Book Review: Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats, 1840-1900 by Maureen A Taylor

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The second book in her series, "Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats, 1840-1900," by photo detective Maureen Taylor takes a look at the head coverings worn by our ancestors during the years 1840-1900. Initially the prospective reader may think the subject of hats is not broad enough to warrant an entire book. But once you start thinking about hats and the various types of hats, it can easily be understood the importance in including that detail in analyzing ancestral photos.

When looking at dating photographs vis-à-vis the clothing a person wore, hats play a role. Just as with clothing, bonnets and hat details including fabrics, size, accessories and the way and reason of why they were worn, changed as fashion changed. While men's chapeaux didn't change as much, Taylor shows how women began the nineteenth century by wearing bonnets and ended it by wearing hats. She makes some important detail points that are important as we research our ancestors. Often the hat worn would have matched the activity the person was engaged in, i.e. were they dressed up for a formal portrait or was the hat they wore part of a work or military uniform ? Taylor also points out the importance of not assuming that our ancestor wore dark, drab colors: an easy assumption studying vintage photos (page, xii).

As with the author's other books, this book includes photographic examples that can be used in dating your own ancestral photographs. Photos from the Library of Congress, archives and other family historians provide a diversity of examples. Interspersed with photographic examples is text from newspapers and images from magazines like Godey's, showing what hats were available. The book is divided into decades from 1840-1900 and includes examples for both men and women.

As with any good book, this one had me wanting more information. In particular I was interested in something that Taylor only hinted about, the use of real birds stuffed by milliners and attached to women's hats. While most readers will be familiar with the idea of having feathers attached to a hat for decoration, a more little-known fact is that birds were raised for the sole purpose of stuffing and attaching to hats as a decoration. Further Internet research by the reader will point to some interesting newspaper accounts of this practice. Birds were not the only animals whose lives were given up for fashion. The beaver was an animal whose fur was sought out for the making of hats, which led to their dwindling numbers.

While this book is about dating photographs, it is also a good beginning to ideas for researching and telling the story of hat makers in a family tree. Our ancestor's occupations can lead to important details of an ancestor's story. Ideas from the photos that illustrate this book, transcribed newspaper stories and magazine images can all provide the research with ideas for telling a family history narrative.

Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats, 1840-1900, by Maureen Taylor. Picture Perfect Press, 2011.

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