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Gray bonnets and pill box hats
Now and Then
pill box hat

There’s an old song that goes something like this: “Put on your old gray bonnet with the blue ribbon on it while I hitch old Dobbin to the sleigh. Through the fields of clover we’ll ride out to Dover on our golden wedding day.” A nice song for old, rustic romantics.

Growing up, I saw many bonnets, some of them probably gray, but none with ribbons of any color. Ribbons would not stand up to the work environments in which my bonnet wearers lived and labored.

Imagine a time when people thought (correctly) that the sun was hazardous to their health and detrimental to good looks. Freckles and sunburn were not defined as attractive. Moreover, in a world where shampoos were a challenge due to lack of running water, it was wise to protect one’s hair from dirt, dust, tobacco tar and other stains. So, females protected their faces from sun and hair from soil.

Work bonnets were wonderfully designed to do both things, combining art, craft and ingenuity. They were not store-bought. They were homemade by women whose skills were similarly exhibited in quilt making.

Bonnets were made in distinctly different parts although often cut from the same cloth. A stiff “bill” covered the top of the head and extended forward to shade the face. It was made of multiple layers of cloth identically shaped and quilted together for shape, strength and durability. The stitching could be done with a sturdy sewing machine or by laborious hand-stitching as with quilting. Behind this was the body of the bonnet, which covered the hair and then trailed down the necklike a tiny cape. Narrow sashes were attached to hold the bonnet in place when the wind blew.

Bonnets were made from whatever cloth came to hand, from dress goods remnants to flour sacks to worn denim from overalls. They were practical apparel. In addition to their usual application, they were used to hold eggs from hen nests or vegetables from gardens. When significantly soiled, they were placed in the wash pot with other dirty clothes and hung out to dry in the sunshine.

On Sundays, most women wore hats to church. A few used their best bonnets. Some never wore either, but, in general, folks thought that women should wear hats to church unless they did not have one and could not get one. Little girls were exempt from that expectation, but some wore cute little bonnets or hats anyway. The transition point when a young female should begin to wear hats to church was ill-defined, after marriage or a first child perhaps.

Large hats that covered the whole head and even sported brims were standard ladies’ headwear for years, even decades. A new style made the scene about World War II or shortly thereafter. Small, round and flat, they soon were christened pillbox hats. Some came with a small veil. Others were starkly simple. And light. And more manageable than big hats. And less disruptive to carefully arranged hairdos. Pill box hats rode a wave of popularity among females old and young, especially the young, that lasted until the hat-wearing era ended.

My late beloved Annette hated hats. Well, she detested wearing a hat. She was not a constitutional rebel and bowed to expectations after we were married, the pillbox hats, of course. I absented myself from the dressing area as she fussed with the task of arranging her hat in a sea of gorgeous wavy hair. Discretion.

Since Annette was a Southern beauty, it occurred to me that she would look stunning in a fancy broad-brimmed hat of the sort that is sometimes associated with Southern beauties. I found such a hat and bought it for her as a surprise gift. When I presented it, she said nothing, did not try it on, never wore it. At some point, it simply disappeared. It was a learning experience about marriage that I applied to many things other than hats. Point one. Pay attention and learn about the woman’s tastes. Point two. Surprise her with things that you know she wants.

Surely Annette was glad when hat-wearing ceased to be the norm for church going. Typically, she kept a few, but never wore them. Later, health problems forced her to take a medication that required her to cover up in the sun. So she wore a straw hat, one with a broad brim to shade her face. I knew that she did not like it, but wore it faithfully when working in yard and garden and I never heard her complain. I could have pointed out that its shape was much like that of the one that I had given her years earlier. The one that she never even tried on. I did not broach that subject. Discretion born of 50 years of marriage.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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