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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Monday, January 15, 2007

Nightcaps in the Daytime

Yesterday I linked to some portraits of Boston merchants without their wigs. In those paintings they wore their banyans (dressing-gowns) and night-caps, signaling that they were interested in the life of the mind. Did they dress like that only in private, or did they ever go out in public in their gowns and caps?

According to Dr. Alexander Hamilton (no relation to the U.S. Treasurer), Philadelphia gentlemen did dress that casually in public in 1744. In that year the doctor took a journey for his health from Annapolis to York, Maine, and back, and he wrote a delightful travel narrative (reprinted in this Penguin Classics paperback). In Boston, Hamilton wrote:

I dined with Mr. Fletcher in the company of two Philadelphians, who could not be easy because forsooth they were in their night-caps seeing every body else in full dress with powdered wigs; it not being customary in Boston to go to dine or appear upon Change in caps as they do in other parts of America.
In the 1700s people "dined" in early afternoon, not at night, so these Philadelphians (and businessmen in "other parts of America") wore their "night-caps" at the height of day. To "appear upon Change" meant to meet with other businessmen in the town's central trading and deal-making area—the Royal Exchange in London, Exchange Lane in Boston, I-don't-know-where in Philadelphia.

Dr. Hamilton went on:
What strange creatures we are, and what triffles make us uneasy! It is no mean jest that such worthless things as caps and wigs should disturb our tranquility and disorder our thoughts when we imagine they are wore out of season.

I was my self much in the same state of uneasiness with these Philadelphians, for I had got such a hole in the lappet of my coat, to hide which employed so much of my thoughts in company that, for want of attention, I could not give a pertinent answer when I was spoke to.
That last paragraph shows why I love this account: Hamilton is able to spot the same vanity in himself as in the men from Philadelphia.

Perhaps twenty years after Dr. Hamilton's visit Bostonians had come to "walk upon Change" in their night-caps, but I suspect not. I've found only one group of men described as wearing their caps instead of their wigs in public, and that group was schoolmasters. According to the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Homer, "Masters [John] Lovell and [John] Proctor...wore a cap when not in full dress." Lovell, master at Boston's South Latin School, also had Nathaniel Smibert paint his portrait in a nightcap rather than a wig. (Proctor was master at the nearby Writing School on Queen Street.)

But of course teachers:
  • were scholars, and thus already interested in the life of the mind; and
  • dealt mainly with children, not other gentlemen, and therefore didn't have to keep up such appearances.

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