Easter bonnets are a common sign of spring, but my interaction with them was limited to snatches of the Irving Berlin song “Easter Parade” and purchases of pink and white Easter bonnets for a squirming toddler. I realized they were part of tradition, along with wearing your best on Easter. They could be seen as a symbol to mark the beginning of spring after the doldrums of winter, but that was about the limit. I didn’t see them as much more, until looking through some Puck cartoons that appeared to have little respect for the oversized and plumed chapeaus.
Easter bonnets started out simply and grew in strength after the sadness and oppression of the Civil War. After all of the suffering and devastation, the bonnets and new clothes in bright colors, other than mourning clothes, on Easter Sunday was seen as a sign of optimism for the finally united United States. But a seemingly innocent walk after church down Fifth Avenue grew into an ostentatious and outrageous display of Easter bonnets. The Easter Parade and Easter Bonnet Festival grew out of that walk, and at its peak in the 1940s a million people were estimated to have participated to present the best (biggest) Easter Bonnet.
Puck’s cartoons critique this tradition as it begins to overshadow the religious significance of the holiday as well as other social issues of the time. Cartoon after cartoon shows a disdain for the overpriced and ostentatious bonnets. Many include a red devil or unhappy monks in the background of the drawings. I am sure to a social minded press, the extravagance and supposed shallow popularity of the bonnets was more than enough fuel for ridicule.
As this week ends in the Easter celebration, do your plans include an Easter bonnet and a walk around town to show it off?
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The Easter hat throws everything else in the shade. April 21, 1897. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University.