190307ind History

Spring hats for ladies were once a tradition in New England. Above: The Lafayette Advent Christian Church’s Utopia Society. Below: Local milliner Gertie Peckham, second from left, and friends wear an array of hats.

You know the last time I looked at it, the calendar seemed to indicate that it is almost spring, but you sure could have fooled me based upon the thickness of the frost on my old pickup truck window each morning. March has always been a cruel sort of month, a teaser since as long as I can remember, it loves to set us up with one or two nice days, and then slap us hard with the realities and vagaries of New England weather. So, just to remind us all that spring will indeed get here, I thought we’d take a gander this week at some lovely spring bonnets.

The truth is, there was a time, not real long ago, when no respectable lady would be caught dead out in public without a hat upon her head. Here in Rhode Island, as in all of New England, winter hats were all about practicality; keeping your head warm and your coiffure in place against the winds of “Old Man Winter” was the motivation, not style. But spring, well that’s a different story. Spring was about style over substance. Hats with flowers – both real and silk, hats with feathers, hats with thistles, teasels, and other dried plant materials, hats with big floppy brims, little hats that perched jauntily upon your head, hats of vibrant color, anything was possible from the Victorian-era right through the time frame around World War II. A lady’s hat was a statement, a signature piece.

Examples of some fine flowered hats can be seen in this image of a group of folks enjoying themselves in one of the lifeboats on the steamer General, outbound from Wickford on its way to Newport. Two elegant young lasses standing next to a North Kingstown stone wall are sporting hats decorated with dried teasels, lace, and fineries. Governor Gregory’s daughter Louise and her friend Mary P. Rodman, both of North Kingstown, seem to be enjoying themselves in their fine chapeaus, posing for the camera in a photo shop in Watch Hill. Where did you go to get such wonderful hats back in turn of the century Wickford? Well, to Gertrude Peckham’s Millinery Shop, where else. Gertie Peckham, the shortest of the four finely hatted women in this picture had her hat shop where “The Place” pizza restaurant is now. Gertie was the village’s last milliner (a person who decorates hats and clothing with lace and other accoutrements) and was mighty proud of her countless creations.

Last, but certainly not least in our parade of spring bonnet images, is the late 1940s group shot of the church ladies of the Lafayette Advent Christian Church. These women, who called their group the Utopia Society, met each spring and had a hat competition of sorts. I know that Marion and Esther Greene are two of the Utopia gals shown here, that according to their daughter and grand-daughter Louise Duckworth; but I sure would love to know who the rest of them are, wouldn’t you? So ladies, dust off those fanciful bonnets, spring will be here soon.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

(1) comment


This article is featured in the Standard for 4/17/1947 (NK digital archives)
with a few more names listed.

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