Sophia Woodhouse's Grass Bonnets

Inventor and businesswoman, Wethersfield’s Sophia
Woodhouse (1799-1883) was one of the first female entrepreneurs of the Greater
Hartford area. Plying her trade during the early 19th century, Sophia developed
an innovative technique for treating, drying, and braiding spear grass to make
high quality bonnets. She patented her design in 1821 and quickly developed a
cottage industry for her hats, which won awards and acclaim.

  

Two major historical factors were in Woodhouse’s favor.
Embargo acts in the early 19 th century restricted trade between the United
States and certain foreign ports. Exotic imports such as fashionable Leghorn
hats from Livorno, Italy (the city was known as Leghorn in English) were no
longer available. A second factor was a directive from President James Monroe
in which he encouraged Americans to become a “nation of manufacturers” and
develop new businesses and products.

  

Nineteen-year-old Woodhouse responded to the president’s
call (perhaps indirectly) and was able to fill the American market’s demand for
fashionable bonnets by producing grass bonnets made in the Leghorn style. Using
the common spear grass that grew in the Wethersfield meadows alongside the
Connecticut River, she developed a process in which spear grass was boiled,
bleached, moistened, fumigated and then dried to make it suitable for plaiting
or braiding to make Leghorn-style bonnets. A clever businesswoman, Woodhouse
had her hat-making process patented in 1821 as “a new and useful improvement in
the manufacture of grass bonnets and hats.” (Though she shared the patent with
her husband, Gurdon Welles, it is Sophia Woodhouse’s name that is closely
associated with this extraordinary and innovative local industry of grass
bonnet making.)

  

It was not uncommon for women of that era to braid grass
and straw bonnets for their own use as well as selling them to local merchants
or hat dealers. But Sophia’s singular success stemmed from the fact that she
manufactured a high-quality product: The fineness of her braiding made the
caliber of her bonnets unparalleled. She won awards for best “Grass Bonnet” by
the Hartford County Society for Promoting Agriculture and Domestic
Manufacturers in 1819 and again in 1820. The following year, she was awarded a
medal and cash prize from London’s prestigious Society of the Arts. The Society
was so impressed with Woodhouse’s technique that they requested a sample of the
spear grass used in her unique process.

With her international success, the demand for Woodhouse’s
bonnets increased. She employed several women from Wethersfield to manufacture
her hats. Although she had a workshop at her house, it is very likely that the
women who worked for her did so in their own homes, thus creating a cottage
industry of grass bonnet making in Wethersfield. A particularly gifted woman in
her employ, Maria Francis, produced 300 bonnets in one summer!

 

Woodhouse’s bonnets were widely admired by socially
prominent women, and worn by two former First Ladies, Dolley Madison and Louisa
Adams. The latter’s husband, John Quincy Adams, pronounced it “…an
extraordinary specimen of American manufacture.”   

 

sophiawoodhousewoodhouse 001-thumb-320x331-447.jpgOne of the best examples of Woodhouse’s straw bonnets is
included in the exhibit, Legendary People, Ordinary Lives, on permanent display
at the Wethersfield Museum, 200 Main Street, Wethersfield. For more information
call 860-529-7656 or 529-7161 or visit the museum’s Web site at
www.wethhist.org.

 

 

 

Originally published in (c) Connecticut Explored
(formerly Hog River Journal), Summer 2003. www.ctexplored.org. Reprinted here
with permission.

 

Go to “About the Author: Melissa Josefiak”

Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.

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