Any Hats in Your History?

Little Mennonite girls could be fancy before they became plain. They could wear hats. Their mothers may have worn flat, black bonnets on top of their prayer veilings (coverings) at Easter, but they couldn’t wear hats with ribbons and flowers. At least not in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the 1950s.

My sisters and I are standing here in front of peony bushes wearing some cast-off hats Grandma Longenecker’s friend, Mame Goss, brought from a millinery shop in Middletown, Pennsylvania.

Marian, Jean, and Janice in front of the peony bushes
Marian, Jean, and Janice in front of the peony bushes

I recall this scene through the lens of memory:

I’m looking now at a snapshot my mother took of my sisters and me in these hats, the three of us holding hands in front of a peony bed. The magenta peonies are in bloom, so it must have been May. The double whites mingled among them have ruby flecks in their ruffled centers. My sister Janice, three years younger, is standing at one end, with blonde hair fluffed into curls, hands obediently at her side. Jeanie, a tiny tot of two or three, appears to be looking down at the grass, her burst of tulle brushing light brown hair. I’m staring straight at the camera, two thick braids trailing down my back. Our dresses are all bedecked with ruffles and bows, embroidery or smocking, dresses surely made by our plain Mennonite mother.

I wore my first adult hat ever, a pale blue clôche with a blue chiffon dress one spring when Cliff and I were dating.

At Crista’s 5th birthday party I was wearing a knitted skull-tight cap, typical of the 1970s.


In the 1990s I bought a white hat trimmed in black ribbon and feathers, probably for Easter. I don’t wear hats anymore. I have already taken this one to Angel Aid, a charity for mothers and children.


My sister Jan and I wore British-style hats to Downton Abbey events sponsored by our PBS station in Jacksonville, Florida. Each of our hats adorned with feathers, a flower and seed pearls cost $ 5.00 at Roots’ Country Market near Manheim, PA. We didn’t tell anyone at the gala how much our gorgeous hats cost.


Sisters with friend Carolyn Stoner
Sisters with friend Carolyn Stoner with her fascinator hat in black and green

Hats have mostly gone out of fashion in recent decades, except among the trendy young. NAACP leader Roslyn Brock makes a style statement with her wardrobe of about 200 fashionable hats, expressing her love for her Grandmother Leona Pittman who “believed a woman was not properly dressed for church without one.” Brock emphasizes that

I’m following in the legacy of female civil rights leaders who completed their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes with fashionable hats.


Hats are the centerpiece of Roslyn’s wardrobe. She admits that she’ll buy the hat first and then find a matching suit or shoes. For Roslyn, who enjoys couture creations from Philip Treacy, Queen Elizabeth’s designer, wearing hats “keeps our history and culture alive.”

How a hat makes you feel is what a hat is all about.  ~ Philip Treacy



In June it will be two years since my mother died unexpectedly. I still miss her terribly. Grief occasionally comes over me in waves. Now less often, with less severe impact. Still . . .

On my dresser I have kept three mementoes of Mother, one on top of the other: the two-quart Ball jar with bubbles in the glass, emblematic of her love of cooking and canning. And her last Mennonite black bonnet and white prayer covering veiling made of bobbinet fabric, a see-through, hexagonal mesh. Symbols of her constant faith and hope in God, each piece of headgear is less than half the size of those she wore in her youth.


Any hats in your history?

What did it look like? Where did you wear it? Do you still wear a hat? Comments are warmly welcomed. Don’t be shy.

Coming next: What Lights Your Fire?


My Little Black Bookends Tell All

Growing up in rural Lancaster County in the 1950s, I had very little opportunity to meet people of other ethnic groups, but I did have a Little Black Sambo book that introduced me to a culture different from mine. So, I have not always been embarrassed by this book. Fascinated, yes, but embarrassed, no. The picture of the tiger running around an African palm tree as the tiger morphed into a golden round pool of butter mesmerized me as a child, butter that would become one of the ingredients of the pancake recipe. The next page shows Black Sambo’s mother Black Mumbo with her glossy brown arm stirring a mound of melted butter making pancakes. The picture made me hungry. And on the last page:

Little Black Sambo_pancake_web shot

And then they all sat down to supper. Black Mumbo ate twenty-seven pancakes, Black Jumbo ate fifty-five. But little Black Sambo ate a hundred and sixty-nine because he was so hungry!!! (Yes, there are three exclamation marks in the book I am holding.) 

Characters in folktales are typically overblown, with exaggerated details like Little Black Sambo’s super big eyes, through which he gazes at three heaping plates of pancakes with a pot of syrup dribbling all over the table. Obviously, he is ready to stuff his mouth with piles of pancakes.

But there are other tales in the book with the Little Black Sambo cover: The Little Red Hen, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and The Country Mouse and The Town Mouse. Mr. McGregor and the kitchen maid in the “Mouse” story have white faces, but there is no reference to their whiteness. Their race is assumed as white and therefore not particularly notable.

Little Black Sambo_Cover_web shot

I paged through this book recently as we cleared out books in Mother’s house and marveled at the stereotypes about black people back then and was embarrassed by it: A black woman with a big butt and goofy name wearing a “maid” cap on her head, black people eating nothing but fried foods, everyone eating too much.

Another find un-earthed in our sifting through “Stuff” – a pair of book-ends I made in school that portrays black children as a novelty.


Interestingly, my niece Shakeeta, my brother Mark’s daughter, choose these as one of the few things she wanted as a remembrance from her Grandma Longenecker’s house. She hoists them up with a smile here:


I guess it’s time I catch up with the times and adjust my ideas about black memorabilia. Singer Anita Pointer certainly has. In an article entitled “A Lesson in History,” (AARP Feb/March 2015) Anita, one of the Pointer Sisters, says she collects black memorabilia so she’ll never forget how her people were once depicted.


We grew up in Oakland, California, but when I was 10 we visited my  grandma in Arkansas. I couldn’t believe how people were living there. They had a white and a black part of town, and you stayed off the white side. At the department store, they had colored and white water fountains. I don’t want to ever forget that’s what it was like for us — and collecting black memorabilia is how I do that.   (66)

Like Whoopi Goldberg and Spike Lee, Anita collects black memorabilia as museum pieces including a “Mammy” cookie jar, and a 1970s John Henry whiskey decanter made by Jim Beam. When the prestigious house of Sotheby’s came to appraise her collection, it took a year to sort and categorize it. She comments, “The appraiser said that I could pretty much charge what I want because most of the pieces are one of a kind.”  In the end, Anita Pointer sees her collection of thousands of pieces as part of her personal history. She doesn’t apologize for any of it.

Of course, I’m hanging onto my Little Black Sambo book. It’s a part of my personal history.

Your comments welcome here!

(Answers to Shakespeare puzzlers from April 22, 2015 post below.)

Answer Key2_mod