Her Sunbonnet Hung Down Her Back
Originally published February 2, 2017
On February 7, 2017, Laura Ingalls Wilder fans around the world will celebrate the 150th anniversary of her birth. So I thought now was as good a time as any to examine what has become a persistent symbol of the Little House books and even Laura Ingalls Wilder herself: the sunbonnet.
Generations of Wilder readers don sunbonnets every year to celebrate the Little House books at festivals, libraries, schools, and bookstores. Sunbonnets are sold at most of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites throughout the Midwest, and I confess, I’ve bought more than my fair share and have given them to several little girls closest to my heart. Sunbonnets have become the iconic symbol of All Things Wilder.
Perhaps, in part, that’s because the sunbonnet is an iconic symbol of American pioneer women themselves. The sunbonnet symbolizes the feminine experience on the frontier. A faded calico bonnet reflects at once the hardships women endured in the West, their determination to hold onto their femininity, and the accomplishments they worked so hard to achieve. The Little House books, of course, embrace these ideas too. So the sunbonnet seems to be the perfect symbol for women in the West and Laura Ingalls Wilder in particular.
“I Don’t Care!”
Except that the fictional Laura Ingalls detests sunbonnets, and tugs hers off whenever she has the opportunity. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura’s sunbonnet hangs “down her back” as she wades “through the tall grasses to the plum thickets by the creek.” By contrast, Mary, who walks “behind on the path Laura made,” keeps her sunbonnet on. 1 One sister is bold and daring; the other is prim and proper. The placement of their sunbonnets reveals who they really are.
Later in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura refuses to wear her sunbonnet for her first day of school. Mary is horrified by Laura’s defiance. “’For pity’s sake, Laura,’” she says, “’keep your sunbonnet on!’” With reluctance Laura “pulled the bonnet up over her head” to please Mary, but the sunbonnet can’t suppress Laura’s spirit. Again, she takes the lead along the path to school and Mary follows.2
When I first read the Little House books as a ten-year-old, I admired Laura for refusing to wear her sunbonnet. A few years before, when my family moved to the country, my mother had tried to force me to wear a big, straw sun hat to protect my complexion. The hat was as tall and as big as my mother’s hat boxes and shaped like them too. I thought it was hideous, and refused to wear it. Sun hats—and later by extension, sunbonnets—were prissy, clumsy, ugly things. I felt certain that Laura Ingalls felt the same way. She was a tomboy and so was I.
To See the Whole Great Prairie
I’ve since realized that Laura’s rejection of her sunbonnet runs deeper. Sunbonnets inhibit vision, they cut the wearer off from the world around her. They limit experience. Wearing a sunbonnet is like wearing blinders. And that’s the last thing the fictional Laura Ingalls wants to do. She wants to see and experience the West. She wants to feel the sunshine on her face, the wind against her skin, the warmth of a prairie sky on her hair. A sunbonnet restricts all that. Think of the grand, sweeping descriptions that define the Little House books. Here’s one of my favorites from By the Shores of Silver Lake:
“The sun sank. A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in clouds of crimson and silver. Cold purple shadows rose in the east, crept slowly across the prairie, then rose in heights on heights of darkness from which the stars swung low and bright.
“The wind, which all day long had blown strongly, dropped low with the sun and went whispering among the tall grasses. The earth seemed to lie breathing softly under the summer night.’”3
Readers experience Laura’s world through these observations; had Laura been wearing her sunbonnet, she wouldn’t have seen, felt, or heard all of this.
But in the railroad scene in By The Shores of Silver Lake, Laura is forced to wear her sunbonnet. She has to appear conventional in order to break convention. As Ma tells her, “’If you must go where those rough men are working in the dirt, then go quietly with your Pa and come back quietly….” Laura must appear well-behaved and ladylike. So she “tied on her sunbonnet when she set out and resolved to keep it tied on.”4
In the scene that follows, Laura sees the men working, but relies on Pa to explain what is happening and provide perspective on the grand, sweeping work the men are doing. With a sunbonnet on, Laura’s field of vision is narrowed. Yet in the end, she can’t resist her own instincts. She lets “her sunbonnet slip down her back so that she could feel the wind on her face and see the whole great prairie.”5 For Laura, wearing a sunbonnet equates with limitation and conformity—even anonymity—concepts she never embraces.
The Cream-Colored Hat
Hats, however, meant something else entirely. For the fictional Laura Ingalls and the author who created her, they were an expression of individuality, creativity, and even freedom.
Perhaps illustrator Garth Williams understood this about her as well. In his opening illustration in Little House in the Big Woods, he pictures a lively little Laura skipping toward readers with a hat trailing behind her like a kite. Contrast this image with the somber-faced, sunbonneted Laura looking out at readers from the back of a wagon in Little House on the Prairie.
Laura Ingalls Wilder loved hats. She even named an entire chapter for one—“The Cream-Colored Hat” in These Happy Golden Years. From the moment Laura sees that hat, she knows it belongs on her head. “It was a fine, cream-colored straw with a narrow brim, rolled narrower at the sides.” Its “fine, white silk elastic cord” fits perfectly “under the mass of Laura’s braided hair.”6 In that hat, Laura is entirely herself and she’s free to experience all the adventure the prairie holds for her.
Later in the chapter, the hat creates an unexpected moment of intimacy between Laura and Almanzo. When the wind snatches its cream-colored ostrich feathers from the brim, Laura catches them, and Almanzo puts them in his pocket. In the late 19th century, a young woman wouldn’t entrust something as personal as the feathers from her hat to just any young man.
The Photographic Record
The real Laura Ingalls Wilder was photographed throughout her lifetime wearing memorable and sometimes audacious hats. As a newlywed posing with her husband, she wears a fur hat that matched the fur collar on her winter coat. In Florida, she wears a cowboy-styled hat with a wide brim to protect her complexion—not a sunbonnet.
In my favorite Wilder photograph, an elegant hat adorned with feathers perches over her forehead like an exotic bird. Not every woman could wear such a daring hat, but Laura Ingalls Wilder looks strong, elegant, and self-confident in it. Even in her late 80s, Mrs. Wilder made fashion statements with her hats. In a photograph from 1952, taken in my hometown of Springfield, Missouri, she autographs books wearing a dark Empress Eugenie hat adorned with an ostrich plume.
Now all these decades later, it’s impossible to undo generations of sunbonnet mania. Yet I can’t help but feel Wilder fans—young and old— would serve her literary legacy better by ditching their sunbonnets and replacing them with ostrich plumes, cream-colored straw, or a wide cowboy brim—hats that express the wearers’ unique personalities, independence, and individuality.
But I suspect, the world will continue to force a literary legend into the calico creation she rebelled against.
1. Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 62.
2. Ibid., pp. 143-145.
3. LIW, By the Shores of Silver Lake (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 67.
4. Ibid., p. 96.
5. Ibid., p. 106.
6. LIW, These Happy Golden Years (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 240.