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?