I am not making a claim that New Hampshire invented the ‘Easter Bonnet.’ Head-gear has been worn by women as far back as the Middle Ages, and probably much earlier in both cold and warm climates. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to think that when the weather became milder, that women would exchange their heavy hats for lighter, prettier ones. Exactly when the wearing a special bonnet for Easter became popular, is completely unknown.
In 1821 the Burnap sisters of Merrimack, New Hampshire were making and promoting beautiful “Leghorn Bonnets” out of local grasses. However, even though their father was a minister, I found nothing that specifically connects these hats to the Easter season.
Wearing an “Easter Bonnet” must have already been popular in 1872, when I first find the term “Easter Bonnet” in an 1872 New Hampshire newspaper that quotes a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes:
“The proudest genuflecting dame,
Whose Easter bonnet low descends
With all the grace devotion lends.”
[January 25, 1872 New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene NH) Vol LXXIV, Issue 4, Page 1; The Organ-Blower, by Oliver Wendell Holmes].
By 1880 there was already a growing competition among some women to wear the most splendid and expensive bonnet, for a Keene New Hampshire newspaper reports,”That cruel-hearted Steubenton says his wife’s Easter bonnet isn’t nearly so big as the roll of bills that bought it.” [ . Thursday Morning, April 1, 1880, The New Hampshire Sentinel]
The fashions, and spring hats were described in great detail in 1882:
New ulsters are loose.
Moire is used for parasols.
Spring jackets are very plain.
Curtain overskirts are revived.
Shirred tabliers are unpopular.
Cotton satteens rival those of silk.
Ficelle, or twine lace, is a novelty.
Bishop’s sleeves are on new wraps.
The latest fichus are long and narrow.
The velvet dog-collar remains in favor.
The coronet bonnet is already popular.
Pearl buttons are on stylish wool dresses.
Muslin embroidery trims cashmere dresses.
Polonaises have taken a fresh lease of favor.
Bengaline dresses are worn in light mourning.
A shirred puff finishes the neck of April dresses.
Faniers in lengthwise pleats are called valances.
India Pongees are sold for $9 for a dress pattern.
Spanish lace over satin is used for spring mantles.
Pompoms of many colors appear on Easter bonnets.
Embroidered balayeuses are preferred to those of lace.
India shawls are made into mantles without being cut.
Japanese sleeves are on the new silk and satin wraps.
Elder, sycamore and lichen green are stylish spring shades.
American Easter cards this season excel those brought from England.
“Flats” and shepherdess straw hats will be worn by little girls this season.
[Thursday, April 6, 1882 New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette (Concord NH) Page 2]
By 1903 wearing a new hat (notice the change away from using the word bonnet) for the Easter season is evident by this March notice in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire newspapers:
–”SEEN BEFORE– One milliner recently returned from her New York trip, positively affirms that there is nothing in the wholesale houses in the line of shape and color that has not been seen in other seasons. Flower brims, and hats made entirely of violets, will be among the very smartest of the Easter hats. Black straw will be used in abundance, particularly for spring and early summer.” [Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth NH) 19 March 1903, page 1]
–“One of the hardest things to give up during Lent is thirty dollars for the inevitable Easter hat.” — [The Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth, NH) 26 March 1903, page 8]
By the 1910′s, New Hampshire newspapers had taken to extensive advertising to promote sales of Easter Hats:
–“A most extensive showing of Easter Hats to choose from of alluring charm and extreme becomingness. You can make no mistake in buying this store’s merchandise with its guarantee of satisfaction. SIEGEL’S STORE 31 Market Street.” [The Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth NH) 1 April 1912, page 5]
– “YOUR EASTER HAT. The soft hat is still the favorite and is logically the hat for spring. Our display includes the universally known “Stetson,” the high-grade “Knox” and the popular Lamson & Hubbard makes. The most particular and exacting customer can find his ideal of a becoming hat in this fine display and correct style and superior quality is assured. HENRY PEYSER & SON. Selling the Togs of the Period.” [The Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth NH) 14 April 1919, page 8]
By the 1940s the promotion of Easter hats was mainstream, with merchants using their
most convincing advertising to sell their variety of millinery.
–“HAPPY EASTER HATS. Romantic is the word for Easter hats! Lush and lovely with flowers and lacy straw…prim in the Victorian mood. . . or angelic with filmy veiling! This year’s Easter bonnets have both heart and eye appeal and there’s the perfect one for you, here and now! Come in today and see the most glamorous collection that ever graced an Easter parade. Smartly and so inexpensively yours from the store that stars fashion.. at your price! $2.98 to $5.98.” [The Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth NH) 29 March 1946, page 9 [KRAY'S Advertisement]
It seems to me that sometime in the 1970s the popularity of wearing an Easter hat began to wane, at least in New Hampshire. As many of the hats were worn on Sunday’s to church, the change in custom to wear a veil instead shifted many women away from wearing a more formal hat.
Easter bonnets (Volume 1936) – United States. Department of Agriculture. Radio Service
“Thursday, April 9, 1936.”