THE “SUGAR-SCOOP” BONNET
ONE of the most prominent features of the “plainness of apparel” of my day was the bonnet worn by all good women Friends, which, from its shape, we young people irreverently called a “sugar-scoop,” although it often seemed, to me at least, that we committed a sacrilege in daring to treat the sacred bonnet in such a fashion. For that it was sacred no young Quaker of my day would have dreamed of denying. A late writer, dealing with a little later date than my own, says concerning it:“To one brought up ‘within the fold’ it is no light matter to approach so awful a subject as the Quaker bonnet. There was a solemnity about it that was born of terror. Whether it presided at the head of the ‘women’s meeting’ or ventured in winter storms, protected in its satin or oilskin case under the Friendly umbrella, or even lay alone in splendid state upon the bed of the welcome guest; anywhere, everywhere, it was a solemn thing.”
(Note: "The Evolution of the Quaker Dress," by A. S. Grummere.)
Why this bonnet which was always made of a very delicate light silk, and was exceedingly expensive and difficult to make, and most uncomfortable to wear, should have been considered “plain,” while a simple straw bonnet without trimming which would cost only a quarter as much, and would be infinitely more comfortable, should be considered “gay,” is a mystery. But so it was, and whenever a “plain bonnet” was spoken of, only a “sugar-scoop” was ever meant.
The other articles of a woman Friend’s “plain dress” in my day were a silk shawl of a soft dove colour folded over a plain waisted, low-necked, dove-coloured or brown dress, with folds of thin white muslin filling up the neck and crossed over the bosom, and a thin muslin cap of the same shape as the bonnet, tied under the chin with soft white ribbons, and always worn both indoors, and out under the “sugar-scoop.” In cold weather they had large dove-coloured cashmere shawls for outdoors, or cashmere Mother Hubbard cloaks pleated on to a yoke, with a silk-lined hood. These shawls were always folded with a point down the middle of the back, and with three accurate folds at the neck immediately over this point, held by a stout pin. There was also a pin on each shoulder to hold the fullness steady, skillfully hidden to make it look as though the fullness held itself, and the shawl fell gracefully apart in front to reveal the crossed handkerchief of tulle or thin muslin that was crossed over the Quakerly bosom.
The “plain clothes” for the men were a cutaway coat with a straight clergyman’s collar, and a broad-brimmed hat. The whole costume was very quaint, and, for the women Friends, very becoming, and I do not think I have ever seen sweeter faces anywhere than the placid, gentle faces inside these caps and bonnets; and I cannot but feel that the world is poorer for the disappearance of these quaint old costumes.
As a consequence of the fact that all Quakers both young and old were, as I have shown, treated as though they were “in the fold,” and were therefore never exhorted to become converted in order to get in, the only thing we knew about, as indicating a change in any one’s religious experience, was what was called “becoming serious” or “becoming plain,” and this was always expressed outwardly by the adoption of the “plain dress” of the society.
The putting on of this “plain dress” was looked forward to by us young people as an inevitable fate that awaited all Quaker children, but a fate that was to be deferred by every known device as long as possible. The usual time for its happening in Philadelphia where I lived, was at the spring “Yearly Meeting,” which occurred in April, and at which time we all came out in our new spring clothes. It was then that the fate was most likely to descend upon its victims, and the young men and women of the society, who had “become serious,” would feel it their duty to appear at “Yearly Meeting” in the sugar-scoop bonnets, or the straight collared coats and broad-brimmed hats, that were the outward badge of their inward change. I remember well how those of us upon whom the fate had not yet fallen, used to go to the first meeting of the “Yearly Meeting” early, and sit on benches where we could keep a good outlook on every one who came in, and watch to see which one of our friends and comrades had been snatched from our ranks to wear these distinguishing badges of having “become serious.” Of all the wrestlings and agonizing that preceded this open confession of a change of heart we were only dimly aware, but there was enough solemnity and strangeness about the whole thing to make us feel that henceforth our comrades belonged to another world from ours. And when, as often happened, this adopting of the peculiar Quaker garb was also accompanied by a few words spoken tremblingly in some Meeting by the young neophyte, we felt that the gulf between us could never be crossed until we too became the victims of a similar fate.
No words I could use could fully express the awful solemnity that, to my young mind at least, invested this fate. To “put on a plain bonnet,” as it was expressed, seemed to me almost as much the end of all earthly human life as death would be. After it, one could never again live as other people did. If one was young, one could never have any more fun, for it was evident that races could not be run, nor trees climbed, nor haymows scaled, in a dove-coloured “sugar-scoop bonnet.” If one was older, one could never care for earthly pleasures any more, but must care only for “Friends’ meetings” and “Friends’ testimonies” and “Friends’ religious concerns,” and must love to read the “Book of Discipline” and Barclay’s “Apology” and “Friends’ Religious Journals;” and must turn one’s back forever upon all that was pleasant or pretty or attractive in life.
It can easily be conceived that since becoming serious meant inevitably to my mind the putting on of this awe-inspiring bonnet, it loomed before my fun-loving spirit as a fate to be unspeakably dreaded. Somehow I had gained the idea that our dear mother, in order faithfully to obey the Query about bringing up her children in “plainness of apparel,” intended, when each one of her daughters reached the age of fifteen, to make them put on one of these bonnets. As a child she had herself been obliged to wear one almost from babyhood. But even her carefully trained young heart had had its moments of rebellion, for she used to tell us, as a solemn warning, that when she was nine or ten years old the girls at school made such fun of her bonnet that she became most unwilling to wear it, but no entreaties could induce her parents to consent to her leaving it off. One morning, on her way to school, as she was crossing a lonely bridge over Woodbury creek, her dislike to her little “plain bonnet” grow so strong that she took it off and kicked it before her. All day the deed weighed heavily on her conscience, and as she came to that bridge on her return home from school in the dusk of the evening, she saw a dark shadow at a little distance up the creek. To her excited imagination this shadow assumed the appearance of a threatening figure coming towards her with a fierce aspect. She firmly believed it was the Devil in person coming to snatch her to himself because of her wickedness, and, filled with terror, she flew home as fast as her trembling legs would carry her, promising in her childish heart never again to rebel against her “plain bonnet.” We children were profoundly impressed with this story, and always regarded that especial bridge with the most superstitious awe; and I can remember very well many a time racing across it in breathless speed, scarcely daring to breathe for fear I should evoke the awful spectre.
In the face of this experience of our mother’s, I never for a moment dreamed that I could escape the fate of the “plain bonnet,” and the horror with which as a child I watched my years creeping on one by one towards the fatal age of fifteen could not be described. But fortunately before I had reached that age, the subtle modification of ideas that affected the whole Society almost unconsciously, had affected our mother as well, and the dreaded “plain bonnets” never appeared on the scene. We had instead the simplest little straw cottage bonnets obtainable, but, compared with the “plain bonnets” we had so dreaded, they seemed so gay and worldly to our Quaker imagination, that we felt quite like “fashionable ladies,” when we walked out with them on our heads, although I am convinced now that we must have looked like the primmest little Quaker maidens possible.
When the fate, as I call it, of the “plain bonnet” fell upon any young Friend, it was generally welcomed by the older Friends with a loving tenderness that made “the cross” less hard to bear; but sometimes it would descend upon a member of a family to whom it was most unwelcome. For there were degrees of plainness among us, some being “strict” Friends, or what were oftener called “solid” Friends, while others, who indulged more in the vain fashions of the world, were called “gay” Friends. In one such “gay” family which I knew, there was a bright, lively daughter named Elizabeth, of about my own age, who went through in her early girlhood what seems to me, in looking back upon it, a tragic experience. One day when the Query about “plainness of apparel” had been read, and the usual pause had followed, a travelling Minister arose and said in an impressive manner that she believed the Lord had given her a message for some young heart present, who was called upon to take up the cross and put on the “plain dress.” For some reason the young Elizabeth was profoundly impressed, and an inward voice seemed to tell her that the message was for her. She burst into a flood of tears, and at the close of the meeting one of the Elders, noticing her emotion, made her way to her side, and placing her hand upon her shoulder said solemnly, “Precious child, I believe the Lord has spoken to thee. Mayest thou be obedient to the heavenly vision.” This confirmed the impression in the young Elizabeth’s heart, and she went home bowed down with an awful sense of a Divine call which she felt she dared not resist.
But then began a fearful conflict. She knew her family would utterly disapprove, and she felt sure they would not give her the money to purchase the necessary articles for making the change of dress that she felt was required of her. She was afraid and ashamed to tell any one of what she was going through, and at last she decided she must try and make a “plain dress” for herself. She saved every penny of her allowance, and little by little gathered enough to purchase the cheapest materials she could find, and began at night alone in her room, after every one had gone to bed, to make with infinite labour and pains the required costume. She dared not ask for any instructions nor any patterns, and night after night, with tears and sighs, she worked at her unaccustomed task, until finally, in a rough and imperfect fashion, the poor little costume was finished, and the day came when she had to lay aside her “worldly” clothes, and appear before her family dressed in the cap and handkerchief and little drab shawl of the elderly Friends. What this cost her she would never tell me, nor could she, even in middle age, speak of the reception she met with from her horrified family, without tears of profound pity for the martyrdom she underwent. But she said that, whether she had done right or wrong, she had at least been faithful to what she believed to be her duty, and that this had brought her such infinite peace, and the radical change in her life had been of such lasting benefit to her character, that she never wanted to lay it aside, and until the day of her death she still wore the same style of costume she had adopted in such anguish of spirit as a girl.
Perhaps an extract from my diary, shortly after my awakening at sixteen, may give a little insight into the working of these scruples upon the sensitive conscientious heart of another young girl about my own age. She was a very especial friend, and was my confidante on all religious matters.
Under date of 11th mo. 13, 1849, I find the following:—“A. has been spending a week with me, and I do not know when I have enjoyed myself more. The spiritual communion between us was perfect. I do not think we concealed any of our feelings from each other. She told me of the mental suffering, suffering greater than she could have believed possible to bear, which preceded the making known of God’s will in her soul, and of the anguish of spirit when that will was made known. She believed it was required of her to give up immediately all her gay dress, to burn her breastpins and her gold thimble, and many articles of clothing, and even her dresses. It was a great trial, it seemed to her so like waste, and human nature shrank. And there was a still greater trial. She had done a large picture in mono-chromatic work, which her parents had had framed and hung in their parlour, and which they greatly admired. She felt she must take this picture and burn it also with the other things, frame and all. She knew how grieved her parents would be, and how silly it would look to her sister and brother, and the conflict was very great. But the reproofs of her Divine Guide were so heartrending that at last she could bear it no longer, and submitted. Her father and mother and sister were at Cape May at the time, or she said she could not have done it. When they returned she told them; and then, she said, it was impossible for her to describe the holy, heavenly calm which followed. She scarcely felt as if she was on earth. It seemed that she should never sin again, and the reward was worth far more than the suffering. How nobly she has acted. I fear I should have refused to obey, and would have borne any suffering rather than have made so great sacrifices. And now she has consented to put on a plain bonnet—a ‘sugar-scoop,’ as I call them, but though it is a great change and will be much talked about, she scarcely dreads it, so true does she find it, that God can make hard things easy and bitter things sweet. Could I take up the cross as she has done?”
That I personally must have been more or less affected by this experience of my friend is shown by an entry in my diary shortly afterwards.“Eleventh month, 17, 1849. Sometimes to-day when I have been thinking about it, it has seemed to me almost as if it would be right for me to put on a plain sugar-scoop bonnet; but I hardly dare believe that so great a favour would be granted to me. It is strange, even to myself, that I have longed so for the time to come when I might make this sacrifice, though in truth it would be no sacrifice. People generally feel so averse to these bonnets, and I too did perhaps a year ago, but now I long for it so earnestly that I fear I cannot judge calmly and clearly about it; and gladly as I would make this and any other sacrifice which God might require, I know how awful it would be to run before I was sent, and to do what God had not required. ... It often seems to me that I cannot wait any longer, that I must do something to gain the salvation of my soul; and if God requires nothing, I must make offerings of my own. And yet, that I dare not do. Oh, I feel that I could love the cross and even the shame if only God would lay them upon me; but patience and quiet waiting are my duties now.”
It is very evident from this extract that the martyr spirit had been aroused in me, and that I wanted to do something hard for the sake of my religion. But these feelings soon passed off, and the “sugar-scoop” bonnet I both dreaded and longed for never adorned my head. I was such a healthy young creature, and was so full of animal spirits, and so absorbed in the joys of my outward life, that my conscience was always very easily quieted; and for the most part I passed my girlhood unconscious of anything but those ordinary claims to the commonplace everyday duties of life, which my training and the compelling Quaker atmosphere around me made almost my second nature.
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