The Rise of the Paper Hats

Today, paper hats are most often worn for a bit of fun at parties, or are made for a child by parent or grandparent for some make-believe playtime. But during the Regency, paper hats were regularly worn by working men in a number of trades. In fact, the wearing of such hats had only begun a few years before the Prince of Wales became Regent. It was during that second decade of the nineteenth century that the use of these hats became much more widespread among an expanding number of craftsmen and tradesmen. But these hats were not worn for fun, they had a much more serious purpose. It should be noted that the wearing of these hats seems to have been confined to English working men.

When paper hats were for work, not play …

There is some evidence that paper hats were first worn in the last few years of the eighteenth century, quite probably by men working in the carpentry trades, almost certainly in London. By the turn of the nineteenth century, they had become common headwear for men in a number of trades which involved a high level of manual labor, and their use was expanding across the country. By the Regency, these paper hats were worn by men working not only in the carpentry and woodworking trades, but also by paper-stainers, chandlers, braziers, glass blowers, house painters, printers and paper-makers, among others.

There were a couple of reasons why craftsmen and tradesmen chose to wear these paper hats. For carpenters, house painters and paper-stainers, these paper hats protected their hair from sawdust and paint spatters. This was especially important at a time when people did not, could not, wash their hair every day. Printers, glass blowers, and brasiers, among others, worked with tools and equipment in which no one would ever want to get their hair entangled. During an era when many men still wore their hair fairly long, the risk of an accident while working with their hair loose was quite high. Their hair could be tucked up inside their paper hat where it would be out of the way and safe from danger. Paper was also absorbent, which was a convenient feature in these paper hats, since the bands, which were usually of multiple layers, could absorb a signifcant amount of persperation for those working in a warm workshop. By the Regency, the wearing of these paper hats may have also become something of a status symbol, or a hallmark of their trade, for these craftsmen.

Though paper was still fairly expensive during the Regency, prices were lower than they had been in the eighteenth century since more parts of the paper-making process were becoming mechanized. Despite the fact that paper was no longer a very labor-intensive, fully hand-made product, it was still made almost completely of linen rags until several decades after the Regency came to a close. Paper made of 100% linen is extremely strong and flexible, therefore hats made from it would be quite sturdy and could be worn for some time, depending upon the care taken of them. Linen paper was also very absorbent and remained strong even when wet, making it an ideal material from which to make protective hats for hard-working craftsmen and tradesmen.

Some craftsmen may have folded their own paper hats. However, there is tantalizing evidence that these special hats were available for sale, ready-made, but only from certain hat-makers, and probably quietly, on the side. There are no advertizements in period newspapers which have been found from hatters offering paper hats for sale. However, there are a few advertisements from upscale hat-makers in which they specifically state, "No Paper Hats Sold." The suggestion is that these paper hats were only sold to manual laborers of the lower classes, probably by a few hatters known to them. Therefore, those hatters had no need to advertize their paper wares since the working men who needed them knew where to go to get their hats. More than likely, it was by word of mouth that these craftsmen and tradesmen directed those new to their trades to the few hatters which provided paper hats. Those hat-makers who did make paper hats chose not to advertize them for fear of alienating their higher class customers, who might then have taken their trade elsewhere.

There are only a very few period illustrations of these paper hats, and only two have been located which date from the time of the Regency. In The Workbench Book, by Scott Landis, there is an illustration which reproduces an 1816 painting by G. Forster of an English woodworking shop. The preview of that book on Google Books includes the illustration, on page 4. As you will see in the illustration, two of the carpenters in this painting are wearing paper hats, but curiously, they have pulled up the folds so that their hats are pointed at the top. The more common form of these paper hats can be seen in an illustration included in a blog post at the blog Tools for Working Wood. As the post’s author, Joel, points out, though this image is from the frontispiece of The Cabinet Maker’s Guide by G. A. Siddon and was published in 1833, he dates it at least a decade earlier, based on some of the tools which are included in the engraving. In this engraving, the two carpenters who are wearing paper hats have not pulled up the folds, so that their hats are square, with flat tops. It is this square, flat-topped hat which continued most in use into the last decades of the twentieth century.

In 1871, the artist, Sir John Tenniel, illustrated the story "The Walrus and the Carpenter," in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. In this illustration, you can see that the carpenter is wearing a traditional carpenter’s paper hat, more than half a century after the Regency ended. By the turn of the twentieth century, these distinctive square paper hats seem to have been superceded by the cheaper, simpler, machine-made paper hats also worn by soda jerks and short-order cooks. But printers, and especially newspaper pressmen, continued to wear the traditional square paper hats, to keep ink out of their hair. This group of working men had ready access to paper, and had learned to make their own hats. If you would like to make your own printer’s or pressman’s hat, you can find instructions, with diagrams, at the Metal Type web site.

It must be noted that the paper hats made during the Regency were probably not made from newspapers, as were the later pressmen’s hats. As you will have seen in the Regency-era illustrations, these hats were made of plain white paper, without any printing. A full sheet of a modern-day newspaper is required to make a pressman’s hat, but the size of a sheet of paper used for a Regency newspaper was much smaller than today’s newspapers. Until 1818, the law forbad any newspaper larger than 22 inches by 32 inches. There were severe punishments for any one who published a newspaper which exceeded those dimensions. A modern broadsheet newspaper page is twice the size of a Regency newspaper.

When I was a little girl, one of our neighbors was a pressman for the local newspaper. He made pressmen’s hats out of sheets of newspaper for me and my siblings on several occasions. That was in the 1960s, so I can personally vouch for the survival of that paper hat style well into the twentieth century, at least in the United States. My grandfather also folded the classic pirate hats for us out of sheets of newspapers. My favorites were the ones he made out of the Sunday funny papers because they were so colorful. With the slow demise of the printed newspaper, neither of these paper hat styles may survive this century. During the Regency, paper hats were not for play, but they were plentiful, since many craftsmen and tradesmen wore them every day while they worked.

Though these working men’s paper hats are a bit esoteric, they do have potential for use in a Regency story. Perhaps one of the characters has gone under cover, having taken a job in a carpenter’s workshop, or in a print shop. Though he is a member of the upper class, he has closely studied the workers he intends to emulate, and is careful to acquire a paper hat for himself so he can blend in. On the other hand, maybe the villain is trying to hide in such a situation, but he does not bother to get himself a paper hat, which ultimately betrays him to those searching for him. Mayhap a London hat-maker is the communications hub for a group of Crown agents trying to identify a ring of French spies working in the city. Messages are exchanged via paper hats at this hatter’s shop. Then again, maybe the young son of an aristocratic family has been given a paper hat which he loves to wear, but some snobbish relative is horrified that the boy wants to wear such a lower class hat. Dear Regency Authors, will someone wear a paper hat in one of your upcoming stories?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Apparel & Grooming and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The Rise of the Paper Hats

  1. I remember- just – butchers wearing paper hats. I don’t recall them in the print shop of our local rag in the 70’s when I had a saturday job as a ‘runner’ though the older printers still wore a leather ‘brat’ [no idea of the origin of the name of the leather apron]. Fascinating as always! I love the idea of passing messages on a paper hat, but alas, I have no plot bunnies yet…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The information on these paper hats is very sparse, since they are essentially ephemera of a time long past and not important artifacts of the age. It seems clear they were worn in London first, and then the practice spread to the provinces, more than likely by a tradesman who had seen them in London. So it is quite possible that their use only made it to those areas from which one or more craftsmen or tradesmen had traveled to London and brought the idea back home with them.

      There could easily have been places in the country where paper hats were never worn, which may explain why you did not see them in the 1970s. It is also possible they had simply fallen out of the collective memory of the printers in the shop where you worked. The pressman who made hats for me and my siblings was nearing retirement in the mid-1960s and had worked at newspapers his whole life. He also had a fondness for the history of his trade, so he may have been a lone holdout of paper hat makers/wearers that late in the 20th century.

      If the paper hats have not yet give rise to any plot bunnies, you could always make paper hats for all the plot bunnies you already have hopping around! 😉



  2. The Rise of the Paper Hats – the title immediately intrigued me. So far, I never had given paper hats a second thought, let alone their rise (and fall). One thing I still wonder about: were they safe enough with regards to open fires? Is anything known about accidents involving paper hats? Glass blowers for example are pretty close to fire.
    With regards to the plots: I adore your espionage idea: Messages are exchanged via paper hats at a hatter’s shop. – This is beautiful. The hats with the messages will get mixed-up (of course), messages will fall into wrong hands, a double agent has to be exposed – while the French Army is closing on Belgium in June 1815… .

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The glass blowers did give me pause as well. But my source was Occupational Costume in England: From the Eleventh Century to 1914, by Phillis Cunnington and Catherine Lucas, both respected costume historians. Once I thought about it, I realized that it did make some sense. Based on my research into glass-blowing, I know that, at least in factories, men worked in groups of five or six, called “chairs,” so they were never working alone. The furnace mouth was fairly small, in order to keep as much heat as possible inside and to limit any flying sparks.

      However, should a spark or two escape, there would be an advantage to having them fall on a white paper hat rather than into a man’s hair. The burning hat would be immediately obvious to at least some members of the chair, who would see it and alert its wearer to remove it, if they did not quickly pull it from his head themselves.

      The pale, thin paper hat would quickly reveal a nascent fire from a spark long before one might be seen on a hat of a thicker, darker material, or worse, in the man’s hair. And paper made of 100% linen does not ignite or burn as quickly as does modern-day wood-pulp paper, thus affording the wearer of a burning linen-pulp paper hat time to get out from under it before severe injury might occur. So, my take is that for glass blowers, paper hats were a kind of safety headgear, just not in a sense that would be acceptable by any industrial safety organization today.

      I had not even thought of a paper hat mix-up. That adds a whole new dimension to the scenario, especially with the French moving on Belgium!



  3. HJ says:

    Another fascinating post! As children we used to fold pirate’s hats for ourselves (I think I found the instructions in an old annual) but I had no idea there had ever been a serious use for them. In England we no longer have true broadsheet newspapers, so the raw material for making paper hats is harder to obtain now! I think one would have to put two sheets of the smaller paper together and pretend one edge was a fold.

    You say: “hair could be tucked up inside their paper hat where it would be out of the way and safe from danger. ” Would the type of hat into which hair could be tucked be different from the carpenter’s hat for which instructions are given? Those hats seem to perch on top of the head and I think it would not be possible to put hair up into them. I’ve found it difficult enough to do when there’s an elastic band around the hat (and of course they wouldn’t have had that).

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Even here in the US the broadsheet papers are slowly disappearing. And some of those that still publish in that format have become narrower, by as much as a couple of inches, though they are still the same height. So even here, it is more difficult to make a pirate’s hat from a newspaper. I pity the coming generations who will never get to wear a pirate hat made from the newspaper. Balancing an eReader tablet on your head is just not the same! 😉

      As far as I can tell, the carpenter’s hats in the Regency were made in much the same way as those in the instructions on the Metal Type web site. However, they would have been made of linen-pulp paper, which is much stronger than our modern-day wood-pulp paper. In some of the illustrations, the hats do seem to perch on the wearer’s head, but in a couple of the sources I was able to find, they did state that some workmen tucked their hair inside their hats. It may be that those who did so used a larger size of hat than did those who just perched it on their head. Or perhaps those with longer hair tied it with a ribbon or string first, then just covered it with a paper hat. I wish I could give you more specifics, but there is just not a lot of detail available on paper hats.



  4. elfahearn says:

    My parents used to get a weekly broadsheet, but it didn’t have the funnies in it. I had to go to my friends’ houses to make a colorful hat. But weren’t they glorious? We wore them with the narrow edge going front to back, not pirate style with it pointing side to side. They made an excellent costume all the same. Double the fun if you had silly putty — then you could reproduce the cartoon image. WOW.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I remember using silly putty to pull images off the funnies. We though it was great fun, and it was! I wonder if the kids of today get to enjoy any of those pass-times we took so for granted as children. Not hi-tech, but very enjoyable all the same!


  5. sgt42rhr says:

    I wanted to add an additional image to buttress this information:

    This painting was first exhibited in 1813 so it pre-dates then. It does show woodworkers.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you so much for the link to the Hill painting! I was completely unaware of it until now. It is especially important since it was also painted during the Regency, though prior to the Forstner painting.



    • May I add my thanks to Kathryn’s. The square hats there are the shape I associate with bakeries! but what a lovely image full of detail.

  6. sgt42rhr says:

    It is also interesting to me that the G. Forstner 1816 paining reproduced in Landis’ workbench book shows woodworkers wearing paper hats that are domed, and apparently shaped differently from the hats in the 1813 John Hill painting in which they appear to be flat on top.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Based on my reading, I got the impression that the shape and style of the hats may have been associated with certain groups of carpenters/woodworkers, determined either by where they were located within the city, or by their particular specialty in carpentry. My best guess is that location was the determining factor, since people were much less mobile at that time and often had strong associations with those who lived in their immediate neighborhood. It might also be as simple as that each maker of paper hats made them slightly differently, and some carpenters preferred one maker’s style over another.

      Thank you again for the link to the Hill painting.



  7. Rob says:

    Thanks for the post – it answered my query. George Eliot refers to the carpenters’ paper hats in her novel “Adam Bede”, which was set in 1799. It is always possible that she has her dates slightly wrong, as the novel was written in the late 1850s, and while she was drawing on memories of her childhood in rural England, she wasn’t born until 1819.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad the story of paper hats was useful to you. I would not be too concerned about the accuracy of the date in which Eliot set her novel. Though the majority of evidence on paper hats suggests they originated in London in the last decade of the eighteenth century, it does not mean they were restricted to London at that time. It is always possible that a carpenter or cabinetmaker from her childhood neighborhood traveled to London, saw others of his trade wearing paper hats and decided to get one for himself. Once he got home, other wood-working tradesmen may have copied him. Those paper hats were not difficult to make, so tradesmen could make them for themselves, or a local hatter or haberdasher might have carried them, to capitalize on a trend.

      So, it is quite possible that the isolated paper hat escaped the metropolis and made it to the area where Eliot grew up, and proliferated there. So, she might well have heard about carpenter’s wearing paper hats even before she was born.

      Thanks for stopping by.



  8. Pingback: The Rise of the Paper Hats » The Beau Monde

  9. Susie Arnott says:

    What an informative and delightful post!
    An ancestor of ours was a paper stainer and would have worn a paper hat, we learn.
    Thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

      How lucky you are to know about your ancestor, thanks for sharing that tidbit of history.



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