My Research Adventures

A Brother's Guide to Tying a Bonnet

What in the world is that sketch? I assumed it would be some mechanical contraption - perhaps an invention by the letter's author. I came across this letter from John Janney Lloyd to his sister Selina Lloyd in the Powell Family Papers. In July of 1830, John is writing to his sister about her engagement to Charles L. Powell and has bought her a new bonnet in honor of the occasion - a sweet gesture from a bachelor brother. However, he is concerned that she may not know how to properly tie the ribbons according to the latest fashion in Baltimore, so he dutifully writes instructions that I have transcribed below. This is where things get comical:

"The strings of the bonnet you will observe are long – this is because it is the custom to tie these bonnets not with a bow under the chin, but the ribbons are passed under the chin, & tied (after going once round the bonnet,) in a single knot at the side above the ear. By a single knot I mean the first turn for a hard knot. Is this intelligible? If not, here follows a diagram, which may render the matter as clear as night."

So, the sketch surprisingly turns out to be a woman's bonnet! He goes on to describe the sketch and indicates the location of the single knot with a "dot." He then draws the dot in parentheses to be sure she understands what the dot looks like, which made me chuckle, and certainly would have amused Selina. See his reference to the "dot" below:

"The perpendicular lines represent the ribbons crossed under the chin, & the dot (.) is the single knot."

Image courtesy of Special Collections (Research Center) Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

John continues:

"This is the mode, in which they are universally worn, one advantage of which is that it keeps the bonnet securely on the head, & the other is, that it keeps it close to the face. The bonnet is set, however, somewhat off the face, so as to fit close to the neck behind. Don’t you think that is pretty accurate for a bachelor?"

I agree with John, this is indeed impressive for a bachelor. Now comes the explanation on how this all came to be...

"But you must not flatter me, sis by supposing it is all

of my own observation. Miss Olivia Donaldson, who was so

kind as to buy the bonnet & have it trimmed for me,

drilled me in these matters for at least ten minutes..."

I love the scene of Miss Oliva Donaldson (see footnote) drilling the bachelor John Lloyd for at least ten minutes about this bonnet. I really hope this happened at his Baltimore law office with others watching him struggle with a "deer in headlights" look on his face as Olivia drills him. He further describes Oliva's precise instructions below with another reference to the illustration:

"... & she desired me to say that the sides (marked a) are not

large enough for the fashion, but this was the handsomest one to be obtained in the city."

Again he refers to the sketch and now references a lower case a, which appears in the lower right corner of the bonnet. In my life in the audit profession, we would refer to the dot and lower case "a" as tick marks.

Image courtesy of Special Collections (Research Center) Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

John then closes after explaining, "this bonnet has taken up all my paper, & I can only say my love to all."

So, a delightful guide on how to tie a bonnet from the 1830s with extra long ribbons survives courtesy of Mr. John Janney Lloyd, Esq. and Miss Olivia Donaldson.


Miss Olivia Donaldson may be Olivia Wilkinson Donaldson (1808-1873) who lived in Baltimore at this time. She later married Grafton Lloyd Dulany (1794-1863). Imagine her knowing that her precise instructions have been preserved so delightfully for all time.

©2020 by Alison Herring