Caps: Nightcaps, Monmouth Caps, Thinking Caps, Pudding Caps, and White Caps

There are all sorts of caps from history. For instance, there was the mythical fairy or ghost in English folklore known as the bluecap and the redcap was a type of malevolent, murderous goblin found in Border folklore. A type of cap you wore on your head was the Liberty cap. It came to represent freedom and the pursuit of liberty in France and America. Besides these caps there are also five other interesting caps: the nightcap, Monmouth cap, thinking cap, pudding cap, and White Cap.

Louis XVI wearing the Red Cap of Liberty. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


The nightcap has two definitions. The first refers to a drink provided at bedtime to help people relax and lull them to sleep. One such nightcap that was claimed to be the oldest winter beverage known in Oxford was Bishop or spiced wine. The recipe for it consisted of the following:

“Make several incisions, in the rind of a lemon, stick cloves in the incisions, and roast the lemon, by a slow fire. Put small but equal quantities of cinnamon, cloves, mace, and all-spice, into a saucepan, with half a pint of water; let it boil until it is reduced one half. Boil one bottle of port wine; burn a portion of the spirit out of it, by applying a lighted paper to the saucepan. Put the roasted lemon and spice into the wine; stir it up well, and let stand near the fire ten minutes. Rub a few knobs of sugar on the rind of a lemon, put the sugar into a bowl or jug, with the juice of half a lemon, (not roasted,) pour the wine into it, grate some nutmeg into it, sweeten it to your taste, and serve it up with the lemon and spice floating in it.”[1]

The second definition for nightcap refers to caps worn at bedtime. These nighttime caps were worn nearly year round in the British Isles and in Scandinavia before central heating was available. That was because the temperatures would fluctuate greatly throughout the winter and a nightcap helped to keep a person warm. Nightcaps were so popular that people like Jane Austen and Eliza de Feuillide wore them. However, perhaps the most famous nightcap wearing person is Charles Dickens‘s fictional character Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens never described Scrooge as wearing a nightcap by name but Scrooge became famous for his nightcap perhaps because caricature and illustrator John Leech portrayed him as wearing one when he illustrated Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Caps - John Leech's Ebenezer Scrooge with nightcap

John Leech’s version of Ebenezer Scrooge. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nightcaps of the 1700 and 1800s were somewhat like today’s beanies and both men and women wore them. However, women’s caps were different than men’s. Women’s nightcaps usually consisted of a long piece of cloth wrapped around the head whereas men’s nightcaps were traditionally pointed, with a long top, sometimes accompanied by a small ball, similar to a scarf, to keep the back of the neck warm without it be long enough to wrap around the neck and become a strangulation hazard.

In the early days of British judicial hangings at Tyburn and Newgate, the nightcap also served as the hood used to cover a convicted prisoner’s face before execution. Furthermore, it was supplied by the prisoner himself if he could afford it. That meant when the prisoner finished his prayers on the scaffold, the hangman simply pulled his nightcap down over his face. However, from about 1850 onward authorities moved away from the prisoner-supplied nightcap and began providing a white linen hood as part of the execution process.

Monmouth caps

Monmouth caps are another type of cap worn on the head and they became fashionable in the fifteenth century. These form-fitting caps remained popular into the 18th century. They were  significant because no other similar piece of clothing had ever been made from wool. Monmouth, in south east Wales, become known in the early fourteenth century for producing high quality wool from Ryeland sheep and because of its location on the River Wye the wool was easily distributed.

By the fifteenth century one of the most common surnames in the Monmouth area was capper, which referred to knitters. Most of these cappers or knitters were men and they were attached to a Weaver’s Guild and began to produce headgear for soldiers, sailors, other laborers. Moreover, during the reign of Elizabeth I, in 1571, an act of parliament was passed to protect domestic products and the act made it necessary for everyone to wear a “cap of wool” on Sunday and holidays. Although the act was repealed in 1597 Monmouth caps were extremely popular by that time and were often gifted between noblemen.

Because of where the caps were produced, people began to call them Monmouth caps. Their fame also spread to America. Colonists imported them in large quantities for use by both slaves and settlers. Moreover, the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered 100 of them in the 1620s because they were said to be “thick, warm, fulled by hand- and foot-beating and much favored by seamen.”[2]

Because of their popularity the caps were soon being made outside of Monmouth. So, the name Monmouth then came to represent the style of cap rather than the location where the caps were made. The popularity of the Monmouth caps and their relatively low-cost also meant that thousands of them were produced and sold in the eighteenth century. However, because they were knitted caps, they could easily be unraveled and so few exist today.

caps - Monmouth caps

Example of an original Monmouth cap from the sixteenth century. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite few examples remaining today the style or pattern for making them can be still be determined. According to Wikipedia, the cap was achieved with 2-ply wool. Casting on was done at the lower edge and knitting in the round was used towards the top where the crown consisted of a classic rounded top, with the last remaining stitches cast off. The yarn tail was wrapped just below the cast off stitches to gather them and it left a lump referred to as a button. The doubled brim was then formed by picking up stitches inside the body of the cap and working down to the original cast on stitches. The cast on loops were then picked up, a 3-needle bindoff finished the edge and joined the inner brim to the outer cap, ending with a little loop at the bottom.

Thinking Caps

Another of the caps from the 1700 and 1800s is the thinking cap. Although it has nothing to do with head gear and didn’t keep the head warm like a nightcap or the Monmouth cap the thinking cap does have something to do with the head as it refers to a state of mind marked by reflection or concentration. This term’s first known usage happened in 1821. However, prior to that time, in 1605, Robert Armin in Foole upon foole had written about a “considering cap,” a term that was also mentioned in the famous fiction book, “The History of Little Goody Two Shoes.” That book was first published in 1765 and stated:

“[A] considering Cap, almost as large as a Grenadier’s, but of three equal Sides; on the first of which was written, ‘I may be wrong,’ ― on the second, ― ‘It is fifty to one but you are,’ ― and on the third, ‘I’ll consider it.’”[3]

The “considering cap” was soon replaced by the term “thinking cap.” That term appears to have first been used on 16 October 1821 when it appeared in the Western Carolina, a newspaper published out of Salisbury, North Carolina. The article mentioning the term stated:

“[We advise the editor to put his thinking-cap on, before he hazards another such assertion.]“[4]

Another early mention of thinking cap was published in November 1824 in the Northern Ireland Enniskillen Chronicle and Erne Packet. This time the term appeared in an article titled, “Peter Pensive” with Peter being told, “thou mayest put on thy thinking cap again to guess at my intentions.”[5]

Pudding Caps

Although a thinking cap did not protect the head, pudding caps did. These caps were protective padded hats worn to prevent injury to infants and toddlers learning to crawl or walk. Like baby helmets today, these caps, protected the child’s head from injury and were considerable valuable. For instance, “a 1766, note written by Abigail Adams to her sister, asked if she could borrow the quilted ‘contrivance’ for her little girl. Abigail penned: ‘Nabby Bruses her forehead sadly she is fat as a purpouse and falls heavey [sic].’”[6] Wearing the pudding caps was also explained in 1800:

“Dropsy of the Brain or Watery Head, may be suspected, when a child appears uncommonly heavy and dull, complains of pain in the head, has its sleep disturbed with alarming dreams, reluctantly moves its head from the pillow, or attends to surrounding objects; and is affected with frequent sickness and slight fever. … This complaint is frequently occasioned by the falls on the head, which children are exposed to on first going alone. Guard their heads, therefore, at this time, with the old-fashioned head-dress for children, a quilted stuffed cap, or pudding.”[7]

Caps - French pudding caps

French pudding cap of the 18th century. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museum of Boston.

In the early 1600s and until the late 1800s pudding caps were usually open on top and featured a sausage-shaped roll that circled the child’s head like a crown. Moreover, according to history professor Beverly Chico:

“During 18th-century England and Colonial America, puddings were usually handmade of a black silk or velvet band, padded with wadding that surrounded the young child’s head. Two strips of ribbon were attached, crossing over the head and tying under the chin. Other types included a quilted pudding cap stuffed with horsehair.”[8]

Pudding caps that were sold in the American colonies were imported from London and advertisements for these caps ran regularly in colony newspapers. For example, in 1771, an advertisement was published in South Carolina for “Quilted Childrens Caps.” Other advertisements for the caps also appeared beginning in 1771 in Williamsburg, Virginia by shop owner Catharine Rathell. Her advertisements listed a huge number of items that she sold, which included the padded protective pudding caps. Part of one her ads in 1772 states:

“[For sale] … Hemet’s (dentist to her Majesty) essence of pearl, and pearl powder for the teeth and gums, with brushes, nail nippers, ivory and box combs, shaving powder, sword canes and walking sticks, travelling razor cases, childrens stays, and quilted puddings, toys, with a number of other article, which will be sold on reasonable terms.”[9]

caps - pudding cap 1770-1785

English pudding cap between 1770 and 1785. Created from cotton velvet, horsehair padding, leather lining, and silk ribbon. Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.

White Caps

Like the thinking cap and nightcap drink, White Caps were not a type of head gear. Rather it was an 1837 movement initiated by white males who began to form secret societies to deliver what they considered to be frontier justice. The men who formed these groups became known as “White Caps” and their movement “whitecapping.”

The movement started in Indiana to enforce community standards, achieve appropriate behavior, and preserve traditional rights. It was a lawless movement with operations aimed against anyone who violated a community’s values or standards. This meant that those targeted were often men who neglected or abused their families, people who showed excessive laziness, or women who had children out of wedlock.  A typical example of whitecapping was reported in Harrison county, Indiana:

“In 1853 … Charley McGowan … was a young school teacher, and he came to the county from the East. He was highly educated and was a good teacher. He fell in love with a daughter of one of the leading citizens of the community. The young lady did not reciprocate his love. She rejected McGowan and married a young man who afterward made his mark in politics and law. McGowan then circulated false and slanderous reports concerning the young lady. The family did not want to seek redress in the courts for obvious reasons. The neighbors declared that McGowan deserved punishment at the whipping-post, and finally they concluded to punish him in this manner. They could not do it lawfully, and therefore they masked themselves and did it in the darkness of the night. McGowan left the neighborhood immediately after his flogging and has not been heard from since.”[10]

After the Civil War, whitecapping spread into the rural South with white members supporting an economically driven and anti-black bias. White Caps used similar methods to achieve their lawless goals in the north and south. For instance, members disguised themselves and conducted their attacks at night. Physical attacks against victims generally included whippings, drownings, arson, firing shots into houses, and other such brutalities. In addition, a variety of non-violent means of intimidation were also used. These included cornering targets and verbally threatening them. Threats were also used to force residents and merchants out of their homes and shops. Signs were posted on doors that ordered residents to leave and if they refused, White Caps sometimes murdered them.

Victims of these attacks in the South had little support from the legal authorities as there was a white bias against Black victims. Yet, there were more problems that just biases. Some members of the White Caps also had elite connections making it difficult to achieve harsh sentences even when members were arrested. There was also the problem that White Cap members refused to help convict a fellow member because when joining they took a blood oath not to testify against one another and the penalty for violating it was death. In addition, members could call on other members to terrorize witnesses when they got into trouble.

The oath of the White Caps. Author’s collection.

After Reconstruction, White Caps attempted to maintain white supremacy within the Southern economy. They did this by trying to control Black laborers and stopping them from increasing their landholdings or acquiring land. In addition, overproduction in the South affected the economy making it unbalanced and many farmers went into debt or lost their lands. They in turn struck back against merchants, which made the economy worse and more unstable.

Over the years, it became apparent that whitecapping affected more than just individuals. Communities and counties were negatively affected. For instance. in the South, whitecapping discouraged many merchants and industrialists from doing business and created economic instability. Added to that was the thousands of murders committed by whites where Blacks were lynched. The violence also drove away laborers who became fearful that they might become victims of violence.

By 1893 support for the White Caps began to change. State authorities began feeling the negative economic effects caused by whitecapping. In response some states began to take action to stop whitecapping although political leaders often cited their Christian values as the reason why they wanted whitecapping to end. Nonetheless, by 1894, many states had begun to disband the White Cap societies and punish members.

One example of efforts to end whitecapping comes from an article published in the St. Louis Globe Democrat in 1897. It talked about the steps that Tennessee was taking to end whitecapping and to make it a felony:

“The state authorities have taken decided steps to put an end to whitecapping, especially in Sevier County. Gov. Taylor recently offered a reward of $500 for the arrest and conviction of the murderers of William Whaley and wife, who were shot down at their home near Sevierville in December last by unknown persons. Leading citizens of the county also offered a reward of $750 for the capture and conviction of the guilty parties.

To-day the House of Representatives passed the Senate bill, declaring whitecapping a felony and fixing the punishment for the violation of the law at imprisonment for not less than three nor more than twenty-one years in the penitentiary. The best people of Sevier are determined to put a stop to the lawlessness that has prevailed.”[11]

Even though some states were getting tough and even though some states were passing laws against whitecapping, the lawless practice continued into the early twentieth century. In fact, in the late twentieth century, whitecapping continued to be an issue in the South and Mississippi did not pass a statue criminalizing the practice until 1972.

White mob attack in the Atlanta Massacre of 1906. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] R. Cook, Oxford Night Caps, a Collection of Receipts for Making Various Beverages (Oxford: Henry Slatter, 1847), p. 2–3.
  • [2] J. Arnold, M. Hilton and J. Rüger, History After Hobsbawm: Writing the Past for the Twentieth Century (2018: Oxford University Press), p. 174.
  • [3] The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (London: W. Swan Sonnenschein and Co, 1884), p. 73.
  • [4] Western Carolinian, October 16, 1821, p. 2,
  • [5] Enniskillen Chronicle and Erne Packet, “To Peter Pensive,” November 18, 1824, p. 4.
  • [6] B. Chico, Hats and Headwear Around the World (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013), p. 323.
  • [7] The Monthly Visitor, and Entertaining Pocket Companion, 9 vols. (London: C. Whittingham, 1800), p. 198–99.
  • [8] B. Chico. 2013, p. 323.
  • [9] Rind’s Virginia Gazette, “Just Imported,” October 22, 1772, p. 2.
  • [10] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “The White Caps,” August 28, 1893, p. 7.
  • [11] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “To Make Whitecapping a Felony,” March 28, 1897, p. 5.

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  1. David Pratt on June 6, 2021 at 3:53 pm

    The term “white cap” was in use to describe vigilante justice, as late as 1897 and as far away from the south as Central New York. In this article about a drunken domestic abuser, there’s talk among those in the neighborhood about “getting up a white cap organization” to deal with the issue. (Paragraph 17).

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