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As a child of the Holmes County Amish community, I have deep and abiding memories of my grandmother's kitchen. In this cheery, warm room my Grandma bustled about preparing meals for her twelve children and any visitors or family that happened to be there at mealtime. My grandmother was a short, stout lady who seemed, at least to her young grandson, to always be ready to feed, hold, and take time for her children and grandchildren. In my memory, she is often tugging stray wisps of her hair under her white, bonnet-style, Amish covering. Why did she wear this head-covering and why do the Amish and some of the Mennonites still embrace the practice that began in Europe?
As an Amish woman, my grandmother did not cut her hair, and put it up into a bun every morning and wore her covering and bonnet in both the home and in public life. She had been taught according to the scripture in I Corinthians, chapter 11 that said women should wear their hair veiled and she faithfully followed this admonition. Sometimes when she was cleaning, milking, or doing some particularly dirty work she would wear a scarf or kerchief tied over her hair. While Grandma may not have been able to articulate why she wore her covering she was following centuries old traditions each time she covered her hair.
Up until the modern-era it was acceptable for women in most Christian circles to wear a hat, or some form of covering to any worship service. This practice derived from the early church practice of women covering their hair with veils during the worship services. By the Reformation the bonnet style covering was in use in German and northern European areas as the acceptable practice for women. The Amish and Mennonites brought the practice to the new World and the Amish continued the practice to modern times.
One question our staff is often asked is: "What is the difference between the white and black caps?" In the local community, a married Amish woman's covering is always white. School age girls in the Old Order groups frequently wear a black cap for work or school simply because those are easier to keep clean. When dressing up or going to social functions other than church, school age girls frequently wear a white covering. Graduating from school at age 14 or 15 generally means switching to a white covering for daily wear. The black covering for daily wear has disappeared from the New Order Amish groups. Unmarried girls in both New and Old Order groups wear a black satin covering to attend church services. At a wedding, the bride will wear her black satin covering for the last time, replacing it with a white one after the wedding ceremony is over. An older single girl will wear a white covering to church once she decides she is going to drop out of the youth group and sit with the married women.
Another frequently asked question is about the ties or strings on coverings. Despite popular theory that the strings being tied or loose denotes marital status, it's largely just a matter of personal preference. Coverings made for formal occasions are usually made with two ties but some young girls make them with just one continuous loop. The ties are often worn over the shoulders to keep them out of the way. So, what keeps the coverings on if they are not tied? Some women use bobby-pins or straight-pins to keep their coverings on, but many use a small strip of double-sided Scotch tape. It's the perfect tape for the job, sticky enough to keep the covering stuck to the hair, but not sticky enough to be hard to remove or leave residue.
My Grandmother also often wore a larger black bonnet over her regular white cap when she went to church, or on more formal visits away from the home. The same style of bonnet is worn by Amish, Old Order Mennonite, River Brethren, and German Baptist groups. A bonnet is worn on top of the covering or cap. In more conservative Amish groups, a woman wears a bonnet anytime she is going away from home. In some groups, such as the Andy Weaver Amish, the bonnet is worn by baptized girls and women anytime they go away from home, but young girls who have not yet been baptized are not expected to wear a bonnet other than to formal occasions. The Old Order Amish here in Holmes County wear a bonnet for formal occasions, but for informal wear, it is largely up to the individual. In cooler weather, many Old Order women and girls just wear a wool scarf tied over their covering for informal wear. Amongst the New Order Amish, the bonnet is worn only to attend worship services.
As with many things that the Amish do, wear, and practice, the covering and bonnet have much more history than one realizes. Here at the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center we have created a large wall-display of various coverings and bonnets that help those less familiar to understand the Amish women's covering and the variety of materials, colors and styles that define each group. My grandmother was merely following the ways she was taught by her mother and the church and community that made up her life. This was not a trial or a punishment, rather, it was a way for her to identify to the world to which she belonged.
To see the display of coverings or if you wish to learn more about the Amish, or their place in history, plan a visit the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The Center offers guided tours of "Behalt" - a 10 ft. x 265 ft. cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland, to the present day. Behalt means "to keep" or "remember." The Center is open Mon-Sat 9:00-5:00 and is located near Berlin, OH at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg, OH 44654. Please call (330) 893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour.
Marcus Yoder was born to an Amish family in the heart of Amish Country. His family later moved to the Mennonite Church where Marcus takes an active role in preaching, teaching and writing. He is the Executive Director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. In his thirties he decided to return to school and has a BA in History from The Ohio State University and a MA from Yale. He enjoys reading and writing and spending time with his wife, Norita.