Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Grandma Riley's Sunbonnet

By Linda LaRoque

As a girl I visited my grandmother often. She was well-loved by everyone who knew her, but especially by her granddaughters. Though Grandma was not an outwardly attractive woman, beauty radiated from her by her inner goodness, her faith in God and the love and kindness she bestowed on everyone. I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone, even Grandpa who could be a bear at times. And, she didn't gossip.

My Aunt Jewell made most of Grandma's dresses out of feed sacks, at least the ones she wore for everyday. To this day, I still love feed sacks and can remember how Grandma saved them until one of us girls could have enough for a dress. Many of those feed sacks also went into sunbonnets.

Here is my sunbonnet being modeled by friend and fellow author Lorelei Buckley.

Most of my life I had little respect or admiration for sunbonnets. In my opinion they were flat out ugly. But, they did keep the sun off Grandma's face which was never sunburned. She also wore a long-sleeved shirt outside and more often than not, a pair of gloves. Grandma's yard had no grass, only flowers and shrubs. If a blade of grass appeared, it was eradicated with a hoe. I'm sure many of you have seen similar yards that were common in the country in the Victorian era.
My grandmother 1950s.

Back to Grandma's sunbonnet, she never went outside without it—except once that we know of. She'd told us kids not to get in the road. Of course, boy like, my brother didn't think she'd see him. Out the door she came with a flyswatter. My brother laughs in memory. "I knew when I heard the screen door slam and saw Grandma's tennis shoe coming off the porch I was in trouble." Oh, the joys of childhood.

Old woman in sunbonnet (c. 1930).
Photograph by 
Doris Ulmann.

Man, Woman, and Map,James Tissot 
From the articles I read, making a sunbonnet isn't an easy process. It's made from a large piece of fabric. patterns were one piece and others had six or eight. Some had buttons up the back so they could lay out flat to be ironed. The slatted bonnet is a popular pattern. During the depression, women cut up cereal boxes to put in the slats of their bonnet. It is the slats that keep the bonnets from being floppy. I suppose today you could use a heavy interfacing though I'm not exactly sure that would do the trick. They were also starched.

To Mary Lou Highfill, sewing, genealogy and history are fun, but she concentrates mainly on making sunbonnets. She says the bigger the bonnet, the older they usually are. Above is an example of a larger one, somewhere around 1930. The woman in the picture on the right appears to be early 1800, possibly late 1700s. Pioneer women, especially those crossing the plains, made their sunbonnets of dark colors as they often had to wash their clothes in muddy streams.

Here are pictures of my sunbonnet closed and laid flat for ironing. Note that there is a buttonhole in the very center bottom. The next button up was put through this hole, I suppose to give more shape. After close inspection, I noticed the interfacing was very heavy and it did give the bonnet plenty of body. It was machine stitched to appear similar to the slatted style. Please excuse the large stain on the fabric. I need to wash it but don't want to ruin it.

In her book The Sunbonnet: An American Icon in Texas, Paula Marks traces the history of the sunbonnet from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when bonnets were more fashionable and she included a chapter in her book on dress bonnets. The bonnets in the picture in the millenary shop below indicate just how different bonnets of fashion and those of utility were. Throughout it's history, the sunbonnet has been seen as mostly utilitarian. They were a part of Texas farm women's lives well into their adulthood and past. It blocked the sun's rays, the wind, dust and swishing cow's tails. But it also limited vision. In her research for her book, Ms Marks interviewed East Texas Farm women born between 1912 and 1921. This would be an interesting book to browse at the library.
A millinery shop in Paris, 1822

A bonnet decorated with lace and tulle
from the 1880s.
A 1903 article in The New York Times titled The Vogue of the Sunbonnet said, "Ugliness and the old-time sunbonnet were synonymous terms." Materials were usually checked ginghams in various colors—broad on the front and sides and a cape of varying lengths to cover the neck and shoulders. They could be purchased as low as $.10 and $1.00 and up.

Though colors varied, the old-time sunbonnet in the less popular unstarched brown and white gingham could be found for $.25. If a woman could afford only one sunbonnet and she wanted things to match, she would have a white one that went with everything. It's unfortunate that the evolution of the sunbonnet was never recorded for us to ponder today.

Let's not forget the children. Little girls wore clothes very similar to their mother's, including the sunbonnet. I'm sure they were as good about keeping them on their heads as babies are today.

The pictures used for this post, other than the ones I took, are from Wikipedia Commons and The Portal to Texas History.


Paula Marks, The Sunbonnet: An American Icon in Texas (review), Southwestern Historical Quarterly,Vol.114, Number 2, Oct. 2010, pp. 203-204.

Mary Lou Highfill, http://newsok.com/sunbonnet-maker-blends-in-history/article/2446554.

The Vogue of the Sunbonnet, The New York Times, June 21, 1903.

Thank you for stopping by Sweethearts of the West today! Your comments mean a great deal to us so if you have time, please leave one.

Linda LaRoque
~Western Romance With a Twist in Time~


  1. Living in central Indiana, I also remember Grandma's sunbonnets. The bottom part was ruffled, while the top was cap shaped. They kept the dirt from her hair as she milked the cows. She rested her head in the side of the cow next to the back hip as she milked. It also kept the sun from her face and neck in the garden because she grew her own vegetables. Grandpa wasn't so lucky, he'd burn every spring.

  2. One of the highlights of visiting "Silver Dollar City" in Branson MO was getting my souvenir sun bonnet. I used to have a few of these, mostly used when I was pretending to be Laura Ingalls. I especially love the bit about ironing..my how times have changed. :)

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  4. Weren't sunbonnets called slat bonnets? My paternal grandmother had one and always wore it when she went to the garden, etc. She never wore it to church, though. It was a work bonnet.
    A "sun bonnet," to me, was a wide-brimmed hat like Scarlet wore. But what do I know???
    Love the photos! You must have looked long and hard for those Very nice.

  5. I like the ones with the ruffles. I'm sure there were different kinds depending on where you lived. Some of them had very long ruffles to keep cold hair from hitting your neck. I can just see your grandmother resting her head against the cow

  6. Such wonderful information. My mother has a few of my great-grandmother's bonnets. Loved the pictures.

  7. I'd love to see your sunbonnet Autumn! So, since you were pretending be Laura Ingalls, I assume you got your sunbonnet when just a girl. I can't imagine ironing with one of those you had to heat on the stove.

  8. I think sunbonnets were called by several names, slat bonnet being one. My grandmother's was a faux slat bonnet because it had heavy interfacing rather than the pieces of cardboard that women used in earlier times. Poke bonnets are similar but they combined straw the ruffles. I think what Scarlet wore was a sun hat.

  9. Nese, I hope your mother will pass the bonnets down to someone in the family who will appreciate them. Of course with 3 boys, I doubt it will be your bunch unless you have a daughter-in-law that likes bonnets.

  10. Great post, Linda! I know proper ladies never went out with their faces uncovered...I sure wish I'd protected my face more in my youth. A suntan was the best "healthiest" look on those days, sheesh.

    I made a few sunbonnets for my daughter when she was little, to match her dresses. I sewed a lot then...and am sure I passed them down to my nieces Maybe those relics will turn up some day LOL.

    I really enjoyed this info and the pictures.

  11. You and me both, Tanya. We used baby oil and iodine to tan. No protection at all.

    I've done a lot of sewing but sunbonnets isn't one of the projects I've tackled.

  12. My grandmother always wore a sunbonnet when she was outside from her cotton picking days. She made me a smaller one to match hers, when I was a little girl. Wish I would've kept it.


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