Who Were They?

Lost and forgotten photos from the past

For my final photograph from the Mearns Family Album, I have saved one of my favorites for the last. This photo was made probably in the 1870s, based on the lack of ornamentation on the cabinet card. I have often said that the older set hold onto their favorite fashions and this is a good example of that habit. This lady is wearing some fashions of the 1860s for her 1870s vintage portrait.

First, the daycap. The tradition of having ones hair dressed and covered reaches back through the centuries, and probably arose from a combination of tradition and necessity. During the Renaissance, Europe was going through a mini ice age and it was quite cold, so wearing a covering on the head helped keep people warm. There was also a modesty factor that compelled women to keep their hair confined in public but allowed their closest relatives to see it unbound. Now remember those traditions and fast-forward 300 or so years.

During the 1860s, these lightweight caps were worn indoors as a way of keeping the hair neat. The hair was dressed by drawing it back into a chignon of some kind. A chignon is really just an arrangement of hair in some sort of twisted arrangement, not limited to the sleek look that dominates today. Here you can see that her hair was parted in the center and the sides were turned under her ears, as was the style. A daycap was made from lightweight fabrics, such as linen, batiste, or lawn. This particular one appears to be starched, almost like the cap Amish women still wear today. I don’t know the significance of the drapery falling over her shoulders, but I know that many daycaps had them. If a woman were to leave the house for visiting, she would remove the daycap and wear a hair net and her bonnet. The hair net was not the snood many women wear at Civil War reenactments, but more like the fine threaded hair nets your local lunchlady wears. Yup! of course, some hair nets were made from silk threads adorned with beads and were rather lovely, but the hair net of which I speak was intended to blend into the hair color and not be seen. It was another means of keeping the hair tidy.

And of course for bed, everyone wore a nightcap.

From what I can see from the dress, it also has some remnants of 1860s fashions. The shoulder seam is dropped a good 2-3 inches down the arm, which was the dominant style of the era. The bodice opening is a wrap front, meaning that the front opening wrapped one side over the other and closed with hidden buttons or hooks. There is a fichu in the opening, which was probably part of the dress and provided a fashionable modesty piece. I have seen extant dresses with this same bodice opening, but the one that comes to mind is a sheer dress, which was worn in the heat of summer. The subject of our photo appears to be wearing a dark colored silk dress.

Although this is not to the theme of Sepia Saturday this week, I encourage you to click through and take in the variety of photos a simple prompt can bring in from around the world.

16 thoughts on “Woman in a daycap

  1. IntenseGuy says:

    The “Plain Folks” as they call them, adhere to Ist Tim. 2: 9,10 “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold or pearls, or costly array. But that which becometh women professing godliness.”

    The plain folks consist of the Amish, Mennonite, Brethren (also known as the Dunkards), Quaker, Hutterites, Shakers and smaller Amish-Mennonite groups like Holdeman Mennonites.

    The Mearns (Rittenhouse and Lairs) themselves seem to have been Presbyterian, but the area they lived in is still to this day, heavily “plain people”. I’ve often seen Amish buggies on the road down there in Cecil County. Rosebank Cemetery, where a large number of them are buried (not the ones in the Presbyterian churchyard) is non-dominational but is adjacent to the Quaker’s Brick Meeting House.

    East Nottingham Friends Meetinghouse significant because of its association with William Penn who granted the site “for a Meeting House and Burial Yard, Forever” near the center of the 18,000-acre Nottingham Lots settlement and was at one time the largest Friends meeting house south of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Half-Yearly Meeting was held here as early as 1725. The Mearns et al lived at the center of that 18,000 acre area.

    From what I understand, the cap tells the informed viewer, not only the anabaptist sect the wearer belongs to, but also their marital status as well based on its color, fabric, style, degree of stiffness, and other details. An cap expert could identify this woman’s religion at a glance.


  2. Little Nell says:

    Simple and yet elegant in its own way. This lady is very dignified and serene.I wonder if she had a fancy nightcap too!


  3. Howard says:

    She looks like a model for a seventeenth century Dutch painting


  4. gluepot says:

    Old Mother Hubbard?


  5. Bob Scotney says:

    As soon as I saw this photo I thought of the Amish from my one visit to Pennslyvania many years ago.


  6. postcardy says:

    I think she looks like a model for a painting too. Everything is so perfectly arranged.


  7. I agree with Postcardy. It would be great in rich, full oil paint color. It’s a great composition for a photograph.


  8. Alan Burnett says:

    A hugely interesting post based on a fabulous portrait. With all their limited means those old pioneer photographers used to squeeze so much character out of a sitter – look at the picture long enough and you almost feel as if you know her.


  9. Liz Stratton says:

    From shoes to hats! I loved reading your analysis of this photo. My great grandmother always wore beautiful hats with wide brims sometimes with hair netting. It is fascinating to see all the varieties!

    Thanks for tagging your photos by decades! It is always helpful to have more examples when trying to date!


  10. Christine says:

    Fascinating post. I enjoyed reading Intense Guys’ comments along with the other ones too. A number of my relatives were Anabaptist. Their portraits often, but not always, include daycaps. I’ll have to take a closer look now.


  11. I had a great aunt who wore a cap white cap like the Amish, though I believe she was married to a Mennonite. She wore it all her life. It always seemed so strange to me.


  12. A great explanation on a fashion tradition now lost to most. Could the choice of day-cap style be a private mother to daughter tradition too? Some fashion styles had roots in family and religion that have very different time cycles of change than haut couture.


  13. So very interesting. The cap is not unlike some traditional French or Dutch head wear.


  14. Wonderful explanation, I giggled at this ladies hair going under her ears..it seems strange..but then again maybe not.

    Great comments from everyone..I enjoyed reading them too! :)


  15. Not Amish. Amish wont be filmed or photographed (unless she is a rebel).


  16. Liutgard says:

    Doesn’t look like the caps my family wear/wore. Mennonites- no lappets. Looks like lovely work though, especially getting the hem binding around the curves without puckering!

    Just as FYI, medieval and Renaissance women wore their head coverings for one more, VERY practical reason- to protect their hair. Covering their hair kept it cleaner and in place, which is a consideration when you’re doing farm work, and keeping it bound and covered was imperative when working over an open fire. The royal ladies wore their headdresses for fashion- the rest did it for their health!


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