — not exactly a hugely significant issue in the greater storyline of TURN (and definitely not as big of a sartorial gaffe as, say, the bizarre garb that the Queen’s Rangers are wearing), but I thought readers might enjoy a small and pleasant domestic diversion while I finish making sense of the premiere episode’s Swiss-cheese timeline. And don’t worry — we’ll be discussing plenty of military details here on the blog soon enough.
Also, if you haven’t seen the preview for next Sunday’s episode yet, you can view it here. And don’t forget to join the fun over at TURN to a Historian’s Facebook Page and tumblr account. More on the way soon!