When Hats came to the Society Islands

I have often wondered when the woven or sewn hat came to Hawaii. Brigham suggests that prior to the advent of outsiders, Hawaiians were very skillful about weaving mats and baskets. But I haven’t been able to find any  early ( 19th century ) reference as to when more modern types of woven materials such as those made for the tourist trade made their first appearances.

     But I did find books written by William Ellis ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William Ellis_(missionary) ) in 1829 that describes in some detail how the wives of early missionaries introduced members of the Society Islands to the making of hats in the early 1820’s ( https://archive.org/details/polynesianresea12elligoog ). Pages 131-135 describe these events in the language of the time and of course from the point of view of the author, William Ellis. They are reproduced below in italics.

     Early in the year 1820, another important change took place in the dress of the Society Islanders; affecting not only their appearance, but tending perhaps ultimately to alter their physical structure. This was the introduction of hats and bonnets. If the skulls of those nations that wear no covering on their heads, are thicker than those who do, there is reason to suppose the craniums of the Tahitians will be much thinner in a few generations, than they have been prior to this period; since, from their earliest history, they appear to have gone abroad bareheaded. The inhabitants formerly wore a kind of bonnet, or rather, shade for the eyes, made of the leaves of the cocoa-nut in a variety of forms, many of them tasteful and elegant. They were called taupoo or taumata and, as the latter name signifies, were designed to screen the face or eyes 5 it being composed of tau to hang upon or over, and mata, face or eyes. It was worn on the forehead immediately below the hair, and fastened by a narrow leaflet passing round the back of the head above each of the ears, leaving the whole of the back and upper part of the head entirely exposed.

     The first native bonnet we have heard of, as manufactured in the islands, was finished, while we resided in Afareaitu, by Mrs. Ellis. It was made for our infant daughter, with leaflets of the fan-leaved palm, brought from the Marquesas ; and the first hat we ever saw that had been made there, was one Mrs. Ellis made for me at Huahine, with the same kind of leaves, which were, platted by a sailor in Eimeo. Hats and bonnets were, however, introduced among the natives by our friends in Raiatea with whom many valuable improvements have originated; and the first hats and bonnets ever made in the islands, and worn by the natives, were made by Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Threlkeld in the spring of 1820. Their appearance on the heads of the natives of Raiatea produced no slight sensation there; and the report of their use, as it spread through the islands, occasioned a considerable stir.

     Highly approving of whatever had a tendency to civilize the natives, or to furnish them with innocent and useful employment, we rejoiced at their introduction, and endeavored to persuade the natives of Huahine to follow the example of their Raiatean neighbours but whether they were influenced by a feeling of pride which made them averse to imitate the Raiateans, or an unwillingness to increase their domestic employments, we do not know ; but the females in general, the queen and chief women in particular, seemed at first determined to resist the innovation. The men rejoiced at the idea of making hats; and yet, notwithstanding this, and the repeated offers of Mrs. Barff and Mrs. Ellis to teach the females to plat the leaves of the mau, and to make the plat into bonnets and hats, they were exceedingly averse to learn. Following the example of those in Raiatea, their teachers made bonnets for themselves with the bark of the purau; and though the chief women acknowledged that they looked very well on them, they said they had not yet procured the articles necessary to form a complete European dress—that many were still without shoes and stockings—and that it would be quite ridiculous for the head to be covered with a bonnet after the fashion of the foreigners, while the feet, like those of the islanders in general, were without shoes. A short time afterwards several of the natives of our island sailed over to Raiatea, and returned with very flattering accounts of the improved appearance of those who wore hats and bonnets. This induced several of the chief women who had at least one complete English dress, to desire to learn to make them, and ultimately to substitute the European bonnet for the native taumata. A visit which a number of chiefs and their wives, from Raiatea, paid to Huahine, increased their eagerness for this new article of dress— which, when once adopted, was never laid aside.

     The desire now became general, and was not confined to those who possessed other articles of foreign dress, it being extended even to such as had none. Thus, wearing a hat and bonnet was the first advance they made towards a more civilized appearance and dress. Our houses were now thronged by individuals anxious to be instructed and so soon as Mrs. Barff or Mrs. Ellis had taught any of the females, these immediately taught the art to others and those who excelled in the fineness of their platting, or in putting it together, were fully employed by the chiefs and others, and derived no small emolument from their new avocation. Dress-making and straw-bonnet making, now very profitable employments to a number of females, were certainly the first regular female occupations from civilized society introduced into the islands. The hats and bonnets were at first made with the inner bark of the slender branches of the purau, hibiscus tiliaceus or the leaves of a fine species of rush. The former was beautifully white and glossy, while the latter was of a yellow colour, and much more firm and durable, on which account it was preferred for hats. The only hats I wore in the islands during the subsequent years of my residence there, were made with this material; and in that climate I should never desire any other. The use of hats increased so rapidly, that all the European thread in the islands was soon expended. There were no haberdashers’ shops at hand, whence a supply could be procured : recourse was therefore had to native productions. Some employed the long filaments of the dried plantain- stalk; and others split the thin bark of the purau into -fine threads or fibres, and, though not equal in strength to twisted thread, both answered remarkably well.

     The bonnets were in many instances scarcely finished, when another difficulty met their possessors. They had observed that the wives and daughters of the Missionaries, however plain their dress, wore a riband and strings to their bonnets, and they had often observed a greater profusion of trimmings attached to those worn by the wives of the captains, or the female passengers, in any of the vessels that touched at the islands ; they therefore imagined that in point of improvement they might almost as well appear without a bonnet, as with one destitute of these appendages. These, however, it was no easy matter to procure, and they would at that time, certainly, have been the last article a captain or trader would have thought of taking to the South Sea Islands for barter. A few of the chief women were furnished with an English riband, which was considered as valuable as an embroidery of gold would be in some circles of society.

     The greater portion of the inhabitants were, however, under the necessity of exercising their ingenuity to provide a substitute. Those they furnished were various, and such perhaps as few English females would have thought of, A part of a black coat, or a soldier’s red jacket cut into strips about two inches wide, was greatly esteemed. Next to this, ribands of native cloth, dyed with showy colours, were employed while others used a string of the bark from a branch of the purau, with the outer rind scraped off, the inner bark washed and bleached, passed round the bonnet, and tied under the chin.

     Trimmings are not so scarce now as formerly, but the supply taken is still inadequate to the requirements of the people, among whom bonnets and hats are now so common, that before I left the Leeward Islands, scarce a man, woman, or child was to be seen out of doors without one—many of them possessing two, and sometimes three or four.

     They are made entirely by the females, who manufacture not only for themselves, their husbands, and their children, but in some of the stations, several have formed themselves into a kind of society, for the purpose of making bonnets for the poor and the aged, who are unable to make for themselves. They have increased not only in number, but in variety of shape and material. The bonnets are now either sewn together, or woven throughout, after the manner of Leghorns (perhaps like this:  https://www.meg-andrews.com/item-details/Leghorn-Bonnet/8532  or this:  https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/113081 ), and are made not only with the leaves of the mau, and the bark of the purau, but of the fine white layers of the inside of the plantain stalk, the leaf of the sugar-cane, and a strong and beautiful species of fine grass.

It is quite possible that missionaries from the same time period in Hawaii also performed similar activities. If anyone has such information, I would be glad to update this page. Please contact me.