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A tip of the hat to spring bonnets; 19th-century headwear on display at Old Sturbridge Village.

Byline: Susan Spencer

STURBRIDGE - Easter bonnets have been a harbinger of spring for generations of women and girls. Even though mid-19th-century New Englanders didn't celebrate Easter the way we do today, the changing season brought out stylish headwear.

Trimmed with flowers, ribbon, or elegant plumes, wide-brimmed bonnets were the must-have fashion accessory of the 1800s. Old Sturbridge Village is displaying 30 to 40 bonnets from its collection, most from the 1820s to 1840s, in an exhibit running tomorrow to April 11.

The antique bonnets can't be kept on display long because the textiles are so fragile, according to Old Sturbridge Village Collections Manager Rebecca E. Beall.

Costumed interpreters will hold bonnet-making demonstrations during Easter weekend, April 3-4, and a special Easter brunch will be served in the Oliver Wight Tavern on Easter Sunday, April 4.

"People didn't really celebrate Easter, but people love to see these bonnets," said Ann M. Lindblad, director of marketing and communications.

Jean M. Contino, coordinator of households and women's crafts, said that taking off the quilted or velvet hood women wore in winter and putting on a colorful spring bonnet was a sign of spring as much as putting away the woolens.

Mid-19th-century New England women typically owned four types of bonnets: a decorated silk or straw one for spring, a folding cotton calash for rain or travel, a winter velvet-lined bonnet or quilted hood, and a cotton or linen bonnet for outdoor work. Headwear was a big part of daily life. "It's amazing how many diary references we came across when we started to put together this exhibit," Mrs. Beall said. She found writings describing the bonnets women put on to visit a friend or go out in the village.

Unlike much of women's clothing, which women in small towns usually made at home, bonnets were made by milliners in places like Worcester, Barre and Upton. Mrs. Contino said that they had to be shaped to fit at just the right place on the head - far enough forward to shield the face, but not so far that it would be unbalanced.

In silk bonnets, buckram, a coarse cotton or linen with glue or starch on it, was used for the foundation, with wire sewn into the brim edge to keep its shape. The seam where the brim joined the crown would be where women would decorate their bonnets each season, one part of the process they did themselves.

Some bonnets were held together by pins, rather than stitched, so it would be easy for the wearer to adapt the adornments. "One of the things that surprised me was the pins," Mrs. Contino said. "I never expected a bonnet made by a professional to be so changeable."

New England women learned to braid fine strands of split rye straw, which they sold through stores to hat manufacturers, for another style of bonnet that had been imported in large numbers from Europe. The straw braids were wound tightly and woven into bonnets ready for decorating, similar to silk ones. "Once we started copying here, it was hard to tell what was made here and what was made in Italy," Mrs. Contino said.

Trends in bonnet styles varied by locale and fashion sophistication. Mrs. Contino said, "In the countryside, women would really put lots of decorations on: flowers, feathers. They might put a flower inside (the brim), too, because it's like blinders."

A tan silk bonnet, purchased in 1835 from Mrs. P. Hinkley, a milliner in Hartford, conveyed understated elegance with its matching tan ribbon. "The monochromatic is thought to be very stylish," Mrs. Contino said.

Before women wore make-up, they might wear a silk bonnet lined in pink to reflect a rosy glow on their cheeks.

In bonnet decoration as in other forms of expression, moderation was considered the tasteful path. "Take the middle ground. It's always in fashion," advised an 1845 book, "The Ladies' Self Instructor in Millinery, Mantua-Making and All Brands of Plain Sewing."

Old Sturbridge Village's bonnet exhibit includes beaded handbags, called "reticules" or "indispensables," and fans made from ivory, mother of pearl and embossed paper with elaborate designs. There's also a sandalwood fan with an aromatic scent.

Mrs. Beall said, "Like the bonnets, the fact that these (accessories) survived, especially with paper, is a testament to how well people cared for them."

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Two original early 19th-century bonnets are part of the OSV collection included in the exhibit, which also includes beaded handbags and fans made from ivory, mother of pearl and embossed paper with elaborate designs. (2) Interpreter Jan Dulmaine wears a bonnet in the Parsonage at Old Sturbridge Village. (3) Interpreters Ryan Beckman,left, and Deborah Knight model bonnets that are part of the exhibit.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/JIM COLLINS
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Title Annotation:ENTERTAINMENT & LIFESTYLE
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 23, 2010
Words:795
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