In the 1850’s, the “poke bonnet” hat reached a zenith in women’s fashion. A poke bonnet is a women’s bonnet (hat) in the shape of a hood, featuring a projecting rim on the front side, which would shade the face of the wearer, and a small crown at the back. Poke bonnets typically had a strap that allowed the hat to be tied under the chin. It was called a poke bonnet because there was room in the back of the hat that allowed all of the woman’s hair to be “poked” inside of it.
Poke bonnets were created sometime around 1810 and came into fashion in the early 19th century. The poke bonnet was Victorian in style. During the Victorian era, certain attitudes such as respectability, were fostered, particularly with regards to the behavior of women. The poke bonnet fitted down over the sides of the woman’s face and was intended to shield the wearer from the gaze of strangers (similar in principle to the veils worn in the Middle East). The size of the poke bonnet increased each year until it reached a point where the woman’s face could not be seen except from directly in front.
As the size of the poke bonnet grew, the ridiculous nature of the hat became prominent in the public’s eye. The fashion faded around 1860 and the trend for hats began to lean towards smaller hat styles.
As explained in a late 1880’s Philadelphia history book:
The ladies have just now adopted a repulsive kind of hat, which may be called the “poking hat”. It has a long project, like the beak of a snipe, and is a good guard against all familiar approach of those who have any regard for their eyes. It is an invention inspired by the Goddem of Ugliness, and it quite worthy of its origin. This head gear, called the “poke bonnet”, and in later years the “coal-scuttle bonnet”, could not withstand the ridicule constantly “poked” at it by the wits; besides, the ladies became convinced that it spoiled their good looks; it was given up. But, by a strange contradiction, the very homeliness which caused it to be discarded by the worldly, gave it favor in the eyes of the Quakers.