The original text of my original Ribbon Article in the Citizen’s Companion is below. Stay tuned for an announcement of the current research.
Several springs back, I found a box of silk bonnet ribbons on one of my many excursions. From the box’s label, the ribbons were meant for a crazy quilt project at some point in the last century. The box was a treasure chest full of pretty – solid ribbons, moirés, stripes, florals, plaids, and embroidery. Some were short pieces of ribbon; others were full lengths of ribbon or pairs of ribbon. The assortment ranged from the second quarter of the nineteenth century through the Victorian era into the early Edwardian era. I just couldn’t see these beautiful ribbons cut up.
Instead, this rescued collection inspired a database survey of bonnet ribbons from our era of interest. At the initial stage the survey database was relatively small; consisting of 149 ribbons, bonnets, bonnet images and ribbon images. Bonnet ribbon collections in the original survey include the Boston Museum of Fine Art, The Bowes Museum, Genesee Country Village and Museum, Kent State, Manchester Galleries, McCord Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mills Mansion, Old Sturbridge Village, The Tate, and various Individual and Historical Society Collections.
I categorized each ribbon according to color, color combination, pattern/design, material, weave, width, and bonnet it is attached to. I added a section of paintings along with carte-de-vista and daguerreotype images to compare the bonnet ribbons to the dress ensemble as a whole. This included approximate width, approximate length, pattern, and dress – bonnet combinations. There are, admittedly, several flaws to the database at this stage in addition to the small size. There is a regional bias to the North East due to the collections I have access to and the online museum collections I have reviewed. There is a possible disproportionate sampling of ribbons on straw bonnets due to my prior focus on the straw bonnet industry. I have also not yet considered the longevity of ribbons with certain dyes or treatments.
The bonnet ribbon widths in the survey range from three-fourths of an inch to over eight inches wide. Likely the 4% of ribbons one inch or less wide were functional ties used under decorative ribbons that have since been removed. The majority of the widths, 80%, fall between three inches and five and a half inches.
Distribution of Bonnet Ribbon Widths
Less than 1 inch 1%
1 to 1.9 inches 3%
2 to 2.9 inches 12%
3 to 3.9 inches 31%
4 to 4.9 inches 29%
5 to 5.9 inches 20%
6 to 6.9 inches 1%
7 to 7.9 inches 1%
Greater than 8 inches 2%
In fashion descriptions, ribbon widths were sometimes referred to by number with the wider widths being lower numbers and narrower widths being higher numbers. For example a number 1 ribbon would be used for decorative ties while number 22 ribbon would be used for functional ties.
Ideally, all bonnet ribbons would still be attached to the original bonnet ready to be measured from check tab to end of the ribbon or already measured by the owner. That is not the case. When the ribbon or pair of ribbons has/have been removed from the bonnet, close inspection is needed to determine how much of the length was used to decorate the body of the bonnet and how much was left for length to tie. Museum digital descriptions do not always include the length of ribbon. The number of bonnet ribbons I personally measured is roughly a third of the sample. These ribbons range from 17 inches to 35 inches from cheek tabs to the end of the ribbons. The exception being a child’s bonnet with 14 inch ties. In November 1856, Godey’s Lady’s Book suggests it takes 1 ½ to 1 ¾ yards of ribbon to decorate a bonnet. By looking at the period images ribbons are both tied and untied. Tied ribbons are seen falling from chest length to the point just reaching the waist. Untied ribbons fall most frequently to the waist area, just above or reaching below.
Ribbon color was fairly well varied. When multi-colored (polychrome) ribbons had a distinctly predominate color, I used the color to define the ribbon in the database. Even with this process of defining color, polychrome ribbons were most frequent, 17.3%, followed by green, 16%, and black, 11%. This is especially interesting when compared to fashion descriptions for bonnets, which most often use ribbons in white and shades of blues and reds. The only color not used as a solid or predominate color in the ribbons I have surveyed is orange.
Distribution of Bonnet Ribbon Predominate Color
In considering design I looked at woven design and printed design. I categorized the ribbon designs as solids, checks, plaids, stripes, moiré, florals, paisleys and others. Solids were by far the most common single category but still only represent barely half of the overall sample, 49.5%. The other half of the sample ribbons, were most often plaids, florals and solid centers with a border edging. One design I did not find that is mentioned in fashion descriptions is a brocade weave. (I believe the lack of a brocade ribbon in the survey is a fault in the sample not a sign of brocade ribbons not being used)
Distribution of Bonnet Ribbon Design
Solid w/ edging 10.1%
Bonnet Ribbons for Living History
Sadly there are few sources of silk ribbon in widths ideal for us to use on our bonnets. It is even more difficult to find the vast variety of plaids and florals popular in the 1850s and 1860s. Even so, it is possible to use silk fabric yardage and available silk ribbon to create bonnet ribbon. Edges of fabric can be narrowly hemmed, edged with delicate needlework or edged with narrow ribbon. Ribbons or ribbons and fabric can be combined to create a wider ribbon by stitching them together. One very pretty bonnet at the Boston Museum of Fine Art combined two different green ribbons, which criss-crossed each other over the brim of the bonnet and were stitched parallel from the cheek tabs down for the ties. Since starting this survey of ribbons, I have been anxious to see a wider variety of period appropriate ribbons on bonnet. There was such a variety of silk ribbons through-out the era, it would be nice to see such a variety of today.