I didn’t know anything much about sunbonnets as a kid growing up on a farm. I did see one hanging in the closet, near the kitchen, but I never saw anyone in the family wearing one, including mom.
Later in life, as an adult with an inquisitive mind, I made the mistake of asking the sisters why we had a sunbonnet, at the farmhouse, if no one wore it.
I found out. Anita was first to let me know. “You never had to wear those hideous sunbonnets! Jannetta and I had to wear them to pick berries, do garden work, and even milk the cows. Whenever she wasn’t in sight, the bonnets were taken off.”
Even though I didn’t have the “privilege” of wearing a sunbonnet like my older sisters, I thought it would be fun to know more about sunbonnets. I still see them, being sold or worn, at the Kutztown Folk festival and other local festivals for young girls and women.
Sunbonnets had a wide brim, that framed the face, with a ruffle at the back to protect the neck and face from the sun and wind. The crown was often full to cover women’s long hair. Ties were usually under the chin to keep in place. The brims had to be stiff so it would stay sturdy to protect the face. They usually were quilted on a treadle sewing machine. Or they could be starched, laid out to dry, and ironed when almost dry.
They were mainly for country households. Women and girls wore them wherever they went, especially doing outside chores, visiting, shopping and church. Sometimes they matched a Sunday dress or apron. Hats became in style by 1850, but country women still wore their bonnets. Eventually, sunbonnets faded out of popularity with the younger generation, who desired fashionable hats.
Most women didn’t have bonnet patterns. Often an old bonnet was ripped apart and used as a guide to cut out on new material. Patterns could be purchased from certain magazines, but sometimes the women just traced them. Some of the old patterns were as follows: 1) Split bonnet, where the brim is made of stiff cardboard splits, usually cut from a shoe box and slid into the brim. When washing the brim, the splits were removed. 2) Snap bonnet looked sort of like a cap with no ties. When spread out, it looks like a diaper where all three sides are brought together. It stays together with snaps. 3) Button bonnet is made with 18 buttonholes. When laundered, all you had to do was unbutton all the pieces and button it back together. 4) Gathered bonnet has a shorter tail and a more round brim and usually had a full crown because of women’s long hair.
Illustrators and artists, as early as 1800s, started designing a girl in a bonnet, mostly with her face hidden. She had various names such as “Little Susan,” “Bonny Bonnet,” “Sun Bonnet Babies,” “Colonial Lady,” “Sun Bonnet Girl,” and the “Dutch Girl.” Eventually the name “Sunbonnet Sue” became the popular name for these designs and it stuck and is still used today on quilts, embroidery, paintings, in books, and songs.
It was Kate Greenaway, a British book editor, that is credited to the “Sunbonnet Sue” depictions of young girls wearing bonnets that covered their faces. They were in an 1878 publication of her first book, “Under the Window.” Alas, it was published in England, and not under U.S. copyright law, at that time.
An American illustrator, Bertha Corbett (later Melcher), is also credited with the Sunbonnet designs. She self-published her first book, “The Sunbonnet Babies,” in 1900. From 1902, she collaborated with Eulalie Os- good Grover, a writer of children’s primers, in a series called “The Sunbonnet Babies,” which became quite popular. In 1905, the pair introduced “The Overall Boys” to the mix.
This craze for sunbonnets also led to songs like, “Sunbonnet Sue”, also known as “When I was a Kid so High,” written by Will Cobb and Gus Edwards, in 1906. It is thought this specific song helped popularize that specific name.
In 1967, the American Greeting card company published “Holly Hobbie” a series of cards with her simple, patchwork Sunbonnet style. She was named after the artist who created her.
And just when I thought I did enough research, I had a surprise visit from a sun bonnet girl. When I reached into my kitchen cupboard, to get the Sun-Maid raisins to put on my cereal, I noticed the painting of the girl, on the container, was clad in a sunbonnet. It turns out, the first “Sun-Maid girl” on the package, of the newly formed raisin company, was Lorraine Collett Petersen, from California. She was seen, by someone from the company, in her backyard drying her curly black hair. She first appeared on the Sun-Maid raisins in 1916. Over the years, the original painting was modified, but always kept the original pose. In 1960, a new girl, Delia von Meyer (Pacheco) posed for the company and is still on today’s containers.
A few years ago, I started a Red Hat group, called Red Hat Dutchies, from Kutztown and surrounding areas. Most of us have a hand sewn red sunbonnet and wear it on occasion. I now have more appreciation for sunbonnets, especially since I don’t have to do chores in them, like my sisters did!