When the first settlers came to what would soon be Coryell County, the women wore sunbonnets and long sleeves to protect their skin from the sun. A tan is as fashionable today as milky white skin was in the 1850’s. To a pioneer woman a “tan” was undesirable and meant you were not wealthy. She had to do her own outdoor chores, such as gardening, taking care of chickens or cows, picking cotton, making soap and washing in a big cast iron pot.
On the frontier women wore practical homemade sunbonnets in the field that came out over their face. Stiff paper could be inserted so the bonnet would shade your face, like a cap brim, instead of falling like a wilted flower into your eyes. Some had a puffy back to allow for a woman’s hair to be in a bun, while others might have a ruffle across the front. Unfortunately, the sunbonnet kept the breezes from cooling a woman’s head, face and neck and must have been brutally sweltering in summer in Texas, but they wore them to keep their skin beautiful.
In Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel one young girl from the 1850’s wrote in her diary the following: “Much of the time I should like to have gone without that long bonnet poking out over my face, but mother pointed out to me some girls who did not wear bonnets and, as I did not want to look as they did, I stuck to my bonnet, finally growing used to it.”
Mrs. Dolores England remembers working in the field picking cotton and wearing a sunbonnet. Her mother also made gloves for her that came up to her elbows and were made from old cotton sacks or her father’s socks. They had no fingertips so you could have more dexterity to pick the cotton, but hopefully be protected from the stickers on the cotton boll. It was not uncommon to have bleeding fingers by the end of a day.
Wealthy women back east in the 1850’s had many bonnets for special occasions and they came in a wild variety of styles. They could be very plain and small, barely covering a woman’s head or huge and flamboyant, with a few that resembled frightened birds poised to lift off the woman’s head. Some looked like a bucket had been turned up-side on the woman’s head, causing me to wonder deeply about her judgment and possibly her eyesight.
Fancy sunbonnets came in numerous types of material such as cotton, silk, velvet, straw or they could be crochet. A white sunbonnet would be made for Sundays. Mourning bonnets for a grieving widow were often made of black silk or black lace.
Everyday sunbonnets were made by the pioneer ladies of simple cotton material that cost only a few cents worth of material.
The Sears and Roebuck Catalog of 1897 advertised sunbonnets and the prices varied from 68 cents for a fine Irish point embroidery sunbonnet to the modest price of 15 cents for a blue and white Gingham sunbonnet. My guess is that few women in Coryell County spent their money on bonnets from the catalog. Come by Coryell Museum and see our beautiful display of sunbonnets of pioneer women of Coryell County.