That spring brought a new fashion in head gear. Straw bonnets came into vogue. Peabody, Waterman & Co. received an invoice from England, and Mrs. Peabody presented one to her sister Hannah. I greatly admired this bonnet, but mother said she could not afford to buy me one that season. Aunt Sarah, noticing my discontented visage, inquired the cause, at which she signified her readiness to teach me to braid straw, and make myself a bonnet. Much surprised, I asked how she had learned. “As I have most things, I taught myself,” was the reply. “During the Revolutionary war two British cruisers for two days lay off the mouth of the Merrimac. The inhabitants of the “Port” were greatly alarmed, momentarily expecting a bombardment. Your great-aunt Mollie Noyes packed her effects, and, with her children, came here. Though the men-of-war withdrew without any demonstration, as the news immediately came that Captain Noyes’s vessel had been captured, and himself and crew were prisoners at Dartmoor, Mrs. Noyes remained some time. Your father was troubled with headache, and often complained of the heat of his wool hat. One day during haying, Aunt Noyes brought him a straw hat, which she said Captain Noyes had brought from foreign parts. After it was worn out your father missed it so much that the idea struck me of braiding one. We had a field of oats. I cut some straw, took the old hat, and, after patiently unbraiding and braiding for a time, at length succeeded in obtaining the secret. I braided and sewed a hat, which, though not as handsome as the foreign one, did very well. I braided several, and can teach you. When the oats are large enough to cut you can make a pretty bonnet.”
Mother tried to dissuade me from this project. She didn’t believe I could “make anything decent.” I was strong in faith, and my aunt upheld this determination. As soon as the straw was ripe I began to plait, and soon had sufficient for a bonnet. The straw was finer than Aunt Hannah’s, but, as no knowledge of bleaching had been obtained, it was not as white; still, it looked very well. Aunt Sarah fashioned it in the prevailing mode, but a difficulty arose respecting pressing. The front was easily managed, but how could the crown be shaped? Aunt Sarah was a person of expedients; I never knew her frustrated in anything she set about. A mortar was turned bottom upward, paper fitted over it, and the crown shaped to the requisite form. I was jubilant over this bonnet, and my Aunt Peabody sent a white ribbon to trim it, like Aunt Hannah’s. Neither before nor after do I think I was ever so proud of an article of dress as I was of that bonnet. After this we cut a quantity of straw, and I braided father a hat…
With my multifarious duties, I had contrived to plait a new straw bonnet for myself. Aunt Sarah assisted me to make common hats for father and the boys. We also fashioned a cunning bonnet for my little sister Susan to wear upon her first advent at meeting. Upon sight of this head gear, little Joe demanded a Sunday straw hat. Aunt Sarah said that was a good idea. I plaited a fine braid; the hat was made and lined with green silk. Jim thought he should like one, only the braid might be coarser. When father saw this hat, he asked us to make one for him; the light hat was “so comfortable in warm weather.” The gentlemen and youth of the neighborhood and vicinity, seeing and liking these hats, came to solicit us to braid some for them. In a short time quite a lucrative business was established. In the midst of the hurry, one of our cousins, Patty Noyes, came in, to beg us to braid her a bonnet; she “must have one for the very next Sunday.” “That is an impossibility.” “Then sew one from this!” she exclaimed, seizing a roll of the hat braid. “That is too coarse.” “That is a matter of taste,” she returned; “if I have a coarse straw it may set the fashion. Just sew the braid as I direct.”
Remonstrance was useless. The bonnet was sewed. It looked very well, and when trimmed was really pretty. Patty’s joke proved a prophecy,—she did set a fashion. Orders came for several similar bonnets. This extra straw work brought a great hurry in the autumn….
A quantity of straw had been stored the summer before; this spring, orders for bonnets and hats came as fast as they could be filled.
As I have stated, Uncle Thurrel’s only daughter had married Mr. Jonathan Smith, the son of the Rev. Dr. Smith, the first Baptist clergyman in Haverhill. Mr. Smith kept a store in that town. Straw bonnets were becoming so fashionable, Mrs. Smith conceived the idea of our supplying the sale at her husband’s establishment. Hitherto our bonnets had remained the natural color of the straw. Straw work had been commenced in Providence, and through some relatives there, Mrs. Smith learned the process of bleaching. We were greatly pleased to become initiated into the mystery, and with her native ingenuity, Aunt Sarah contrived a bleachery. Holes were bored in the head of a barrel, strings were attached to the bonnets and passed up through the apertures, which were then plugged with wooden spiles; sulphur sprinkled over embers put in the dish of a foot-stove was placed beneath; the whole being tightened by an old quilt, not a fume escaped, and the bonnets came forth as white as the imported. To this period the braid had been plaited from whole straw; this year the split straws began to come, and Aunt Sarah finding that she could split straw with a coarse comb, concluded to have some combs made for the purpose. Comb making had been an industry of the town since its first settlement.
Mr. Noyes was a great oddity. He would run half over the parish bareheaded and barefooted. It was no uncommon thing for him to appear at our house, after dinner of a hot summer day, in only a shirt aud breeches, having run across the fields two miles, “jest to take a nooning.” A great joker and a capital story-teller, his appearance was the signal for a general frolic. He was fond of telling strangers that his father used to say he had “four remarkable children: Molly was remarkably handsome, Tim was a remarkable sloven, John was remarkably wicked, and Enoch was remarkably cunning.” To this gentleman Aunt Sarah applied. As might have been expected, he entered into the business with characteristic zest, and in a short time we were supplied with half a dozen different-sized straw splitters.
Mrs. Smith, having cut a tiny piece of trimming from an imported bonnet, brought it for me to imitate. How vividly I recall the two long hours which I passed, sitting on the chamber floor surrounded by the litter of straw, patiently weaving and unweaving until the secret was obtained. Having acquired this ornamental cue, I invented several other decorations with which to finish the edge of the bonnets. I also learned to make straw plumes and tassels from examining those of the foreign bonnets. Miss Mary Perkins kept a fashionable millinery establishment in Newburyport. Hearing of our straw manufacture she rode up to see us and immediately ordered bonnets. After a time the plain straw became superseded by diamond and other fancy plaits. These being the ton, Miss Jenkins also purloined a bit from the inside of a diamond satin straw, and brought it as a pattern of a braid. It looked so intricate I nearly despaired of my ability to copy it, but Miss Jenkins would not permit me to demur, and as every one spoke encouragingly I made the effort, and in two or three hours accomplished the task. This was a timely achievement; our bonnets were in great demand, and we continued the business through the warm season for several years until the establishment of straw factories and my approaching marriage curtailed the work; but Aunt Sarah continued to braid men’s hats and supply her friends’ bonnets for a long time.
Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, Sarah Smith Emery, 1879
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil can highly recommend the delightful memoirs of Mrs Emery; she tells of the homely minutiae of life at the turn of the nineteenth century and restores to us details of women’s work that otherwise would have been lost to history. The lady has the additional merit of being a charming and engaging narrator.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.