The Winter of ’87 was exceptionally cold. I was a student at the time. Student accommodation back in the 1980’s was pretty poor. My flat consisted of two rooms with a bathroom across the hall. The shower never worked and the landlord wouldn’t fix it. The hallway was a, ‘no man’s land’ of accumulated grime; the smell of sweaty trainers, mould and student cooking….. Ah, those were the days!
Student life was harsh during the cold spell. In the mornings, we had to chip ice off the inside of the window in order to see out! Our sole form of heat was a two bar heater. Like many of my generation, I was brought up to believe that two bar heaters ‘eat’ electricity, As a result of the cold snap, class attendance was at an all time high; warm lecture theatres being preferable to frosty flats with voracious, guzzling heaters.
At the time, my friend Martha needed a place to stay. I offered her a camp bed in the corner of my grotty bedroom. During the cold, frosty nights, Martha wrapped a jumper around her head. It was a red lamb’s wool jumper. She said she didn’t care what she looked like. It kept her warm. Sensible girl, Martha.
Nowadays, central heating has warmed things up, big time. No more waking up in the morning with a cold nose and condensed breath. No need to wear a jumper on your head. Modern technology has rendered all forms of night caps obsolete. They are gone, departed, defunct. What better excuse for an elegy of sorts? (I’m guessing you might prefer some useless facts, rather than an actual, full blown lament? ) Right?
So what do we know about nightcaps? Apparently they were widely used in Europe from the middle ages up to the twentieth century. Men tended to wear traditional stocking caps with tassels on the end. The pointed bit offered extra warmth for the neck. Care was taken not to make the point excessively long, for fear it would choke a person during the night! Women preferred to wear either a cloth turban or a triangular cap tied under the chin. I have no idea why!
A very ornate form of nightcap became popular with the well-heeled gentlemen during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It consisted of several panels of silk or linen, embroidered with silver thread and featuring motifs of fruit, birds and flowers.
After a hard day at ‘ye oldendaye‘ equivalent of the office, gentlemen liked to slip off their wigs and breeches and recline in a highly elaborate cap for the evening. Nice.
Nightcaps were worn for two reasons. Not only did they keep the head warm, they protected it from infestations of head lice. Nasty things, head lice. Especially if they got under your wig. Happily, it was acceptable in polite society to itch lice in public with a silver pin kept down the front of your dress, specifically for the purpose.
Interestingly, before the eighteen hundreds, people didn’t believe in washing their hair very much. Shampoo, as we know it, hadn’t been invented. Instead, a thick paste of ash, vine stalks and egg whites was used for hair washing. Most people powdered their heads instead. It was easier.
What else? One, John Corbett bequeathed his ‘beste velvet nighte cappe,’ to his dear old dad in 1577. His dad may not, however, have worn the said cappe for some time, as it was customary for men to don a black night cap and nightgown for the period of mourning. Thomas Verney was well prepared for such an eventuality. His memoirs (1641) state that his wardrobe included not one but, ‘two black taffety nightclothes with black night capps!! ‘
Up until 1850, it was accepted practice in the British judicial system to offer a condemned prisoner, the opportunity to wear their own nightcap at public executions. Whoever said the authorities didn’t have a heart? Sadly, some people couldn’t afford their own nightcaps. Whether or not the prospect of execution in your own nightcap was a much better prospect than execution ‘au natural’ is anyone’s guess!
Interestingly, or not- the white lace night cap worn by the unfortunate Charles I on the night before his execution- 30 January, 1649 is still on display in Carrisbrook Castle Museum. Uhm, that’s a must see for the bucket list.
Stop! Enough is Enough. See you all next week- and I’ll try not to be so grim.
P.S. Check out The History of Underclothes (Dover Fashion and Costumes) 1992. C & W Cunnington.