Caps Galore, by Madelon S. Ali (volunteer on the Textiles & Historic Clothing Committee):
We members of the historic clothing committee often encounter mysteries about the items in our collection. One such mystery arose over a box with baby clothes, particularly many baby caps. It was apparent that much love and consideration had gone into the making of the caps. They were hand made of a fine muslin, or cotton lawn, embroidered with satin stitch, or decorated with a fine lace ruffle around the edge, sewn on with a fine stitch. There were many of these caps of various sizes in a storage box found in our collection. We spent several hours on the project, describing and assigning numbers, and carefully re-storing the little precious caps in neat piles, and frankly getting tired.
Naturally, we 21st century women did not have such items as these caps in our own babies’ layettes, and we wondered “why so many fancy caps?” Our own babies were sent home from the hospital nurseries with stockinette caps in pink or blue that we left on for a week or so, then discarded or glued into baby books as mementos.
Mothers in the time of Jane Austen (early 19th century) needed many caps because they were changed probably every day, washed and dried, ironed and put back for later use. As the baby’s head grew, another set of the next size cap was required.
One of the interesting tasks that the historic clothing committee considers is how certain phenomena can be explained as regards our large, 2000+ piece clothing collection. Cataloguing, describing and safely storing pieces as small as a pair of cuffs, or baby caps, to a man’s 19th century frock coat is our responsibility. Solving the mysteries of the collection is in our purview.
An answer to the “why so many baby caps” question appeared to me while reading Emma, written by English author Jane Austen in 1815: “Mrs. Weston with her baby on her knee, indulging in such reflections as these, was one of the happiest women in the world. If anything could increase her delight, it was perceiving that the baby would soon have outgrown its first set of caps” (Austen 437).
I then understood that small babies were meant to always wear caps to preserve their body heat in a cold environment of houses before central heating. The caps were laundered frequently, and then the baby grew fast and had to wear the latest size to fit the head snugly, but not too tight. This statement by Jane Austen allows us to understand the need for many caps; since they involved so much effort to make, they were kept as precious keepsakes, or handed down to the next baby.
For the past 13 years, as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Duxbury Free Library, the DRHS’s Textiles & Historic Clothing Committee has presented gallery talks and collection items for public enjoyment and education. In lieu of our live events, committee members Kris Gaskins and Madelon Ali will present highlights from past exhibits online, so that they can continue to share their work, and the DRHS’s treasures. Thank you Kris and Mattie!