J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Colonial Americans Didn't Wear Tricorns

I spent much of this afternoon at the Sudbury Fife and Drum Muster, enjoying the music and marching of the Middlesex County Volunteers, the Middlesex 4-H Corps, the William Diamond Juniors, the Ancient Mariners, and other groups.

The plethora of headgear on display reminded me that I wanted to post a note about the type of broad-brimmed hat cocked at three points to make a triangle, as shown here, thanks to Morristown National Historical Park. It’s often called a “tricorn” or “tricorne”—i.e., something with three horns. And that might be a useful term to distinguish it from other ways of wearing such hats.

Even though colonial Americans wore hats cocked that way, as well as in other styles, the term “tricorn” doesn’t date from eighteenth-century English. The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s trace “tricorn” as a type of hat back only to 1876, when Americans were awash in Centennial nostalgia and sought a term for the out-of-fashion headgear of their forebears. The adjectival form of the word was applied to hats three decades earlier, but in the late 1700s the only documented use for “tricorn” meant an animal like a unicorn, except more so. Not a good thing to wear on one's head.


Anonymous said...

This is a great and interesting post but I'm confused - it sounds like you're saying they did wear this TYPE of hat, only they didn't call it "tricorn" ? If that's correct, what DID they call it, do you know?

Amazing blog by the way. Really great great stuff!

J. L. Bell said...

Some men of the time certainly wore this type of hat, as shown by pictures and surviving specimens. But they didn't call it a tricorn, or if they did they managed to keep that term completely out of print.

A tricorn is basically a wide-brimmed hat that has been "cocked" in three spots around the crown, about equally apart. "Cocking" refers to attaching the brim to the side of the crown (sometimes with a decorative "cockade"). There are many period references to "cocked hats," some of which were probably cocked once, others two or three times.

Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

They wore tri-cornered hats. This was shortened to tricorn.

J. L. Bell said...

Apparently you missed the point and the evidence in the posting. The word “tricorn” wasn’t applied to hats until the late 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and other references.

The words “tricorn” and “tri-cornered” don’t appear in the Early American Newspapers database until the 1800s, and then it takes decades before either word is applied to headgear. In contrast, the phrase “cocked hat” appears in that database at least 21 times before 1776.

Writing “This was shortened to tricorn” glides by some crucial facts: Who coined the word “tricorn” and when? All evidence says it wasn’t the people of colonial America, but a later generation.

Anonymous said...

Excellent research on a very subtle point, with a very provocative title that draws the reader in. I was incensed when I saw "Colonial Americans didn't wear tricorns". I was ready to take you to task for passing false information in the name of Living History. Well played :) I've read a number of "runaway listings" from broadsheets of the day, and I have to admit that I've seen dozens of colonial and pre-colonial references to cocked hats, but none to tricorns.


Drake1 said...

So what did they call the hats they wore?

J. L. Bell said...


Headwear with brims were hats, headwear without were caps. If you fastened one side of a hat brim to the hat bowl in a jaunty fashion, that was called cocking the hat, and the fastening was decorated with a cockade.

I suspect the hat pictured up above was authentically eighteenth-century, but molded in the vision of what the nineteenth-century thought all eighteenth-century hats looked like.